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Can Biden revive the American Dream for Indian students?

With many developed countries offering equal opportunities, the US and the H1-B visa are no longer the big option they once were, particularly after four years of Trump battering.

February 16, 2021 / 04:27 PM IST

Last month, US President Joe Biden signed an immigration bill that is expected to reduce hurdles for international students seeking to work in the US. Could this revive the so-called American Dream of Indian techies?

According to experts Moneycontrol spoke to, while a favourable immigration regime would be welcome, it remains to be seen whether it would re-ignite interest among Indians, after unfavourable policies under the Trump administration.

Declining interest in the US for students

Gaurav Khanna, Assistant Professor, School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego, who has studied H-1B visa and tech ecosystem in the US, said that with the Biden administration looking to reverse many impediments during his predecessor's period, it would encourage many Indians to look at the US universities for higher education in STEM, a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — in an interdisciplinary and applied approach.

This is important for the US universities, given that Indians are the second-largest student community in the US at 1.93 lakh, next only to the Chinese.

Over the last couple of years, the number of students enrolling at US universities had declined at the back of stringent visa regulations under the Trump administration. The US government's move to do away with the Optional Practical Training, which provided international students the opportunity to work in the US, did not help matters.

In FY20 (October 2019-September 2020), the US saw a 64 percent decline in student visas issued, a drop that can to a large extent, be attributed to COVID-19.

Aditya Narayan Mishra, CEO, CIEL HR services, said that given the uncertainty around the visa and job prospects, many students would prefer a wait and watch approach.

As per the Open Doors report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), Indian students in the US declined by close to 4.4 percent in FY19. This comes after the 25 percent jump in the number of Indians who took admission in American universities in FY 15 and FY16, pointed out a Mint report.

The Biden administration now wants to turn things around. “The bill makes it easier for graduates of US universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the United States,” read the immigration bill that was signed recently by the US President. While finer details are not yet available, the idea clearly is to attract top talent, who now have wider alternatives to choose from.

More options for students

Unlike a few years ago, students now have more choices.

Countries like the UK and Canada are going all out to tap into this opportunity. Akshay Chaturvedi, founder & CEO, Leverage Edu, a higher education platform, said that COVID-19 has also changed how students look at higher education overseas.

He stated that apart from jobs and exposure that are the hallmarks of foreign universities, students prefer countries that have managed the pandemic well.

For instance, interest for higher education in countries like New Zealand have increased, where its leader, Jacinda Ardern’s, deft handling of the pandemic garnered appreciation. Canada and Australia, too, are gaining traction.

Though the Biden administration has made containing the pandemic a priority, an increased anti-vaxxers campaign might not give the students enough confidence. UK’s handling of the virus, too, has left a lot to be desired.

Even in terms of job opportunities, countries other than the US, are offering equally attractive prospects, what with the tech ecosystem going global. The Silicon Valley companies are now expanding operations across the world beyond their country’s borders. Some UK Universities have tied-up with companies to offer students internship opportunities as well.

In addition, the tuition fee in the UK, which works out to Rs 20 lakh, is a lot more affordable than the US universities, where it could cost as much as Rs 40 lakh or more for the duration of the course.

So, is the US not attractive anymore?

The US will continue to be a powerful influence in the choice of university or work for Indians.

Indians and IT firms continue to be the largest beneficiaries of the H-1B visa, and the trend will continue even if local hiring picks up. C Sunil, head – IT staffing, Teamlease Services, pointed out in an earlier interaction that even if other countries are attracting Indian tech talent, the pay scale in the US is much higher in comparison.

For techies - from start-ups and IT firms to big tech companies - job opportunities are aplenty with attractive compensation unlike, say Canada, which is rolling out the red carpets for Indians.

A Mumbai-based immigration consultant said while there is huge demand for Canada, the opportunities for a highly skilled tech workforce is somewhat limited there.

Barring a few start-up firms and big company-owned research centres, Canada does not offer job opportunities for techies like the US. Except for cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, other areas are not promising. On the other hand, apart from the Silicon Valley, Austin, Chicago, and Colorado in the US are also emerging as start-up hubs.

For entrepreneurs, who focus hard on the deep tech ecosystem, raising money in the US is easier than it is in other countries including India, where the deep tech start-up environment has not scaled up yet compared to tech-enabled consumer services.

As the experts point out, the only difference now and before 2017 is that other countries have stepped up and are giving students attractive options, which was not the case earlier. Maybe for Biden, there is more work that needs to be done now to get quality talents back to his country.

Swathi Moorthy
first published: Feb 16, 2021 04:27 pm