Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) is organising a national conference, ‘Destination India — Making India the Preferred Hub of Education’, on 28 and 29 January at Symbiosis International University, Pune.
The conference will bring together leading educationists, stakeholders from the industry, and other policy experts to elaborate upon the objective of making India one of the leading hubs of education for foreign students.
In the backdrop of this event, Swarajya spoke to Dr. Vidya Yeravdekar, Pro Chancellor, Symbiosis International (Deemed University) & Principal Director, Symbiosis, about the significance of making India a global education hub.
Q1: ICCR is organising a first-of-its-kind conference in Symbiosis, Pune, on making India a preferred global education hub. Could you please elaborate on this?
We are happy to partner with ICCR and SPPU in their first conference on this theme which fits in very well with the Symbiosis motto of ‘Vasudhaiva Kuttumbakam’- the world is one family.
Symbiosis was also established for promoting international understanding between Indian and foreign students. The theme Destination India also fits in with the national mission related to higher education and the government’s ambitious ‘Study in India’ programme.
While the branding and promotion of India’s top educational institutions is obviously necessary, it is crucial for Higher Education Institutes and the government to introspect and brainstorm on the ground realities of Indian higher education for international students and what can be changed to enhance the learning and overall living experience that students receive once they are in India.
This conference aims to bring together all the critical stakeholders for this crucial introspection, review and sharing of experiences.
Q2: As a leading educationalist, could you elaborate on the importance of making India one of the most preferred hubs for education globally?
India has a strong tradition of education and is known for its expertise in disciplines ranging from Yoga and Ayurveda to IT and Engineering. More than 47,000 international students study in India but we have a potential for attracting 200,000 foreign students.
With the wide range of educational institutions in the country, we have the potential to become a strong hub of quality education in Asia .We have so many quality HEIs that students and faculty across the world can be attracted to come to study in India and that too at affordable costs.
While it is definitely important for us to ensure that we figure well in the global rankings, it is equally crucial for us to increase our contribution to capacity-building in our neighbouring countries, especially in the African continent where we have historically strong relations. Symbiosis too was established for students from African and Asian countries. As you may know, it was the plight of a Mauritian student which was the catalyst for Chancellor Dr SB Mujumdar to create Symbiosis.
Q3: Given your experience at Symbiosis with foreign students, what, in your opinion, makes India an advantageous country for foreigners?
India’s culture fits in very well with students coming from African and Asian countries. These students usually find it more comfortable to fit in with our culture and lifestyle making their transition into our HEIs and communities much easier and less stressful. For most students from these countries, India is closer to their homes geographically, and feels safer to their parents and families.
Indian higher education is also affordable to these students as compared to the cost in US or UK. India has an amazing breadth of diversity in her food, language, dress, customs, traditions, etc. that students from other cultures find us easier to fit into. Higher education institutes too have a wide range/variety and students can choose wisely as to what suits them from government-aided to deemed and private, from metro to smaller cities, etc. India also has a strong tradition of welcoming international students and scholars into our communities and this continues even today.
Symbiosis has a slight advantage that we were established specifically for foreign students. Our vision is based on Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and dedicated to the promotion of international understanding through quality education. As a result, internationalisation is in our DNA and our processes and policies are designed to be international student-centric.
Q4: What are the opportunities that you see for the universities in India when it comes to hosting foreign students? Could you please share some of the learnings from the experience at Symbiosis?
The biggest benefit to be experienced from the presence of international students on the campus is that of diversity. Our campus becomes a mini world, reflective of the diversity we live with our real lives. The greatest challenge we face today is that of diversity and inclusion; of learning to live harmoniously with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, with diverse ideologies, practices and thoughts. Most conflicts arise due to this discomfort with diversity, of being with people who are not like us, who do not think or act like we do.
International students who come from diverse geographies, cultures and ideologies make the campus and classrooms a laboratory for us to learn. Students tend to be less rigid and more accepting of diversity as they are young, keen to experience the world and also want to travel and be global citizens. We nurture our students to be global citizens and this is possible when they study, live and play with students from across the world and from across India too.
Secondly, a diverse student community automatically ensures that our curriculum is global in its coverage and application as our students will take our education and seek jobs in their home countries or other countries. This is good for us to continuously update our curriculum and education offerings, making our programmes totally relevant universally.
Q5: Often, universities have complained about numerous challenges with respect to having foreign students, especially when it comes to visa, documentation procedures, and so on. What's your take on this?
It is a fact that our visa and other formalities/documentation processes need to be streamlined and simple. They have changed a lot since what they were a few years back but much more needs to be done. If these formalities are made simple, transparent and quick, the impact of student satisfaction will be tremendous.
This is what will lead to students recommending India as a destination to their friends and family. Most students, while happy with their education programmes and institutes, are frustrated with this aspect. We share our feedback with the authorities and are looking forward to these much-needed reforms.
Q6: Since Symbiosis was established for foreign students way back in 1971, is there something distinctive about the way you focus on international students?
We have a dedicated central office called Symbiosis Centre for International Education SCIE that caters specifically to international students. I head this department, which passes a very clear message internally and externally that internationalisation is critical and of utmost importance to the leadership at SIU.
This office works very closely with the International Student Council which is made up of duly elected representatives from the international student community in Pune. This is distinctive about SIU. Symbiosis is a common platform for international students from all educational institutions in Pune.
This is important because Symbiosis is a home away from home for all international students, not just those who study with us. Our scholarships and country-specific programmes are established since long and known to all.
Our ‘buddy system’, international faculty mentors, regular campus meetings, induction, multi-cuisine campus, integrated hostels, curricular and cultural events and teacher training are all part of this focus. Ensuring that our staff and faculty travel abroad regularly for conferences, training, etc also ensures that they are equally comfortable with diversity and the latest trends, making them more effective at inclusionary practices and behaviour.
Q7: What can the average Indian university learn from Symbiosis?
Diversity. Symbiosis is a host to foreign students from 85 countries and from all States of India. This diversity helps students of Symbiosis to grow as better global citizens.
Q8: If you could suggest two critical policy changes that would help make India a hub for global education, what would they be?
1) Change in visa rules to allow foreign students to work in India or at least get a stipend for internships after their graduation. This will attract more foreign students to India.
2) Concerted efforts by the government through Indian missions abroad to promote Indian higher education.
Q 9: Is it not too challenging to expect Indian universities to cater to growing domestic student demand for quality higher education and simultaneously attract international students? Shouldn't we as a country first make our HE system strong and then look outwards?
Universities are Universal and, therefore, they should provide knowledge to not only students from the host country but to any student who wants to seek knowledge. There is a great benefit in having foreign and Indian students studying together at Indian universities. Nalanda and Takshashila were two such great Indian universities that were known globally.