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US: postgrad applications slow, but India climbs

Applications to US graduate schools grew at their slowest rate in eight years in 2013 after an unexpected fall in Chinese interest, a new Council of Graduate Schools survey shows. This was offset in part by a large rise in Indian applications, however, which agents have put down to improving post-study work rights.

"The US visa success rate for the STEM designated programs has been very encouraging"

The CGS survey, which includes responses from 276 schools (responsible for about 64% of the degrees granted to international graduate students in the US), showed that overall foreign graduate applications rose by just 1% in 2013.

Behind this was a 5% fall in applications from China, which accounts for a third of all foreign postgrads in the US. Three more of the top five sending countries, South Korea, Taiwan and Canada, also saw falls.

Indian graduate applications bucked the trend and climbed by 20%

Applications from India, which accounts for a fifth of all foreign grad students, bucked the trend however, climbing by 20%.

It is hard to say exactly what is driving the rise—Indian applications to the US can fluctuate and there was just 2% growth last year and 8% in 2011. The market is also sensitive to factors such as currency, and the low value of the rupee throughout last year may well have suppressed interest leading to a rebound in 2013.

Agents, however, told The PIE that that better post-study work rights for science, technology, engineering or maths students in the US were gaining traction.

“Students who graduate from a designated STEM degree programme can now remain for an additional 17 months on an Optional Practical Training STEM extension,” Y Sudhakaraiah, CEO and director of Indian agency Edu Channel, said, referring to reforms passed by President Obama last May.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for international students in the current scenario given the recession in Europe, and the tightening of UK immigration rules with the withdrawal of the two-year post-study work permit scheme. Further, the US visa success rate for the STEM designated programme has been very encouraging.”

Ganga Dandapani of Canam Consultants said that if STEM graduates were handed H1B visas with their degrees, as per a proposal made to the senate, future rises would be guaranteed. “If the F1 student visa is streamlined towards a better success rate, a 20% increase won’t seem like a shocker at all,” she added.

CGS president, Debra W Stewart, said the slow growth overall merited “serious attention” from policy makers and universities. CGS warned that schools had become dependent on Chinese enrolments as domestic uptake has fallen in the last two years. The Chinese decline also follows seven years of double-digit increases.

“As a country, we simply can’t afford to maintain obstacles to international graduate study”

Motivating factors may include China’s cooling economy (although it is still comparatively healthy) and greater investment in domestic education. Competition from other study destinations may also be at play: in the UK there was another big rise in Chinese students last year (including undergraduates and postgraduates), up from 67,325 to 78,715, while Indian enrolments fell 23.5% thanks to tougher post-study work rules.

Germany is also seeing rising Chinese interest on the back of generous scholarships, as US universities with spending cuts scale back grants.

Stewart said: “While the large increases in applications from India and Brazil are encouraging, the decrease in Chinese applicants needs attention. As a country, we simply can’t afford to maintain obstacles to international graduate study, especially as other countries are decreasing these barriers for highly qualified students.”

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