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Straight Talk: International students in China and India - A Brief Comparison

An impressive number of students from India and China head abroad for higher education every year. But the numbers of international students flocking to the two countries are not equally substantial. Why is there such a gap and how can it be bridged? Dr. Pushkar discusses below.
BY Pushkar |   02-08-2016

Over the past decade or so, there has been a significant increase in the number of students who study abroad. In 2000, 2 million students travelled overseas to study; in 2013, their numbers had reached 4.1 million. Students from China and India make up a fairly large share of overseas students.

Each year thousands of young Indians head to foreign shores for college education. Between March 2015 and March 2016, the total number of Indian students in the US shot up by 31 per cent, from 148,360 to 194,438. In all, 360,000 Indians study abroad. While China is way ahead with 700,000 students away in foreign lands, the number of Indian students abroad is growing at a steady clip, and India may overtake China fairly soon.

What is less talked about is the numbers of foreign students who study in India and China. A brief comparison between the two countries reveals stark differences.

Foreign students in India and China
In 2011-2012, the numbers of international students in India was 31,120, which was 20 per cent more than the previous year. However, according to a recent report on foreign students at India’s colleges and universities, their numbers were 31,126 in 2013-2014, down by 6 per over the previous year. The data suggests that overall the numbers of foreign students in India have been flat over the past few years.

What is also striking about the numbers of foreign students in India is that they are quite low, considering that there are 757 universities, 38,056 colleges and 11,922 stand-alone institutions in the country. What is also remarkable is that the number of Indian studying abroad is nearly ten times higher than the number of international students at Indian universities.

The number of international students in China stands at 377,000, the third highest in the world during 2014, behind only the US and the UK, and more than ten times higher than India. Students from China’s neighborhood, including South Korea and Japan, are among those who study there. While South Korean students, along with those from China and India, make up for the bulk of international students in the US, a large number of them have been turning to China for higher education in order to benefit from its spectacular economic growth. But the numbers of American students in China has also grown substantially to 24,000. In fact, the number of Indian students in China has also increased by 50 per cent between 2010 and 2014, from less than 10,000 students to more than 13,500 students. Note that the gap between the number of students heading abroad and the numbers coming in to study is quite small in China in comparison with India.

How has China attracted so many international students?
The economic and military rise of China has been accompanied by a surge in the rise of world-class universities, which dominated the BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings 2016 and have done well in other rankings as well. China has also opened its doors to Western universities such as NYU, and while this arrangement is not without its problems and controversies, it has allowed China to project itself as an emerging powerhouse in higher education, especially in an Asian context. According to Carly Minsky of Times Higher Education (THE), “the dominance of China’s universities in the BRICS & Emerging Economies rankings 2016 highlights a wider trend for international students to consider China’s top institutions alongside leading universities elsewhere in the world.”

The rise of China’s universities in the world, BRICS & Emerging Economies, and Asian rankings and the geographical proximity of relatively prosperous East and Southeast Asian countries are not the only factors that have increasingly attracted foreign students to China. The Chinese government has, in fact, been actively “wooing foreign universities and foreign students” for many years now in order to ‘internationalize’ its universities. This is because internationalization is among the more important indicators used in world university rankings and China has been making a concerted effort to place more of its universities among the world’s top 100 institutions. China awards a large number of scholarships to lure foreign students. Still, a large number of international students go to China only for short term programs and not for degree courses although that may be changing slowly.

The contrast with India is stark. Students from even the South Asian region do not seem to be drawn to study at our universities. Statistically, neighboring countries such as Nepal are the largest suppliers of foreign students but their overall numbers are quite small. Bureaucratic and other hurdles are among the many key factors that discourage students, from neighboring countries and elsewhere, from seeking to study in India. In comparison to China, the quality of education at our universities is also a factor. Finally, we do not have a clear strategy in place to woo international students.

Should India seek more international students?
Policymakers in India have been expressing concern about the poor rankings of India’s universities in world university rankings. There has been talk about improving the overall quality of education and promoting select universities as world-class universities. So far, however, the government’s initiatives have not been successful.

Given that efforts to improve the quality of education, especially research output, have at best been partially successful, the question is whether policymakers are interested in boosting the world rankings of India’s universities by other means as well. If they are, they must become more attentive to the internationalization of India’s higher education.

Internationalization can mean many different things and attracting more foreign students (and faculty) is only one of its components. Still, attracting foreign students is beneficial for host countries in a variety of ways.

In 2015, international students contributed more than $30.5 billion to the U.S. economy. Higher education institutions in London, which has more top-ranked universities than any other city in the world, contributed a net economic benefit of US$3.5 billion to the UK economy. International students are believed to “bring money, skills and jobs.”

For developing countries such as India which host relatively few international students, the economic benefits are minimal. However, India is an emerging world power, certainly a regional power, and it must therefore encourage a larger number of students from South Asian countries to study here by offering them generous incentives. This would, over time, strengthen relations between India and its neighbors and enhance its image and influence. A larger presence of foreign students in a country is not only reflective of a nation’s ‘soft power’—defined by Joseph Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”—but augments it. According to Nye, the sources of soft power lie in “the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.” It is widely acknowledged that China has very consciously promoted internationalization not only to improve the rankings of its universities but also to enhance its soft power.

India’s hard power, its economic and military strength, may impress but is also threatening to neighboring countries. India needs to strike a better balance between its hard power and soft power. While India’s democracy and culture, including movies and music, are all important contributors to our soft power, a robust higher education sector which is open to and attracts students from abroad could become terrifically important for the same reason.

Concluding remarks
It was reported last year that the MHRD under Smriti Irani was preparing for a ‘Study in India’ scheme directed at bringing more international students to India. The new minister Prakash Javadekar should take this seriously and act on it in the coming months. Study in India deserves to become a major higher education initiative. Its success in attracting more international students to India will likely not bring significant economic benefits but it will augment India’s soft power and contribute to better relations with neighboring countries. Internationalization of this kind may also help some of our universities to improve their position in world university rankings.

(This article is adapted from a longer essay published in The Wire).

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


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