in uncertain transition: the industry of international student migration

Note: A version of this essay appeared in The Wire.

Twenty-one-year-old Sonam Tamang from Nepal sat beside me on the plane. She was headed to Munich, Germany to study nursing. “Do you intend to stay or come back?” I asked her. “Let’s see what happens,” she replied. But I prodded, “No, tell me the truth. I’m doing some research.” “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” she then said, “Most people go abroad to stay.” We had a long flight ahead of us. I was glad she didn’t find me too nosy.

Sonam is one among many who, university admissions in their possession, buckle up to land in foreign countries. According to the UNESCO, over 39 thousand students from Nepal went abroad to pursue tertiary education in 2016. For India, the number was over 255 thousand, and for China, over 801 thousand. The United States (US) is a particularly popular host. Over a million international students studied in the US in the 2015-2016 academic year, according to TIME. Just about a third of the students were from China. India, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea followed in second, third, and fourth places respectively.

Most foreign students who wish to pursue tertiary education in the US enter the country under the F-1 visa, commonly known as the student visa. In order to get the student visa, an applicant must demonstrate that they are bona fide students. They need to produce proof of admission (a document called I-20) from an educational institution certified to admit foreign students under the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System—a system put in place post 9/11 in order to track international students. The applicant must also have enough finances to cover the living and educational expenses for the duration of their study. Last but certainly not the least, the applicant must have the intent to leave the US after completion of their studies. In other words, the student visa is not meant to be used for the purpose of migration.

The student visa allows its holder to work up to 20 hours per week while school is in session. However, it allows them to work full time after they complete their education, or in certain circumstances, even before. The allowance comes under a provision called the Practical Training. The term “training” could mislead, though. Companies routinely hire foreign students as trainees because the regulations surrounding the alternative H-1B visa— the work visa— are more cumbersome. Hiring an employee under the work visa entails risk. The US only approves 85 thousand work visas every year. If a potential employee does not get a work visa, the sponsoring company simply would not be able to hire them, jeopardizing operations. However, there are no limits on the number of traineeship approvals. International students who have finished their education need only fulfill some basic requirements in order to become trainees. Though trainees can work for fewer number of years compared to those with work visas, the training provision provides relief to the US economy.

The training option blurs the boundaries between students and workers. It might not be too farfetched to say that it contradicts the sentiment behind student visas. On one hand, the US student visa allows students to transition into workers. On the other, embassies require student visa applicants to demonstrate the intent to return after finishing studies. Internal correspondence between various US missions, brought into the public domain by WikiLeaks, raise doubts about the missions’ ability to effectively assess this intent. The US mission to Sri Lanka wrote of an incident which took place in September 2008 at one US university. Upon enrolment at the university, fourteen Sri Lankan students demanded that they be issued social security numbers— identifying numbers essential for obtaining bank accounts and for getting on digitized payroll. When the school refused, the students transferred to language schools or community colleges. Other US missions have taken more deliberate measures to study the phenomena. In 2009, the US mission to India in Mumbai undertook a study of students who had been in the US under the student visa for at least two years. They found that fourteen percent of the students had transferred to universities different from those they originally intended to attend. Out of these transfers, 40 percent were to a lower level educational program (from graduate to undergraduate, or undergraduate to language training/vocational). Out of all students investigated, 89 percent were either in “active” status or had completed their programs. The remaining were either “terminated”, “cancelled”, or “deactivated”. By contrast, the US mission in China found that only four percent of student visa recipients were “out-of-status”. In the eyes of the consulates, such figures cast doubt on the students’ intents for entering the US.

To be clear, student visas are to be offered to only those who demonstrate the intent to return at the time of application. Those intentions could change over time. A 2006 study in the Journal Population, Space, and Place claimed, “...few students arrive in the US with the intention of immigrating permanently.” But to Sonam, who was yet to arrive the country of her destination, the matter of intensions was an obvious one. “You don't get paid well in Nepal.” She said, “You don't get respect. There is not enough return to what your parents invest in you.” Immigration authorities seem to agree with the view that economic opportunities are important in determining whether or not a student returns home. The US mission in Shanghai wrote in 2008, “...applicants from Shanghai are more likely to return... because they see greater opportunities in Shanghai than they might have in the United States.” Even the journal article agreed,“...economic and professional factors typically act as strong incentives to stay in the US...”

The demand for student visas has led to the rise of an industry of agents. Businesses, commonly known as educational consultants in many parts of South Asia, assist student visa applicants with each step of the application process. They provide preparation courses where applicants learn to take standardized tests required by universities to gauge their competence as students, and as speakers of the English language. They assist students with motivation essays which universities require as part of admission applications. They also provide training for student visa interviews. Though they operate legally, consular officers find them illegitimate. Consulates look unfavourably upon students who make use of consultants’ services. As the US mission in Kathmandu wrote, “Consular officers have become familiar with common phrases visa facilitators coach their applicants to use, thereby making it easier to distinguish applicants trained by consultants from those who have done their own research, and therefore who are more likely genuine students.” And yet, consultants have continued to grow and evolve. They now offer specialized services based on countries of preference, or fields of study— such as nursing. Nurse Sonam, too, used a consultant. "I wouldn't know how to go about the paperwork,” she admitted.

Consultants aside, consular offices face cases of outright misrepresentation and fraud. In their correspondence, the US mission to India in Chennai disclosed that student visas are among the most common targets of fraud. The US mission in Kathmandu also wrote in 2009, “Applicants regularly bring to their [visa] interviews audit reports showing overvalued land, business holdings and property leases. Often, bank balances are either artificially built up within weeks of the visa interview, or someone within the bank, itself, falsifies months of credits and large deposits to indicate a credible source of income.” The United Kingdom (UK) has taken several active steps in curbing fraud. In 2010, the UK temporarily stopped issuing student visas to applicants from North India and Pakistan due to concerns about large scale visa misuse (as reported by India Today). Again in 2011, the UK government produced a list of nearly 1,900 Indian banks whose statements would not be accepted for the purposes of student visas. However, efforts in India and Pakistan would not curb fraud within UK’s own borders. In February 2014, the BBC exposed fraud in an exam— set by the company ETS— required for visa applications. BBC documented agents in the UK taking the exams on behalf of students who were already in the country, but wanted to extend their stays. The agents were so well organized that they were able to read aloud answers at the examination hall. BBC was also able to purchase fake bank details which could help demonstrate that a student had enough funds to remain in the UK. Following the investigation, the UK government stopped using the test to assess student visa candidates. On different occasions, as TIME has reported, ETS cancelled other exams or delayed the release of scores due to threats of mass cheating.

If students are willing to take the risk of fraud, the stakes must be high. What, then, are the stakes for the universities? Since US universities often charge higher tuition fees to students who originate from outside the institutions’ host states, international students are lucrative. According to NAFSA, international students contributed almost 33 billion dollars to the US economy, and created 400 thousand jobs in the 2015-2016 academic year. Consular officers are not entirely unaware of the interests of the universities. The US mission in Colombo wrote that students in a particular university had “...the opportunity to earn academic credits while working 40 hours a week over multiple semesters anywhere in the U.S., with no requirement that they attend any classes and very limited contact with academic faculty.” The Mumbai consulate, similarly, recognized that “...institutions appear to be exploiting the Practical Training exception in [the regulation]”. Universities, too, work with educational consultants. According to the Colombo correspondence, consultants in home countries have “exclusive contracts with schools in the U.S. which pay them based on the number of students recruited, with no penalty for those who are no-shows, withdraw, or otherwise violate their student status.” In such an environment, consulate officers struggle with their “commitment to adjudicating the applicant, not the school,” as the Mumbai consulate wrote. If US universities are culpable, they might not be alone. In 2014, as the BBC reported, the United Kingdom barred at least 700 colleges from admitting students from outside the European Union. According to the Guardian, international students bring close to 11 billion pounds to the UK.

Despite what international students add to the economy of host countries, immigration policy around student visas are tightening. In the US, the tussle generally focuses on foreigners with work visas, but international students are not exempt. Take the proposed Immigration Innovation Act of 2015, for instance. While the proposal mostly focused on work visas, it also sought to “[Eliminate] the foreign student visa requirement that an individual has no intention of abandoning his or her foreign residence.” The act did not pass. In the UK, a push to reduce the number of immigrants raised the question of whether or not to excuse international students. In 2016, as the Guardian revealed, the UK began considering reducing the number of student visas. In April 2017, as Times Higher Education reported, the UK parliament voted to not exempt international students from the targeted reduction in the number of immigrants.

In a world where attitudes toward immigration are shifting, ambiguity awaits the millions like Sonam. It didn’t seem to bother her, though. Soon, she was to reunite with relatives who were already in Germany studying dentistry. She planned to save money and travel Europe. And then there was Oktoberfest. For now, though, she was seated next to me, and it was time for take-off. It was her first time on a plane. She asked me about the seatbelt, so I helped her. “Nervous?” I asked. “Nope,” obviously.