Asia's students weigh up college options

Families in Asia desperate to get a college education for their children are considering a variety of expensive options - including sending them to a local branch of a British or Australian university.

"Emotionally it's very taxing," sighed Seema Singh, talking about the All India Engineering Entrance Exam (AIEEE), which more than one million young Indians sit each year.

"It's the hardest time in my life," she says. "Sometimes, I have palpitations."

But Seema, 47, is not sitting the exam herself. She is worried for her son Ishan, 18.

She and her husband, who works in advertising in Delhi, are paying for extra coaching lessons for him, on top of his private school fees. He needs to do well in the test to stand a chance of reading architecture in a state-subsidised university.

Across India, China and South East Asia, education is the key to being part of the story of economic growth. But competition for state-subsidised college places is now so tough that many families are considering the option of paying for an expensive degree abroad.

In India, technical subjects, especially engineering, are the most competitive. There are only 10,000 places at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), but last year almost half a million people tried to get in.

Ishan's parents are looking at the family budget and contemplating sending him abroad to college.

The option is now so popular, with many families raising expensive loans or spending their life savings, that a new profession has sprung up to help them: the education consultant.

Some education consultants work on commission from foreign colleges, and others charge fees. Victoria D'Sa is a partner at Global Education Consultancy Services, which has offices across India and charges around 25,000 rupees ($550/£341) for its services.

"India is the best country for undergraduate programmes," she advises, "because the cost is less."

Rising costs

Those who get into the very best Indian colleges on merit alone will be able to get a world-class education for around 70,000 rupees ($1,500/£932) per year, she estimates, which explains the crushing competition for these places. Some colleges reserve places for lower caste students as well.

Image caption Places in popular courses such as engineering are keenly contested

But even at inexpensive state colleges, costs have risen in recent years. Some colleges now offer "management quotas" which allow hopeful students or their families to pay a fee in return for a place. D'Sa estimates this payment could add 500,000 rupees ($11,100/£6,900) to the cost of an education.

But even the cheapest foreign option, Singapore, would cost around that much for each year of study alone - and that is before flights, rent and food are factored in. Western nations cost even more, with the US being the most expensive.

The high cost is one reason the Singhs hope Ishan will stay in India - at least for his undergraduate studies. "It's the masters that makes the difference," says his mother. "I would even think about having a loan for that."

At undergraduate level "you're basically financing their partying abroad," says Ishan's father M P Singh (his son interrupts him, joking: "That's fine with me").

Masters degree fees are around 800,000 to 1,500,000 rupees ($17,000 to $33,000/£10,570 to £20,530) in the UK or Australia, estimates consultant D'Sa - and even more in the USA.

But European countries such as Germany are less expensive, and some nations, such as Finland or Norway, may even give financial assistance to Indian students.

For families elsewhere in Asia, there's a half-way option. Jonathan Ong has spent the last three years studying engineering at a British institution, the University of Nottingham, without ever leaving his home town of Kuala Lumpur.

Cheaper option

Nottingham opened its Malaysia campus in 1999, and its Chinese branch in 2006. Across the region, European, US and Australian campuses are springing up, often charging lower fees than they would if you studied at their original campus.

"Having foreign universities based in Malaysia gives the rest, who are not so financially-blessed to be able to go abroad, an opportunity to attain UK or US education at a cheaper cost," says Mr Ong.

Image caption Asian families take the education of their children very seriously

Just like in India, state universities in Malaysia are competitive. They charge lower fees (often less than $1,000/£620 a year), but often have restrictive entry "quotas" - in this case, based on ethnicity rather than caste.

Quotas are one reason that Mr Ong, a blogger from Malaysia's Chinese minority, said he preferred to take a loan for 60% of his annual fees of 28,000 ringit ($9,300/£5,785) and study at the Nottingham campus.

He sees it as "quality education at a cheaper cost" and it has paid off - he has now started a career as a consultant.

Mr Ong says the costs may be high but that does not put people off.

"Asian families consider education a long-term investment and are willing to dig deep into their pockets to ensure their children get quality education," he says.

The opinions expressed are those of the contributors and not held by the BBC. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal or any other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make any investment decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.