Hyderabad, United States’ million-dollar baby, and vice versa



The venue of the annual EducationUSA University Fair, Novotel Convention Centre, appears sombre as the dreams of over 5,000 prospective students and the curiosities of their parents took over the premises.

Inside the hall stickered one and two, past the welcome board featuring logos of 40 universities in the foyer, representatives and recruiters stood like students behind tables with science exhibits, explaining what they would offer. The U.S. and Indian flags that stood together looked over the large hall and witnessed laughs and smiles, affirming its bilateralism was in the pink of health. The spot soon became a selfie point.

The Fair, for a registered 3,000-student participation, witnessed nearly double the figure, a U.S. Consulate General – Hyderabad official said. But the overwhelming response did not suggest a hint of worry about the deportation of students from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh for ‘inadmissibility reasons’ by the United States Customs and Border Protection (USCBP), only last week.

Officials checked WhatsApp chats, mails, bank accounts, and interrogated students, before deporting some 15 of them on a single day with varying periods of ban. It was only in 2016, that a similar number of students were deported.

The Fair and the plenary room for the visa session, nevertheless, were equally houseful and lively.

“My daughter is interested in graphic design. What are the options?” asked a thick-bearded man.

“Madam, I have done Java coding. I have two years of gap. I am eligible for MS Cybersecurity course?” asked another, in his recognisably Godavari accent. He later introduced himself as ‘Nani from Rajahmundry’.

Concerns about deportation and the risks students face surface eventually. It came from the horse’s mouth, from behind a counter inside the hall.

“No. Apply to the university directly. Don’t go to the agent, did you not see the news last week?”

Hmm, the deportation? “Yea, that’s because of them,” the petite woman said.

Accredited agents too? “Yes! They decide the university for you, based on the commission they earn, not your interests. You can apply directly, it’s up to you.”

Commission? “The going rate is $3,000 per student enrolment.”

So, students are commodities? “Yea, for them. Pretty much that,” the woman shrugged and smiled, handing her contact card.

At least a dozen other representatives, when asked similarly, said, “We have an agent, but we prefer you to work with us directly. No agent, deal straight with the university. Yes, apply straight to the university, trust us with this.”

The Texan way

It is that time of the year for Ravi S Lothumalla, a Texan for nearly 30 years, who spent an equivalent time in international college and career counselling with his ‘US Admissions’ agency. A certified member of international education advising associations, including the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and NAFSA: Association of International Educators, he works with students from Asia Pacific and Africa.

“I work with both commission-paying and non-commission-paying universities. For me, students are front and centre. Guaranteed admission or the processing fee will be refunded,” says Mr. Lothumalla on a Zoom call.

It was 10 p.m. (CTZ, 8.30 a.m. IST) and four Telugu youths with different problems were waiting for their turn on the Zoom meeting with Mr. Lothumalla. A student at a Baptist University, hailing from Rayalaseema, Sheeba’s (SEVIS and Form I-20 ‘Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status’) was terminated by her college. It is unlawful for her to stay in the country, and she must re-enroll.

Her violation was disclosing to her friends about her the Church Matching Fund, a gift scholarship programme by Baptist institutions, in which the university waives the equivalent fund sent by student’s affiliate church in India. With Sheeba’s certificate as reference, 10 other Telugu students forged a similar document and applied for the scholarship. All of their SEVIS records were terminated.

Then it was the turn of a nervous Ravikanth. Deported last year from Chicago O’Hare International Airport, now he had just arrived at Houston Airport and cleared immigration. But he missed his connecting flight.

“An old female officer there deported my son last year. She told him that he was going in for a job, not to study. He was put in a dimly-lit room for eight hours, he was deported. After that episode, I did not leave the house for four months, I would just weep in pain when someone took my son’s name,” Ravikanth’s father, a retired government employee, later speaking over the phone from Visakhapatnam, recounted.

For Vishnu from Yadadri-Bhuvanagiri, his deportation experience at Abu Dabhi port of entry was similar to Ravikanth’s.

“Do you think I am a stupid person?” the CBP officer shouted at him, before pulling a picture from Vishnu’s phone cloud storage which showed him standing behind a counter at a store. Unauthorised employment. Deported.

“I can’t remember if they accessed my phone and the vault without my passcode. There’s nothing one can hide, if they pick you. There’s no sticking to one story, it should be the original story,” Vishnu says.

An absconding case of a techie’s brother in Pennsylvania, a Hyderabad girl who joined a public university in Warrensburg two days ago, were other consultations.

But the 56-year-old, who advocates ‘best practices and compliance with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Code of Federal Regulations’ to student recruitment, is an ashamed man before heads of departments and professors, and his prestigious association networks.

“They ask me why Telugu students are so dishonest, only chasing money?”

He shares a dozen screenshots of WhatsApp groups, named ‘Indian students’, ‘Home works’, ‘Students 2023’, with over 200 members each, and website links that offer proxy services.

“Assignment and exams help, BCG or visa or documents editing, OPT card to H1B or GC or Citizen, guaranteed pass with up to 99% scores and Turnitin Plagiarism Report with solution, perfect knowledge of referencing, online and residency classes, hiring students to work in cash or sin, SOP writing for health informatics,” they read. This, Mr. Lothumalla says: “The seeds are sown in Hyderabad, they turned into trees in the U.S.”

Now, returning to India

January 2023 was particularly a new beginning, of adventure and challenge, for Lejo Sam Oommen, the managing director of Education Testing Service (ETS) India, the subsidiary of Princeton-based ETS, the world’s largest private non-profit educational testing and assessment organisation. ETS administers TOEFL (Test of English as Foreign Language), GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and Praxis to over a million test takers globally annually, and are recognised by over 11,500 universities worldwide.

It was a social media post with a contact number, like the one shared by Mr. Lothumalla from Dallas, that brought Mr. Oommen to the Hyderabad Cyber Crime police station on the 23rd. Even before approaching the police, he did his homework and collected sufficient evidence.

“Get high score in TOEFL/GRE online test for ₹25,000,” was the post. Mr. Oommen hired a private detective to learn the modus operandi. The detective also became the test taker after bargaining a ₹2,000 discount.

On the test day, a person was physically hiding in the room and the detective was online on the computer. The man in hiding used his mobile phone to take pictures of the questions on the screen, quickly shared them with his aides on WhatsApp. The answers solved would be shown discreetly to the detective from his phone, and the test is completed.

The two main accused persons in the ring were B. Tech final-year students at National Institute of Technology, Raipur.

In Mr. Oommen’s own words, as written in the police report: “Per information available to ETS, there is reason to believe that there are dozens of organised cheating rings of different sizes that are operating and affecting the entire set of test-takers. The present online cheating/fraud is just one example of multiple such fraudulent rings operating in various parts of the country.”

‘Hyderabad, the centre of large-scale documentation fraud’

Mr. Oommen may be a visitor to Hyderabad, but efficient police work suggests that fraudulent practices are organised and homebred here.

“The India Cables” based on the U.S. diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks in 2011, included U.S. diplomatic communication to the State Department in Washington D.C. on concerns about Hyderabad.

The cable sent from Chennai, where the country-level coordination office for Fraud Prevention Programme is located, >229319: unclassified, dated October 13, 2009, had observed that States of Gujarat, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh were hubs of fraudulent practices for visa applications.

It documented that the majority of fake documents fabricating educational and employment qualifications came from Hyderabad. When 150 companies in Hyderabad were investigated, 77% of them “turned out to be fraudulent or highly suspect.”

For Telangana Addl. Director General of Police (Crime Investigation Department) Mahesh. M. Bhagwat, there are many such Munna Bhai (MBBS) – the 2003 Best Popular Film, in which the lead actor is a fake doctor. “The most common way of fraud is through forgery and impersonation. We would seize a lot of fake rubber stamps, seals, colour photocopies, printers and scanners,” Mr. Bhagwat says.

To him and his team’s credit, and the continuing work by his colleagues in other police commisionerates, the investigations led to seizing fabricated fake certificates of most public universities and Councils in the country.

Study abroad agencies

Put simply, the “$3,000 (about ₹2.50 lakh) per student enrolment”, as the representative at the University Fair says, would be divided or multiplied by respective business-to business and business-to-customer agents.

By a moderate estimate, experts observe, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are home to at least 6,000 study abroad consultancies.

But from among them all, the AIRC (American International Recruitment Council), founded in 2008, where ‘members learn and develop skills as international student enrolment champions’, is desired. Its certification is considered a ‘badge of honour’ and displayed prominently at consultancy service offices and websites.

The AIRC identifies 51 agencies from India as its certified ones, mostly headquartered in Hyderabad, Gujarat, Delhi, with operations across the country, and certification valid up to 2033.

The certification process, it says, follows global practice for quality assurance processes and consists of background and eligibility check, agency self-evaluation report, and the AIRC Commission would take a decision after it visits the agency headquarters. The membership fee varies for agencies, $2,000 per year for placing fewer than 3,000 students, and $4000 for agencies placing more than 3,000 students globally annually.

The AIRC-Indian agencies, on their websites, boast recruiting thousands of students in U.S. universities, their multiple branch operations, free IELTS/counselling, ‘profile builder’, tips and tricks, and franchise opportunities.

But one of them is forthright, almost belittling the petite woman from the University Fair. The agency publishes on its website a master document containing over 650 universities, against rows of commission, commission pattern, and categories of Tier-I, 2 and 3.

Webster University in Missouri, at $8,000 USD for undergraduate and 20% for graduate studies, tops the chart. National Louis University, Chicago, is $7,300. And commission percentages range between 7 and 30. A pdf file and a YouTube video on its website also explains to its over 400 group members on the workflow to raise a commission.

The ARICs-May 2023 study findings by BONARD, Vienna-based market intelligence consultancy, partnered by NACAC and Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) is particularly informative, because most (29%), of the 105 agencies it surveyed in 39 countries, were from India.

“The main reason agencies recruit students for U.S. institutions is ‘Market demand/student preference’,” a 54% majority felt, and only 9% felt about the ranking of the institutions. Also, 18% thought about ‘potential U.S. career opportunities for students’, and equivalent members felt it would ‘increase the number and variety of institutions we serve’.

Most university respondents (63%) preferred paying agencies a post-enrolment per capita fee in the form of a fixed rate. Agencies (38%) wanted a post-enrolment per capita fee based on a percentage annual gross tuition.

According to the Institute of International Education (IIE) Open Doors 2022, India continues to be the second-leading place of origin of international students at 21% (1,99,182) in the U.S. China is first with 30.6% students.

And, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh (geographically Hyderabad, as connected to the nearest U.S. Consulate General), evident from the number of visas issued, contribute about 40% to that figure, say business players.

The total active student count (2022), as maintained by the SEVP of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is 2,97,151, including 37% female students.

Commission-based recruitment

Unlike India, which lacks a legislative mechanism to regulate study abroad agents, the admission associations in the United States, after studying international recruitment practices and whether commission-based study abroad agents are required, settled for a ‘yes’ in 2013.

The NACAC had revised its Mandatory Practices, Section I.A.3 of ‘Statement of Principles of Good Practice.

“Member institutions will not offer or accept any reward or remuneration for placement or recruitment of students in the United States. Members who choose to use incentive-based agents when recruiting students outside the U.S. will ensure accountability, transparency and integrity.”

The 2023-BONARD study quantifies that 62% of the U.S. institutions collaborated with commission-based agencies. It was 37% as per its own study in 2016. Of the institutions currently not partnering with agencies, 98% considered partnering in the future, the study found.

The Department of Homeland Security on its ‘Study In the States’ section, explains ‘What is a commission-based recruiter?’ What if I choose to use a recruiter? What else should I know? it details.

A thousand dreams

It is that time of the year, again. Study abroad agents are still unlicensed in the country. The consultancies busted by Mr. Bhagwat and his colleagues over the years continue to operate.

The USCG Hyderabad reiterates that the ‘onus is on the applicant to demonstrate the intention for a genuine visit, not resort to fraudulent practices.’ And that, EducationUSA is the official source on U.S. Higher Education.

For B2B agents, ‘undergraduate programme will drive future growth’, incorporating new partners, expanding to emerging cities is the key. Mr. Lothumalla shares that The University of Texas at Dallas has agreed to work exclusively with him to bring IIT Tirupati students for a two-month summer internship in 2024.

For a mother-son duo from Warangal, at the University Fair, it was all different. “What is…total fees?” she asked a representative hesitantly.

(Student names have been changed to protect privacy)


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