Why is it that India exports students to the world, but is unable to import those from abroad to boost its educational brand equity?
This, and much more were debated by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in a recently held programme, a report of which has just been presented to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has given a lot of attention to improving the higher education scene in the country.
Unprecedented levels of academic and financial autonomy to IIMs, graded autonomy to institutions of higher learning based on performance, freeing top 20 institutions — 10 public and 10 private — the so-called ‘Institutions of Eminence’ from regulatory control, launching Massive Open Online Courses (MOCCs) under SWAYAM initiative where teachers of top institutions provide free courses, seven new IIMs, six new IITs, a Higher Education Funding Agency to give financial support to institutions for infrastructure development, setting up a Higher Education Regulatory Council, the National Testing Agency and so on.
Towards the end of its first term, the BJP government announced ‘Study in India’ (SIA) programme to attract foreign students. India is home to more than 40,000 foreign students.
The number of Indian students in foreign countries is more than seven lakh. SIA was an important initiative in bridging this gap. It envisions to increase foreign student strength in India to over two lakh by 2023.
To aid the government in achieving this objective, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) under the leadership of its President Dr Vinay Sahasrabudhe organised a national conference, titled ‘Destination India - Making India the Preferred Hub of Education’, on 28 and 29 January at Symbiosis International University, Pune.
Leading educationalists, stakeholders from the industry, and other policy experts discussed ideas to achieve the objective of making India one of the leading hubs of education for foreign students.
ICCR is a cultural extension of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and has a rich history of more than 60 years in promoting India as a soft power through cultural and educational interactions across the globe.
As of now, the ICCR offers 4,000 scholarships to foreign students per year.
On Day 1, various stakeholders tried to assess the current standing and perception of India. Dr Vidya Yeravdekar, Pro Chancellor of Symbiosis International University said the main problem with Indians was that “we don’t like to market ourselves.”
“On education, the perception has become that it should be charity. While not commercialisation, I am happy the government is thinking of marketing India’s higher education,” she added.
Amit Khare, Secretary, Human Resource Development (HRD), pointed out how courses in Indian universities are more India-centric while in countries like the US, the course structure has global flavour.
“Now that the institutions have got much more autonomy, they should think along those lines,” he said.
Akhilesh Mishra, who has served as a diplomat in various countries and is currently the Director-General at ICCR, shared feedback that ICCR has received from students who are studying on its scholarship in Indian universities.
“From 4,000+ international students who are pursuing studies here on ICCR scholarship, 93 per cent said they will really recommend their friends and relatives to study in India. 85 per cent of students wanted to further study in India,” he told the audience. However, he also highlighted some negative points raised by these students.
These are: quality of teachers, labs, quality of food served in college canteens and mess, lack of extracurricular activities, etc.
“There are some unscrupulous universities and elements which take in foreign students. They aren’t capable of hosting them and don’t have basic facilities. A great damage is being done to India’s image due to this. Some screening system should be evolved where such universities are not allowed to host foreign students,” Mishra said.
The idea to have world-class infrastructure such as hostels and messes was recommended. On this, Mahesh Panchagnula, Professor of Applied Mechanics, IIT Madras, said that ‘rather than thinking of building quality hostels for international students, we should aim for having all hostels of international standards so that all students benefit.’
Sandeep Goyal, who is looking after the execution of the government’s ‘Study in India’ programme, gave a detailed presentation on the same, describing the efforts being made to attract foreign students.
The government is giving 2,500 scholarships up to $3,500 per year to foreign students to study in India’s top 100 institutions with 31,000 available seats across 2,600 courses.
Professor Panchagnula also raised an important point that India should focus more on attracting foreign faculties than foreign students.
“If I have to place my money, I would put it on International faculty rather than international students. The seventh pay commission salaries are very attractive and anyone outside India will jump at the opportunity to teach here,” he said.
On the poor showing by Indian universities in prestigious World Rankings, Professor Panchagnula said that it’s primarily because the way universities are structured in India are very different from how they are in the US or in other western countries.
“Why are Indian institutions not in the famous world rankings? Our institutions were set up differently from Western ones - IIMs, IITs, IISc, etc have expertise in one area and their rankings in their expert areas is very good. So, rather than comparing university rankings as a whole, the better way is to compare where IITs feature in Engineering rankings, IIMs in management rankings and so on,” he said.
Prof MM Salunkhe, Vice-Chancellor of Bharati Vidyapeeth gave a presentation on Study in India rich with data. He informed that almost 25 per cent of international students in India are from Nepal, whereas 28 per cent of Indian students go to the US.
Given India’s regulatory cholesterol which infects all parts of the bureaucracy, it was obvious for the stakeholders to discuss ways to enhance the quality of regulations. Some students from Africa in the audience had raised a critical issue of FRRO.
“There isn’t enough information about it and the system makes it very hard to register yourself. Then the students are fined heavily for non-compliance. This is a big reason why African students in India have reduced in number in the past one decade. The red tape and the costs attached to it are very frustrating,” one management student from Tanzania, who didn’t wish to be identified, told Swarajya.
Every foreign student is required to register himself with the FRRO within 14 days of his arrival in India.
Dinesh Adhikari, deputy director at the Ministry of Home Affairs, informed the audience that FRRO is a huge issue but it can’t be done away with.
“Around 71,000 foreign students came to India in 2018. In 2019, the number was over 75,000. But the number of students who register themselves are a little over 7,800.”
Adhikari said that having a record of students who are in the country on student visa is critical to national security. He suggested that to improve compliance with FRRO, one solution could be that instead of students going to FRRO, institutions can take the responsibility of registering foreign students. They can have an office in the campus for this purpose, he said.
Dr Rajani Gupte, Vice-Chancellor of Symbiosis International University, highlighted the plight of foreign students who take courses like Nursing, where the Nursing council doesn’t give them certificates of course completion.
“As a consequence, these students go back to their countries and have to redo the course there which doesn’t reflect well on the standing of Indian courses and their credibility is reduced,” she said.
At the end of the conference, a detailed report was prepared collating all the suggestions and recommendations reached at by various stakeholders - foreign students, leading educationists representing top universities in the country, bureaucrats in charge of various departments.
ICCR President Dr Vinay Sahasrabuddhe called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 10 February (Monday) and presented him a copy of the report.