Recently, the Government has launched a Study in India initiative. Under this initiative, a web portal has been created to give all relevant information to any potential foreign student. The government is offering fee waivers to many foreign students. This is one of the rare activities of the government, where four different ministries are working together - Ministry of Human Resource Development, Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Commerce and Industry. There is focus on 30 countries in Asia and Africa where a lot of outreach will be attempted. All CFTIs have been told that they can have 15 percent super-numerary seats for foreign nationals. The goal is to increase the number of foreign students in India from around 45,000 now to 2,00,000 in 2023.
There is no doubt that having more foreign students in our universities is desirable. Diversity in the classroom is good for learning. In due course, it may become financially profit making for our poor institutions. And, of course, it enhances soft power of the nation. But the question is whether it will work.
There have been a lot of discussions on social media as to why foreign students don't come to India. A lot of reasons have been provided:
They don't know enough about our programs, which universities are good, how to apply and so on. Well, if lack of information was the primary issue then this new initiative will certainly help. But is that one of the main reasons.
They hear biased news about the country. How women are unsafe. How foreigners, particularly from Africa, are discriminated, attacked, etc. All such news are amplified and a wrong impression of security has been created. Well, the new program can do very little to correct that impression.
The image of the country as a difficult place to live in. Harsh weather. Difficult to negotiate house rentals. Difficult to travel around. And so on.
We can keep debating these reasons, and would never reach a conclusion. But if we really want to understand why foreigners don't want to study in India, the easiest way to find out is to understand why Indians don't want to study in India. Yes, a very large number of Indians go abroad to study. And I bet they don't do so only because they think that international exposure will help their careers. (If that was all, then we should be seeing a lot of people going abroad for a semester or two.)
While we have only 45,000 foreign students in India, more than 5.5 lakh Indians are studying abroad as per a Lok Sabha answer by the Government in August, 2017. Instead of 1.5 lakh foreigners, can we have a goal to attract 1.5 lakh of these back to Indian universities by 2023. I am convinced that if we can attract Indians to Indian universities, foreigners will also get attracted.
So, why do Indians go abroad. They do, because there aren't many good institutions in India. And therefore, those who didn't get admission to any of the few good quality institutions and could afford to study abroad, leave India. If we want to have 2 lakh foreigners, and if we assume that on an average our best institutions will have 5 percent foreign students within the next 5 years, it means that we must have good institutions with 40 lakh Indian students in them. The entire IIT system is only 75,000 students (and I have no hope of IIT system having 5% foreign students within 5 years).
And the reason for not having good enough institutions in India is very obvious. Quality requires resources. In India, government invests heavily only in a few institutions, and most states have tuition control on private universities. We must find a solution to this problem: How to provide students with weak financial background access to good quality education. Today, she has no such access, because there is no (or very little) good quality education. And our public policy has consistently preferred access over quality. Can we find a mechanism by which a poor can get access to quality. This could be by way of allowing high tuition but supporting financially weak students through a variety of means. By government chipping in through some schemes of scholarships for poor. With banks giving easy education loans. By encouraging philanthropic funds to flow into education through which the institutions can provide financial support. It will have to be a combination of all of these. And if we can allow quality institutions to exist on Indian soil, we will not only save huge amount of foreign exchange that we spend on educating lakhs of our youth abroad, but will also be able to attract foreign students to such institutions.
And when we talk of quality of education, it is not just about attracting good faculty and having good infrastructure, but also having a good student experience. Do we have enough freedom on our campuses. Do we have enough flexibility in our academic processes. And when you consider some of these issues, unfortunately even the best in India (like IIT system) do not compete well with even the ordinary outside. There are about 100,000 alumni of IIT system outside India. How many of them are able to convince their own sons or daughters to spend just one semester under Study Abroad program in an IIT. Certainly, in these cases, the issue is not lack of information but actually having the information that their alma mater does not compare well with the options that their wards have.
Of course, it is not my point that the "Study in India" initiative is bad. We must attract as many foreign students as our current quality of education providers can do. Advertising our strengths, pushing public institutions to admit more foreign students, providing tuition waivers, easing visa and other hurdles will increase that number, but to reach 2 lakh and beyond, we will need to improve the quality of our education offerings.
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