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Here are the things you need to keep in mind when choosing that university overseas...

By Varuna Verma, Shabina Akhtar

Here are the things you need to keep in mind when choosing that university overseas, say Varuna Verma and Shabina Akhtar

Going abroad for higher studies is something most Indians dream of. Going by the numbers, quite a few of them act on this dream too. According to a 2008 report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham), the New Delhi-based apex chamber of commerce, every year about 4.5 lakh Indian students travel abroad. The US and the UK are, as expected, among the hottest education destinations. But, the recent racial attacks notwithstanding, Australia boasts of the maximum number of Indian students.

“There are 95,000 Indian students in Australia. The US follows with 90,000 and the UK has about 45,000,” says Ravi Lochan Singh, director, Global Reach Consultants. The Calcutta-based educational consultancy firm is accredited by the British Council as well as Australia and the US.

Time to apply

For all those planning to join a foreign university next year, this is the right time to start preparing. It is best to apply to a university at least six months in advance and if it is an American one, the forms should reach the admission office eight months before the beginning of the semester. Since the fall semester usually starts in September, this means you should finish the application process by February. So July is the best time for researching campuses and courses and short listing the universities in the US. However, if one is headed for the UK, January is the best time.

“It is best to apply latest by January of the year you seek admission as the popular courses normally receive a large number of applications,” says Marina Gandhi, head, education, east India, British Council.

Picking your university

“We ask students to first choose the course of their interest, based on their aptitude as well as the profession they want to pursue. After that we help them zero in on a university,” says Singh.

He suggests the US if it is research you are interested in and recommends the UK for “pure” subjects such as economics. If it is hotel management you want to specialise in, head to Switzerland. Australian universities are renowned for applied courses such as accounting, finance and engineering, as well as vocational ones.

“Australia, Canada and New Zealand are also popular for courses that lead to skills in demand in these countries since this makes emigration easy,” says Singh.

Embassy check

Once you have decided which country you want your degree from, you could visit an education fair held by its embassy or department of education. Then you can speak to representatives of the college first hand.

Many colleges, especially in the UK, have scholarships for Indian students but it is difficult to get this information, except from the university website. If you plan to attend a university in the UK or the US, you should visit the British Council and the offices of the United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF), respectively, for help. You could also check out the websites of the colleges you are interested in.

Global ranking

The crucial criterion while looking for a good university is the departmental ranking, scholarship options and number of students, says Sarbani Sen, team leader, The Chopras Consultants, Calcutta.

Bakhtani suggests that students begin by checking for required accreditations — especially certifications provided by embassies and education departments. “For instance, the Singapore education department provides a Singapore Quality Class certification to certain universities,” he explains. Similarly, the British Accreditation Council (BAC) provides certification in the UK. The US has several regional recognitions, where universities and colleges are classified.

“The Times Higher Education Supplement, London, publishes a worldwide ranking of universities annually (THE-QS World University Rankings). While there are many who come up with such lists, the Times’ is considered comprehensive and credible (see below),” says Singh. “Rankings should, however, be only used as a guide and not be the end in itself,” he warns.

Bakhtani has a similar view. “Many universities provide an excellent syllabus but may not be highly ranked,” he explains. According to him, course content should be the most important criterion.

Also, students should never put all their eggs in one basket. “They must apply to more than one university,” warns Sen.

Financial aid

“Making sure of financial commitments is a vital part of the process,” adds Bakhtani, who feels you should opt for the university offering the most aid, even if it isn’t ranked very high.

“Studying abroad is also on the rise because banks have become more lenient about loans,” he points out.

Scholarships are the other option. “Many UK institutes offer scholarships. Check with the college directly as each has its own scheme. Scholarships are based purely on academic merit. Besides these scholarships, there are others managed by the British Council. Information on this is available at www.britishcouncil.org.in/scholarships,” says Gandhi.

Singapore - which did not figure in the education map even a few years ago - and Australia are a good bet for those who can’t or won’t pay through their nose for a foreign education. “Universities there ask for easier academic qualifications and also charge less,” says Bakhtani. Living costs too are much less than in the US and the UK.

Work and study

“Britain’s biggest draw is its one-year master degree, which is followed by a two-year work visa,” says Kaushik Mitra, education advisor in India, the University of Sussex. He suggests some ground rules while seeking admission to a university in the island nation.

“Look at the Higher Education Funding Council’s ‘research assessment exercise’ and also at the subject modules and English language requirements. Check whether the university figures among the top 200. And always avoid private colleges as far as possible,” he says.

Sen says that students sometimes opt for private colleges because of low tuition fees. They often end up being duped.

“Students must visit the college website, check out the number of foreign students and the courses offered,” before deciding on the college, she warns. A college that has very few or no foreign students is a dicey proposition — even if the course is good, it might not be a congenial place to stay.

Right to information

The problem while selecting a study destination, according to Vishal Malik, director of Pacifica Consultants, an education consultancy, is not too little but too much information. “Students can drown in the amount of information available today. And there is no easy way to filter this,” he says.

This is where an academic consultant can be of help. It’s always better to go to an accredited consultant — even if they charge a little more. The British Council has a list of accredited representatives, agents and partners in India, explains Mitra.

“For the US, one may refer to the AIRC (American international recruitment council) site. It is expected to become a key source to check genuineness of education agents,” says Global Reach’s Singh. “In the case of Australia, www.aaeri.org has a list of agents who abide by an ethical code,” he says.

Also, verify the track record of the consultant and check with the alumni of the university (you’ll get the contact addresses on the website). “Students must look at the websites, read brochures and understand all visa regulations as well as financial commitments before signing up with any agent or university,” says Bakhtani.

Visa power

The next step is applying for a visa. “Apply through a partner agency of the British Deputy High Commission so that the process is smooth. The agency’s credentials can be verified from the British Council site,” says Singh. For Australia, look up the list of e-visa agents in India on www.immi.gov.au and apply through them.

Currently, it is easiest to get a visa for the UK. The Australian visa process is also predictable — with transparent guidelines — but can take between one and three months. The US process is short but unpredictable as it depends on the assessment of the visa officer at the time of the interview.

Culture Shock

Heading abroad for a degree is not just a fill-form-and-get-admission process. “It’s about adjusting to a new way of life as well as currency-conversion created money restrictions,” says Sameer Pant, who graduated from Cornell University in the US two years ago. Getting admission to the prestigious university was not a problem for Pant but finding accommodation that fit his budget was another matter. “The hostel was way too expensive and I didn’t know anyone with whom I could share an apartment,” he recalls. So he got in touch with friends and friends of friends. “I finally found an Indian student with whom I could share a studio apartment. This suited my budget,” he says.

Students also worry about culture shock and personal safety. For example, the “racial” attacks in Australia are bothering students. “Students from the Visweswaraya Institute of Technology (VIT), Bangalore, who got admission to Australian universities were anxious about heading Down Under. We put them in touch with senior students studying there to quell their fears,” says R. Nagabhushan, dean, VIT.

Counseling is the other way to handle such problems “We counsel foreign-bound students intensively about the culture, study environment and other things. In fact, we even have a counseling session for parents to familiarize them with the life their children will be leading,” says Sunita Bose, a Calcutta-based foreign education consultant.

THE-QS World University Rankings 2008

1 Harvard University, the US
2 Yale University, the US
3 University of Cambridge, the UK
4 University of Oxford, the UK
5 California Institute of Technology, the US
6 Imperial College London, the UK
7 University College London, the UK
8 University of Chicago, the US
9 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the US
10 Columbia University, the US
11 University of Pennsylvania, the US
12 Princeton University, the US
13 = Duke University, the US
13 =Johns Hopkins University, the US
15 Cornell University, the US
16 Australian National University, Australia
17 Stanford University, the US
18 University of Michigan, the US
19 University of Tokyo, Japan
20 McGill University, Canada
21 Carnegie Mellon University, the US
22 King’s College, the UK
23 University of Edinburgh, the UK
24 ETH Zurich, Switzerland
25 Kyoto University, Japan
26 University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
27 Brown University, the US
28 Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris, France
29 University of Manchester, the UK
30 =University of California Los Angeles, the US
30 =National University of Singapore, Singapore

Varuna Verma, Shabina Akhtar [ www.telegraphindia.com/1090716/jsp/careergraph/story_11240118.jsp ]

Varuna Verma, Shabina Akhtar, Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, Assocham, New Delhi-based apex chamber of commerce, Global Reach Consultants, Calcutta-based educational consultancy, Marina Gandhi, British Council, Economics, Hotel management, Switzerland, Accounting, Finance and Engineering, United States-India Educational Foundation, British Accreditation Council, Times Higher Education Supplement, Kaushik Mitra, Education advisor in India, Cornell University in the US, Racial attacks in Australia, Visweswaraya Institute of Technology VIT Bangalore

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