The joy of 17-year-old Rashmi (name changed) from Punjab’s Jalandhar knew no bounds when she got to know that she had been admitted to a private college in Australia. This was partly made possible because of a Punjab-based education counsellor who not only helped her choose a college but also completed all her visa formalities. Soon Rashmi was on a flight to Sydney, eagerly looking forward to attending college.
However, she sensed something was amiss right after she landed and started making calls to enquire about her class timings. All her calls went unattended. Perplexed, she landed up at her college the next day only to find a deserted building with a lock on its main gate at the spot where the college was supposed to be. “I called my counsellor back in India, who told me that the college was not operating due to the pandemic. He has promised that once the situation becomes normal, classes will resume,” she says. What is worrying is that she does not even know the course that she is enrolled in as her counsellor handled everything for her.
That was over a month ago. Rashmi still has no clue if and when she will be able to start attending her classes. Now, the sinking feeling that she could have been duped by the counsellor, who offered her admission to a substandard college, has set in.
Every year, over five lakh students fly out of India to study in countries like the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and other European nations and, like Rashmi, not all of them get into the top educational institutions.
Professor Amarjiva Lochan, an expert at the India Centre for Migration (ICM), which serves as a research think tank to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on international migration and mobility, says that only 30 per cent of the total students who go abroad get admission in established universities. “The remaining 70 per cent either deliberately take admission in substandard universities as they want citizenship by way of education or are duped by education counsellors in the name of offering good education,” he says, who is also the deputy dean of international relations at the University of Delhi.
There have been several cases where students have been deported to India from these countries because the colleges that they had gotten into were being run illegally and in an unauthorised manner. Lochan says that as per his understanding, there are about 700 colleges in Australia that operate out of just three or four rooms.
“My counsellor had sent me to the US to study in a private university by saying that it would help me get citizenship after I completed the course. But, I did not get a job after completing the course and had to come back,” says Rachit Sharma, a Meerut-based student.
His friend Rohit Kumar has a similar story to share. “The college and its courses were approved but I did not get a job and had to return to India. The counsellor had promised me that I would get to settle there,” rues 22-year-old Kumar.
Interestingly, on April 10, 2019, the Indian Embassy in the US had released an advisory for migrating students which informed them of scenarios where fake universities had been set up and run by undercover US law enforcement agents to identify recruiters and entities engaged in immigration fraud in the US. The advisory listed two such universities—University of Northern New Jersey set up in 2013 and Farmington University in 2015—set up by the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in the Department of Homeland Security of the United States. “In both cases, a number of Indian students enrolled into these universities, paid the requisite tuition fee and were granted F1 visa as well as Curricular Practical Training (CPT) permission,” stated the advisory.
“These Indian students, many of whom claimed later that they were caught unawares, were subsequently detained by US law enforcement agencies and subjected to deportation proceedings,” it added. To aid the students, the embassy also offered a checklist to keep in mind before seeking admission in universities in the US.
Back home, to be on the safe side, students have the option of approaching the Association of Indian Universities, a Delhi-based organisation, which has a list of all the approved and recognised colleges and universities across the world.
The Cost of Aspiration
Over the past few years, a lot of education counsellors, with specific focus on foreign education, have mushroomed across the country. Many of them have tie-ups with substandard institutions abroad which pay them a hefty commission on each admission. “As more parents from smaller cities are getting aspirational about wanting to send their children abroad for education, counselling is becoming a lucrative business,” says a Lucknow-based education consultant.
Since parents are not well-informed about colleges, admission processes and visa formalities, they are completely dependent on these consultants and do as they are advised, says a counsellor who has been in the space for 20 years.
About a decade ago, counsellors used to charge money only from students for their services and hence admission fraud was not so frequent, he says. “Now, substandard foreign universities have appointed their own agents and many of them are edutech companies. They work for these universities and, in return, get a good commission from the fee that the student pays to the college,” he explains.
Many consultants point out that students and parents often cannot tell the difference between study abroad counsellors and marketing executives of colleges trying to sell their courses in India.
Bina Shah, COO of the Indo-Australian Education Centre (IAEC), an Ahmedabad-based global education consulting firm, says that there is a wide range of frauds happening in the field of study abroad. “Fake colleges, substandard institutions, unapproved courses, educational programmes that cannot help in getting citizenship are some of the issues that plague candidates who go to various countries on a study visa,” says Shah.
She says that many Indian students go to Australia, her area of expertise, to do two-year diploma courses from training institutes so that they can finish their graduation in two years instead of three. “A two-year diploma is equivalent to the first year of an undergraduate course. But colleges tally the course content before giving recognition to the prior learning. Often, the syllabus of the diploma course doesn’t match with the university curriculum. Many students have been duped that way also,” Shah adds.
Who is to be Blamed?
IAEC’s Shah does not blame the conniving counsellors alone. She says that the students and their parents also exert a lot of pressure on the counsellors. Lochan agrees. He feels that the students are hand in glove with the agents. “An aware student or parent can search on the internet, contact the concerned embassy and do a lot of due diligence before paying a hefty amount for admission to a consultant,” he says.
Prateek Gujral, principal advisor (South Asia) at Truman University, a public university in the US, says that candidates should never go for any unaccredited course and must check whether they will be able to get a permanent job after completing their studies. “This can be checked through testimonials posted by students on the university’s social media platforms, website or students’ community platforms. Also, do not be misguided by information related to fees, accommodation or on-campus work and other facilities. Please check and cross-check these details by contacting the university through emails of university websites,” says Gujral.
Experts also suggest that overdependence on counsellors should be avoided and candidates should take steps to complete all the formalities on their own.
When asked about the need for a regulatory framework for the registration of all study abroad counsellors and a provision to penalise and blacklist them in case of fraud, Lochan says, “Yes, we should have some such system. The government had attempted a similar exercise a couple of times in the past but nothing concrete happened. The government's focus is on the regulation of immigration agents.’’