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Straight Talk: India Still has a Chance to Become a Higher Education Hub

Dr. Pushkar discusses how India can emerge as not just a consumer of education but a quality supplier.
BY Pushkar |   21-12-2015

Every now and then, government officials express mild-to-intense enthusiasm about making India a higher education hub. Then, for a long time, no one gets to hear anything on the subject until that next time when some other official brings it up.

An old idea….
The idea of promoting and developing India as a higher education hub is now many years old. For example, the Economic Survey for 2010-11 stressed the need to develop India as a global hub for higher education because it could offer education at competitive prices for students from developing countries as well as from elsewhere. Even before that, there were more than a few passing mentions on the subject. However, to date, there have been no planned and/or concerted efforts at positioning India as a higher education hub. It has always been just idle talk.

During the time in-between, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Singapore, Hong Kong and China have already emerged as good alternatives or even better options than many Western institutions for international students. Back in India, the number of international students, including those from neighbouring countries, has risen far too slowly over the years. In 2000-2001, India hosted approximately 7,000 international students studying in the country; in 2012-2013, the numbers reached approximately 20,000. This increase is lower than the overall growth in international student mobility and counts to only about one-tenths of the number of Indians who study abroad.

….is revived again
There is again fresh talk of developing India as a higher education hub. This time, it is being linked to the entry of foreign universities to the country. The idea is perhaps in part inspired by the emergence of foreign university branch campuses in several Asian and Middle Eastern countries which are now attracting fairly large numbers of international students

Earlier in May, the government took up the UPA’s Foreign Educational Institutions (Regulation of Entry and Operations) Bill, 2010 which had lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha. In a strategy paper, that was shared with the ministries of external affairs and human resource development, and with NITI Aayog, the commerce ministry noted:

  • There is a huge opportunity for foreign institutions to set up campuses in India. Foreign universities along with good quality Indian institutions will attract students and promote India as a hub in Asia for quality higher education and thus increase India's export of education services.

Soon thereafter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself reportedly advised the Ministry of Human Resource Development to seek the Niti Aayog’s opinion on the matter. The Niti Aayog is believed to be preparing a framework for foreign universities to set up campuses in India.

What can the foreign universities bill do?
The foreign universities bill, if approved and properly designed and implemented, may help bolster the supply side of good quality education, an area in which the government’s efforts—such as building new IITs, central universities and other institutions in difficult locations—have been slow and the issue of providing quality education has taken a backseat to simply increasing the numbers of colleges and universities. An improvement to the supply side with respect to quality education will serve at least two important ends.

First, the arrival of branch campuses, whether it is the Americans, British or others, has the potential to slow down the exit of growing number of Indians to universities abroad. In 2014-2015, there was a record 29.4 per cent increase in the number of students headed to the US. In all, 132,888 Indians study in the US alone.

India’s demographic profile, the growing desire among young people to get a college degree, the government’s intent of raising the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER), the lack of interest and/or a coherent game plan on the part of the government (and private providers) to address the higher education needs of the ever--growing young population—in terms of improving access to decent quality education—makes it inevitable that Indian students will continue to head abroad in larger numbers. However, their exit needs to slow down if India is to fully benefit on the backs of its large young population.

According to a study by ASSOCHAM and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Indian students spend USD 6-7 billion (approximately 45,000 crore rupees) per year in foreign countries. Furthermore, many of them choose not to return home, deepening India’s brain drain. More of that money needs to be spent in India, on getting a college degree at universities located here. It is in the interests of the government to take concrete steps to slow down the exit of Indian students to foreign shores.

If the government can bring about real improvements to the supply side, specifically in the quality of education, whether via better governance of public institutions or by creating a less obstructive regulatory environment for private institutions, including foreign branch campuses, it is possible that the exodus of Indian students to foreign universities will slow down. Indians remain cost-conscious and many may choose good Indian universities over expensive foreign ones.

Second, the entry of foreign universities also has the potential to help India’s cause as a higher education hub. If reputed international universities set up branch campuses in India, they may attract students from the South Asian region and perhaps even beyond. The current numbers on international students in India do not look promising. Even as larger numbers of Indians head abroad for higher studies, the number of international students coming to India is growing rather slowly. This is despite the fact that India is the cheapest place for an international student to attend college.

The reasons why relatively small numbers of international students come to India are many. These include the poor quality of education on offer at most universities, the complex set of rules and regulations that discourage international students to study here, law and order problems and the socio-cultural milieu in many parts of the country which is discriminatory or plain racist towards ‘ousiders’. It may be reasonable to assume, however, that improvements in the quality of education can offset somewhat the other problem areas especially if costs are kept competitive.

At the same time, by taking the route of foreign campuses to develop India as a higher education hub, the government appears to be sending the message that our elite institutions, including the IITs, the IIMs and central universities, are not good enough options for international students. This is simply untrue even though India’s universities do not fare well in world university rankings. The IITs, the IIMs and the older, established central universities are fairly well-known outside India. It is the government’s policies that have made it difficult for foreign students to study in India. Furthermore, it is the government’s policies towards elite institutions that are contributing in no small measure to keeping them from getting better. A case in point is the recent controversy regarding the IIM bill.

Not too late?

India can become a higher education hub with its own universities. After all, Singapore and more interestingly, China, have built some excellent universities on their own in addition to encouraging branch campuses. This has allowed them to attract growing numbers of international students. Indeed, more than 13,000 Indians study in China today.

The international higher education market is growing and will continue to in the coming years. So will the numbers of Indians who will attend college. There is every reason for India to become a larger part of international higher education as supplier rather than remain merely a consumer. However, to achieve that, the government needs to get its act together, come up with a plan of action and act on it. Perhaps it is still not too late.

(@PushHigherEd) is Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.


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