Leki Thungon was supposed to be in Montreal by mid-September, pursuing a PhD program in anthropology at McGill University. Instead, she is in the Indian city of Rishikesh, dipping into classes and seminars via Zoom and caught in a bubble of uncertainty.
“My visa application is on hold since the consulate hasn’t resumed full services in India, so I’m not sure when I will be able to fly to Montreal,” she said.
Ms. Thungon is one of more than 752,725 students from India who study abroad, according to 2018 statistics from the country’s Ministry of External Affairs. Roughly 35 per cent of international students in Canada are from India, totalling 172,625, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education.
Many have been held back at home because of complications brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic even as universities adapt to virtual learning. Some embassies have been limited only to critical services and many universities haven’t yet opened their doors to students to offer the traditional on-campus environment.
It has had a cascading effect, reveals a survey by Quacquarelli Symonds that analyzes higher education institutions. The study found that 54 per cent of Indian students decided to defer their courses by a year; 7 per cent said they no longer want to study overseas; and 50 per cent said they were not interested in remote learning at all.
Ms. Thungon knows that feeling. “Remote learning is difficult. It’s a lot of screen time, reading e-books, attending meetings, without the university community to motivate you. Plus, leading a different life from those you are physically around can feel isolating,” she said.
For undergraduate students leaving their homes for the first time, there are deeper challenges.
Dhwani Grover’s 18-year-old son has technically not flown the nest – but it certainly feels like it. When the pandemic hit, the Grovers, based in the city of Gurugram, considered cancelling plans to send their son, Ansh, abroad and enrolling him in an Indian university instead. But he was determined to go to the University of British Columbia, his mother said.
“So he began his course from his room at home. But it feels like he is living in Canada already,” said Ms. Grover, talking about the 12½-hour difference between the two time zones that Ansh has had to overcome to attend live lectures that begin around dinner, followed by pre-recorded sessions, interactive workshops and assignments. He is doing this as he waits for his visa to come through.
Ansh says it helps that the university has been pro-active in bringing the new batch of students together through virtual community groups, so he has already made a fair number of friends and even met a few in person. “I have the option of attending some of the classes during the day in India, but following the university timings helps in interacting with more people in class,” he said.
As students adapt to the new normal of university life for the immediate future, parents worry about letting go in a way they didn’t before the pandemic, with growing concerns around safety, physical distancing at university, travel arrangements, long flights and lengthy quarantine periods.
A major reason for students not enrolling overseas is that most parents can’t travel with them to settle them at university, said Namrata Pandey, founder of La Mentoraa, a Delhi-based counselling firm for students.
"There was a mad rush to study in Indian universities because many didn’t want to pay a huge fee for universities abroad just for online classes,” she said. Indian universities extended their deadlines to take in more students whose plans had changed.
Saniya Bhargava is one of them. Though she was accepted at several universities in Canada, her preferred destination for an undergraduate course in psychology, the lockdown made her family rethink the decision. “I was a bit jittery to send her overseas at this age. The pandemic sealed it for us. Now she’s enrolled at a university in Pune," said her mother, Deepanjali. "There is a bit of regret that she didn’t get to go, but we reasoned she could always do her master’s degree abroad.”
Though it is not culturally common for Indian students to take a gap year, the pandemic has compelled many to open up to the idea. Saurabh Shivpuje was preparing to travel from the city of Nanded to the U.S. for a course in computational chemistry when he got an e-mail informing him that the department could only offer the program next year.
“They had to defer it because it’s tough to do the course online since it involves a lot of practical work. I am using this time to do a few online programming courses and complete some of my earlier projects,” he said.
Concerned about losing out on international enrolments, many universities abroad are going the extra mile to woo students from overseas.
“In the last few months we have received many e-mails from universities we had initially applied to, encouraging us to enrol our son there,” said Ms. Grover. But universities have not agreed to reduce their considerable fees as requested by many international students, given the lack of on-campus experience.
Instead, most universities have attempted to fill the void with technological progress, rethinking teaching strategies and community engagement, said Vibha Kagzi, CEO and founder, ReachIvy.com, an education consultancy that offers a special service to guide students to reflect on their higher education goals abroad during the pandemic.
Some universities in Canada, the U.S., Britain, Europe and Singapore have made arrangements to open up campuses while observing physical-distancing norms and taking safety precautions, Ms. Kagzi said. "So over 80 per cent of our students have started their fall course. In case of longer duration programs, students are opting to start their programs online, knowing that they still get an on-campus experience.”
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