Where Are Overseas Indians Studying?

A new report from one of India’s top business schools states that the number of Indian students overseas in 2009 was 191,000, rising an eye-popping 258 percent since 2000. According to the Institute of International Education [2], 104,000 of those students were on a U.S. student visa. Since then, the number of Indian students in the United States has declined 3.8 percent to just over 100,000. So, is the slack in the India-U.S. market being picked up by other overseas education systems, or are there simply fewer Indians traveling abroad to study?

Indian Students Abroad

After strong year-on-year double-digit growth through the latter part of the last decade, the available data show that – worldwide – the growth rate of Indians studying internationally over the last two or three years has been slowing, and in some cases reversing, depending on the source.

The report, Indian student mobility to selected European countries: An overview [3], published by IIM-Bangalore [4] in October, puts the number of Indian students abroad in 2009 at 190,781, growing from a base of 53,266 in 2000 for headline growth of 258 percent in the first decade of the new century. However, sources with more recent data are suggestive of a significant slowdown since 2010.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics [5], for example, reported a 2 percent year-on-year decline in the number of Indians studying overseas in 2010 (191,995), and flat global enrollment numbers in 2011. In the four main English-language destinations for Indian students, there was a cumulative decline of 8 percent between 2010 and 2011 to 211,075, after weak growth in 2010 and strong double-digit growth in 2009.

It should be noted here that the combined total for the top four receiving countries is higher than the worldwide totals reported by international organizations, such as the UIS and OECD. This is due to differences in how international students are counted by the various national and international agencies. The UIS and OECD use the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) levels 5 & 6, a count of internationally mobile students enrolled in vocational and academic degree programs at the tertiary level. However, the totals do not include exchange students, students on short non-degree programs or those on work-study placements, categories typically counted in national totals.

Table 1: Stock of Indian Students Traveling Internationally for Higher Education
2000 53,266 N/A 55,929 N/A N/A
2006 136,238
139,459 138,855
148,116 N/A
2007 154,116
2008 176,454
2009 190,781
2010 N/A 200,621
2011 N/A N/A 191,806
N/A 211,075

Sources: The IIM-B figures are derived from the UIS Data Center; GED figures from the UIS Global Education Digest; UIS figures are pulled directly from the UIS Data Center; OECD figures are from Education at a Glance; Top 4 figures are derived from Table 2 of this article, which shows Indian enrollment totals in the four main English-language study destinations.

If not the U.S., then where?

The data show that the United States experienced a slowdown in Indian enrollments earlier than was the case for the global total, but with over 50 percent of internationally mobile Indian students in the U.S. education system, it is inevitable that a decline in U.S. enrollments will at a minimum lead to a slowdown in overall Indian mobility figures. And it is fair to say that enrollment patterns of Indian students in the United States and worldwide have essentially followed the same generally flat line over the last two or three years. But what is the story in the other major receiving countries?

Table 2: Number of Indian Students in Top-4 English Language Destinations (2008-2011/12)
U.S. Australia UK Canada
2008 103,260 53,767 25,905 ~7,200
2009 104,897 73,112 34,065 9,564
2010 103,895 68,277 38,500 17,525
2011 100,720 48,265 39,090 ~ 23,000
2012 N/A 36,326 N/A N/A

Sources: IIE (2008/09 – 2011/12: all higher education including OPT); HESA (2007/08 – 2010/11: all higher education); AEI (2008 – 2011 ‘Higher Education’ + ‘VET’ + ‘ELICOS’), CBIE (2008-2011: All education)

UK & Australia

Indian enrollments at UK universities were flat at 39,000 in 2010/11 (the last for which figures are currently available), according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency [6] (HESA), and it is as yet uncertain what kind of impact the Coalition Government’s recent tightening of visa standards will have on Indian enrollments moving forward. But it would be fair to say that there is a great deal of concern among higher education leaders in the UK that the government’s recent policy decisions will lead to a decline in the popularity of UK universities among international students. Already, the centralized Universities and Colleges Admissions System [7] (UCAS) is reporting [8] a slight drop in interest among non-EU applicants in October of this year versus the same time last year, the first October decline in at least six years

Australian enrollments from India fell of a cliff last year to 48,500 from a high of almost 74,000 in 2009, according to Australia Education International [9] (AEI), and figures for March 2012 versus the same time last year are suggestive of even further declines in the Indian market. The commonly cited reasons for the sudden decline in Indian enrollments center on the confluence of a tightening of student visa standards, widely reported attacks on Indian students in 2009/10, and a strengthening of the Australian dollar in concert with a weakening of the Indian rupee.

“In 2008–09, India had accounted for one in five of all student visa applications lodged (22%) and granted (20%), but in 2010–11 this had reduced to 14% and 12% respectively to just under 30,000 from a high of 65,000 in 2008/09.”

Australian Bureau of Statistics [10], December 2011


Currently, Canada is the only major English-language destination that has momentum in the Indian market, even as it continues to trail the other three top education exporters in absolute enrollment numbers.

According to the Canadian Bureau of International Education [11] there has been a 220 percent increase [12] in the number of Indian students in Canada since 2008, with a total of approximately 23,000 students currently studying there. Concurrently, the issuance of study permits has also been rising steadily, from 3,152 in 2008 to approximately 12,000 in 2010.

Regarding the broader Canadian image as a study destination, recent polling of third-party recruiting agents found that Canada is now the joint second-most attractive study destination among international students. This year’s ICEF i-graduate Agent Barometer [13] reported a 15 percent increase (since 2008) in the number of agents that considered Canada a ‘very attractive’ study destination. In total, 64 percent of over 1,000 agents considered Canada a ‘very attractive’ destination, tying it with the UK (which dropped 7 percentage points over the same time period). Seventy-three percent of agents considered the United States a ‘very attractive’ destination.

The Canadian government aims to build on this momentum, as outlined in its August 2012 report, International Education: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity [14]. The report sets bold targets and states, “Canada’s education offerings can no longer be a well-kept secret. Canada is the place for top talent”

Nonetheless, another recent report, based on internal research commissioned by the Foreign Affairs Department, warns that Canada is failing to attract high-quality university students from China, India and Brazil. Polling firm Ipsos-Reid said in its March report that Canada needed to do more to “communicate its post-secondary education advantages” abroad, finding that awareness of Canada was lacking in China, India and Brazil.

“Canada is not a top-of-mind destination for foreign study for participants in any of the three countries except with Brazilian participants interested in language studies,” said the research company’s report. The United States and United Kingdom, by comparison, “dominate” discussions about post-secondary opportunities.


Whichever way the wind is blowing with regards to country of choice, there is clearly an overall slowdown in the number of Indian students traveling abroad for higher studies. In 2009, there were approximately 228,000 Indian students on a U.S., U.K, Australian or Canadian student visa, whereas in 2011 that number was closer to 211,000.

Of course, there are a complex interplay of factors impacting overseas enrollment trends, including – but not limited to – immigration policy, currency rates, news of the day, and perceived institutional quality standards, but the overriding difference between Indian students and, say, Chinese students may just boil down to ability (and perhaps willingness) to pay.

China’s economy has outgrown India’s over the last decade resulting in a larger pool of Chinese families that can afford an overseas education. This is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of Chinese families are today supporting just one child. And perhaps India’s economy currently supports a critical mass of families that have the means and desire to send their children overseas after the 256 percent increase in the number of Indians going abroad for higher education between 2000 and 2009.

A recent study [15] by the Research and Advisory Services [16] arm of World Education Services found that prospective international students from China are more likely to have the financial means to study abroad than their peers in other major sending countries. The 2012 study, Not All International Students are the Same, Understanding Segments, Mapping Behavior, surveyed nearly 1,600 students from 15 countries, and found that 60 percent of US-bound Chinese respondents had adequate financial resources to fund an overseas education, as compared to 27 percent of Indians, and a worldwide average of 49 percent. The same report found that one in four prospective Chinese students had previously spent time abroad, compared with just one in 10 Indian students.

And the Chinese ability to pay is also evident in the IIE’s Open Doors data, when one considers that the traditional Chinese demographic among students in the United States has changed from partially funded graduate students to largely self-funded undergraduate students. Consider this: in academic year 2006/07 just 15 percent – or 10,000 Chinese students – were studying at the undergraduate level in the United States, while in 2011/12, 31 percent – or 74,500 students – were doing so. This represents growth of almost 650 percent at the undergraduate level over a timeframe that saw comparatively lower graduate level growth of 84 percent (from 48,000 to 88,500).

Among Indian students over the same five-year period, undergraduate enrollments grew by just 500 students to 13,059 while the number of graduate students declined by slightly more than 500 students to 59,014.


The overall number of Indian students overseas is beginning to decline after years of strong growth. Most obviously, this has been seen among Indians in Australia, where March 2012 data show that there has been a more than 50 percent reduction in the stock of Indian students since a high of just over 73,000 in March 2009.

The downward trend is subtler in the United States. While the country continues to be the destination of choice for a majority of internationally mobile Indian students, with 53.6 percent of all overseas Indian students enrolled there in 2009, the recent IIM-B report points out that this global share has dropped 20 percentage points from 2000 when 73.4 percent of overseas Indian student were attending a U.S. institution of higher education.

Indian enrollment figures in British higher education showed much-reduced growth in 2011, after strong growth the prior two years. With the recent implementation of tighter student visa regulations – financial requirements, in particular – by the current government, in addition to potential fallout from the UK Border Agency’s controversial decision to bar London Metropolitan University [17] from enrolling international students, there is a strong chance that the stock of Indian students in the UK will begin a downward trajectory this year. According to the IIM-Bangalore study, the country places “exorbitant” financial demands on Indian students, which when coupled with tightened visa regulations will result in reduced interest in UK universities.

The only major English-language destination enjoying enrollment growth among Indian students is Canada, which, according to a recent report from the Canadian Bureau of International Education, has seen a 220 percent increase in its stock of Indian students since 2008.

The IIM-Bangalore study states that most Indians studying abroad are doing so at the graduate level, with the most popular fields being business and the STEM fields. In addition, it reports that a majority of students at the graduate level rely on scholarships and/or other financial assistance to fund their education.

Indians will continue to travel abroad for tertiary studies as long as capacity and quality constraints remain within the domestic education system; however, they appear to be among the most judicious when it comes to choosing a study destination. And Canada is the country that is currently working hardest to meet their needs. Recent changes to immigration and visa policies have made it easier for foreign students to work, both while studying and after graduation, and residency incentives have been introduced. Working graduates now have a pathway to permanent residency under the Canadian Experience Class [18] program, while doctoral candidates can apply for residency under a skilled-worker designation known as the Federal Skilled Worker Program [19].

Institutions and national policymakers should consider the profile of prospective Indian students when constructing India recruitment plans. The profile is a very different one from, say, that of the current stock of internationally mobile Chinese students. The weakness of the Indian rupee is making it harder than ever for the Indian middle class to fund an overseas education, so scholarship opportunities and attractive visa and workplace policies – in addition to institutional quality – need to be front and center when communicating and recruiting in the Indian market.