Enhancing Foreign Student Inflow a Game-changer in Higher Education

While lakhs of Indian students study abroad, contributing an estimated Rs 50,000 crores to foreign countries, India attracts less than a lakh foreign students and inflow of well below Rs 1000 crores.

Published: 31st March 2014 02:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st March 2014 01:14 AM   |  A+A-


While lakhs of Indian students study abroad, contributing an estimated Rs 50,000 crores to foreign countries, India attracts less than a lakh foreign students and inflow of well below Rs 1000 crores. What can we do to balance this? A pragmatic action seems to be to attract short-term study-abroad students from west.

Foreign Universities are often perceived as a threat to Indian higher education system, both in terms of economics and academics. An estimated 50,000 crores of rupees is siphoned from India when lakhs of Indian students fly out to study in foreign Universities, every year. These Universities opening campuses in India not only raise the questions of equitable access, but also fears about unfair competition for Indian Universities which are in very early stages of moving to world-class. While both of the above may be true, the lack of large scale initiatives to counter-balance the situation by attracting foreign students to India is conspicuous.

There are a mere 75,000 foreign students in Indian Universities (a 35% jump in 3 years), with Afghanistan, Sudan and USA topping the table with each having around 5000 students each. Pune University is the pioneer; attracting 15% of the foreign student inflow to the country.The inflow on account of foreign students could be well below 1000 crores of rupees, as most Indian Universities charge fees of 1000 to 2,000 USD per year.  Compare this to inflow of 50,000 crores of rupees into Canada and 1,50,000 crores of rupees into the US, both of which have about 8 lakhs of foreign students per year. They are aiming to enhance these figures too. Canada for instance is pumping $5 million to double their foreign student numbers as a part of their economic action plan and their planners believe that this would generate many thousands of jobs for Canadians. Affirmative action by Governments and Universities in India can put India also on such a course.  It is not merely an economic question; more foreign students in our campus will also trigger badly needed change in our academic system.

What should India do to turn the student mobility tide towards it?  At the outset, one should note that without much pro-action, signs of rise in foreign student numbers are clearly visible. Africa, Afghanistan and Iran have triggered this rise. These countries find India a favourite destination for higher education due to comparative quality and cost advantage and also perhaps due to internal strife and religious constraints in those countries.  For students from USA and UK, the above arguments obviously do not hold. That the fees and living expenses in India are 10-15 times less is paled by the lack of quality, as India is yet to have clearly recognized world-class Universities on par with Stanford, MIT and Cambridge. Therefore, we cannot expect to increase the flow of western students to India manifold by mere cost advantage or with the exotic country tag. The alternate strategy is to tap the rising phenomena of study-abroad requirement in western countries. The bachelors’ degree programmes in many state universities and colleges in the US require students to earn certain credits from a University abroad. This requirement is in recognition of the need for immersing in a different culture, society and academic system for holistic intellectual development.  As no degree awarding is involved, the quality label of the University abroad is not as important as in the case of a foreign student who enrolls for a whole degree programme. In this context, India becomes a perfect destination. A cauldron of diverse and ancient culture, an emerging economic, political and knowledge power, a society that is an exotic subject for any international scholar, and a stupendous tourist destination, to top it all. The cost advantage then becomes a bonus.  What we need is to act fast.

A study abroad programme typically consists of a foreign student being admitted to a single semester in Indian University, with a choice of courses (papers in traditional Indian terminology) to choose from. In addition to ones offered by various departments of Science, Management, Languages etc, there  will also be a mandatory set of oriental subjects (inter-cultural Studies, yoga, Sanskrit/Tamil, Indian music/dance, Indian cinema and literature etc) tailor-made for foreign students.  Special regulations and flexible course offer needs to be put in place to enable such one-semester admission. An advance announcement about semester schedules and exam dates that also approximately coincide with American Spring and Fall Semester months is helpful. If they don’t coincide with Indian semesters, some special top up and extra lectures can synchronize them. Special exams for foreign students may also be held if required. Then there is the need for Credit Transfer regulation which involves issuing an academic transcript in international  style with explanatory notes such that the student can take it back to the home University and get the course credits and grades integrated into their own academic system. This is straight forward, but yet to be adopted by most state Universities. UGC can float a model to encourage adoption. The University of Kerala has brought into force a Credit Transfer Regulation that can be used as a model.  A fairly decent accommodation is the last requirement. Foreign student hostels need to beurgently funded by both central and state governments.

Attracting foreign students to Indian Universities is not at all a mere economic proposition. Injecting foreign students into our state Universities can work wonders in terms of triggering changes in intellectual environment and academic system.  A special guest in home earns a better meal for all members of the family! A 10% foreign student presence at annual fees of around $1500 can turn around the University finances and in turn go a long way in enhancing its infrastructure and systems, and ultimately, quality.

The author is a Professor in the University of Kerala and the Director of the University’s International Affairs.

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