Features | Society | South Asia

The Hoodwinking of India’s Students

The recent case of Tri-Valley University is about more than just a sham school and US visa fraud, reports Delhi-based writer Neeta Lal.

By Neeta Lal for

Hundreds of Indian students, mostly from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, face the prospect of being unceremoniously deported from the United States after federal authorities last month shut down the ‘sham’ Tri-Valley University (TVU) in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The university, which had charged its mostly Indian student intake thousands of dollars in fees, has been accused of fraud, misusing visa permits, money laundering and helping foreign nationals illegally acquire immigration status.

An investigation by the US Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency reportedly found that while the students had been admitted to various residential and online courses at the university—and, on paper at least, lived in California—they were actually working illegally around the country.

The case has sparked something of a panic among the Indian student community in the United States. Internet forums have been abuzz with students debating the problems with TVU, warning prospective students in India that the place is nothing more than a scam with its promises of allowing students to work from day one, requiring no credit, no attendance, no tests and charging just $2,500 per semester.

To compound the unease, many of TVU’s students have now reportedly been fitted with GPS radio tags around their ankles, something that federal authorities say is merely being done to help the system keep track of them.

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Unsurprisingly, though, such moves haven’t gone down well with Indians, who note that radio tagging is usually reserved for convicted criminals.

‘How can you treat the poor students like this?’ asks Hyderabad-based VS Kutty, whose nephew enrolled at the university last year. ‘Many of them used their parents’ life savings for their education plans. Instead of blaming us, shouldn’t our government be ensuring that fraudulent institutions don’t hoodwink us?’

Faced with such sentiments, New Delhi has tried to deflect criticism toward US authorities over the tagging of the students. External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, for example, was quick to declare that Indian students aren’t criminals, and demanded that the tags be removed.

The reality, though, is that the problem extends far beyond this one case. Over the past decade at least, questionable institutions such as TVU have been proliferating to cater to the growth in students from India. TVU is simply the most extreme example so far of the exploitation of gullible students and parents in the education market—and of the lack of adequate systems in place to stop it from happening.

‘The question this scam raises is of fault lines in our own system,’ says Ashok Aggarwal, a New Delhi-based advocate and convener of Social Jurist, a civil rights group. ‘Why didn’t the university raise any suspicions despite all the impressive surveillance systems at US consulates? Why were the students given visas to go to an unaccredited university in the first place?’

An estimated 100,000 Indian students are currently studying on US campuses, a figure that’s likely to keep growing as the number of people who can afford to shun the problem-ridden Indian higher education system rises.

It’s not just US universities that are expected to try to cater to this demand. Institutions from across the globe are moving increasingly aggressively to tap into the Indian student community, while the number of Indian students studying abroad is expected to hit 800,000 by 2025.

But Prateek Bhambri, a professor at Delhi University, says much more needs to be done to screen agents trafficking Indian students. ‘An accreditation system for consultants advising students going abroad should be made mandatory,’ Bhambri says. ‘This case should serve as a wake-up call for Indian students aspiring to go and study in foreign colleges.’

According to Bhambri, capacity in India’s education system has grown far more quickly than the economy can cope with, meaning that while there’s a glut of suppliers, quality is suffering. ‘The quality of higher education at a majority of the institutions is at best mediocre,’ he says. ‘This means there’s now a skills gap and a problem with employability. And further education options at the graduate level in India just aren’t very exciting, except perhaps MBAs.’

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Bhambri’s comments point to some of the wider issues confronting India’s education system if it wants to keep the best and brightest at home. A focus on content rather than activity-based learning has meant, for example, that only one in four engineering graduates in India are considered employable in the services industry. Students have also been reported in many cases to lack technical skills, fluency in English, teamwork and presentation skills.

In addition, a number of surveys have also noted that higher education in India is hampered by a host of issues including access and equity, relevance, quality, management and funding. Foreign universities, in contrast, are viewed by employers as being much more responsive, with better infrastructure and more multicultural campuses. Until India moves to address these shortcomings, then there will be continued incentives for more TVU-like cases.

As one parent affected I spoke with noted, the TVU fraud is tied into the ‘Indian dream’ of acquiring a foreign degree and overseas job. ‘Given these huge aspirations, student ambitions are going to keep on being exploited by fraudsters,’ she said.

 

Neeta Lal is a senior New Delhi-based journalist. She can be contacted at: [email protected]