Indian higher education is widely recognized and respected across the globe despite none of its higher education institutions being in the top 100 of World University Rankings. The paucity of suitable infrastructure and physical facilities along with the self-imposed rigidity in the processes of teaching, learning, admission, evaluation, etc. is responsible for discouraging the foreign operations by Indian universities. Given the international reputation of Indian higher education and the comparative cost advantage that they enjoy, it should not be difficult for universities and colleges to attract students from developing and less developed countries. This will require certain policy initiatives on the part of the government as well as at the end of individual universities and colleges. Fortunately, NEP 2020 supports and promotes the idea.
Going abroad for higher education has long been an aspiration of students from underdeveloped and developing countries. Earlier on, one agency or the other used to finance their studies. In the case of students from countries like India where sufficient facilities for higher education existed, students were motivated to go abroad in search for quality higher education and mostly availed one or the other type of scholarships and fellowships meant for the meritorious. Keen on attracting talent, the international universities too provided assistantships, scholarships, and postdoctoral opportunities.
In the countries where facilities of higher education were less developed, the governments used to finance their citizens for higher education abroad. At times, students would self-finance their higher education by earning through teaching assistantships or on or off-campus jobs. International students were generally known for their dedication and diligence and were a source of pride for their universities. They were seldom seen as a source of revenue. Things have changed a great deal since then.
Developing countries are now seen as a huge higher education market, making foreign universities from developed countries compete for a higher market share. The inclusion of education as a trade-in service in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) under World Trade Organisation (WTO) has formalized the process.
The internationalization of Higher Education is now recognized as one of the most distinguished features of the 21st Century. This recognition is based primarily on four premises – economic gain; supplying a skilled workforce to meet the global requirements; creating, synthesizing, and applying knowledge for the overall welfare of human beings suitable to the multi-cultural environment; and preparing for global citizenship. Internationalization of higher education is a multifaced process but is often quantified in terms of the number of international students that the higher educational institutions of a country can attract. Additionally, the number of campuses abroad and the export of courseware and other education-related services are also counted as success stories for internationalization.
Indian higher education is widely recognized and respected across the globe, despite the fact that none of our higher educational institutions (HEIs) is amongst the top 100 of the world university rankings. A good number of Indian universities are represented through their students in most universities, either as students or as faculty members or both. Indian faculty members in foreign universities are respected for their teaching and research abilities while students abroad are rated at least at par with the best students from anywhere in the world. Besides, a comparison of the cost of tuition and living expenses in India with those in the developed countries indicates that India has a tremendous comparative cost advantage over other countries.
It is, therefore, distressing that the number of international students in India has remained extremely low despite enabling policy framework and several initiatives taken at the governmental level. Promotion of Indian Higher Education Abroad (PiHEAD) in 2004 could not make any significant dent. The Study in India (SII) program launched in 2017, though an excellent initiative to serve as a single-window source of information and admission facilitation for international students, could attract no more than 2000 international students against the targeted 18,000. Taken together the number of international students in India is as yet no more than 49,243 as against the targeted 200,000 in the short-term and 500,000 in the medium term.
Perhaps, India has its domestic, cultural, political, philosophical, and socio-economic reasons for being slow in responding to the process of Internationalization. Therefore, it could not reap the benefits of internationalization of higher education to its fuller potential. Apparently, most of the higher educational institutions in India, barring a few notable exceptions, have not been able to capitalize on the opportunities of offering their educational programs to the world population in any significant manner. The reasons could be manifold. Higher educational institutions in India may not have realized the importance of opening their doors to foreign clientele.
The inherent limitations of the system may also be holding the universities back or making their attempts to reach out to foreign clientele less successful. Quite often the restriction of territorial jurisdiction of individual universities is seen as a barrier in their effort to go international. Sometimes the limitations could be as basic as the lack of appropriate information about the Indian campuses available to the foreign students. The paucity of suitable infrastructure and physical facilities may also be a deterrent. But, most importantly, it is the self-imposed rigidity in the processes of teaching, learning, admission, evaluation, etc. that are responsible for discouraging the foreign operations by Indian universities.
Indian higher educational institutions should urgently start marketing their programs abroad with the twin objectives of generating additional resources and developing stronger relationships with the other countries of the world. It is high time that the universities develop an international orientation to their working and operation. The agencies responsible for the management of higher education institutions must ensure that the systemic hurdles in the way of internationalization of Indian higher education are removed without any further delay. To this end, we may adopt the following strategy to achieve the twin objectives of attracting foreign students to Indian campuses; and enabling Indian universities to reach out to foreign countries. The National Education Policy (NEP 2020) promises to restore India to its ancient glory of being the ‘Vishwa Guru‘ and to enact enabling legislation permitting Indian higher educational institutions to set up campuses abroad. The grapevine has it that an institution of national importance is now being permitted to set up a campus in the middle east. It is the same institution that was pulled into controversy in 2014-15 for taking the initiative to set up a campus in Mauritius.
Attracting foreign students, including Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) and Non-Resident Indians (NRI), to Indian campuses is perhaps the easiest. Given the international reputation of Indian higher education and the comparative cost advantage that they enjoy, it should not be difficult for universities and colleges to attract students from developing and less developed countries. Even for students from developed countries, Indian universities and colleges may offer courses on culture, religion, music, etc. that are in great demand in the students from such countries. This will require certain policy initiatives on the part of the government as well as at the end of individual universities and colleges. Fortunately, NEP 2020 supports and promotes the idea.
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NEP 2020 mandates that all higher educational institutions in the country must have an international students’ office, though most universities already have the office of the dean or advisor of foreign students and coordinators of international affairs. Quite often these offices are merely responsible for ensuring equivalence and overseeing the stay of foreign students on the campus. These offices need to become more proactive and professional and assume the responsibility of marketing their programmes of studies to overseas students, processing the admission and visa applications, facilitating the accommodation arrangements and overall wellbeing of international students.
At the same time, international students must not be seen only as a source of revenue. Overseas students must rather be viewed as the potential cultural ambassadors of India in their own country. Thus, a more sensitive approach towards the foreign students needs to be taken to make their experience memorable and learning worth the time and cost. Universities could organize orientation programs for them to make them at ease and acclimatized to cope with cultural shock and help them adjust to a new environment.
At times, rigidity in the teaching-learning process and curricula is a major deterrent for international students. It may be hoped that the NEP 2020 prescriptions for making the curricula flexible and modular may make the higher educational environment more conducive to international students. Rigidity in accepting credits for the courses taken elsewhere has also been a deterrent. Hopefully, this too would be addressed substantially with the introduction of the Academic Bank of Credit (ABC).
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NEP 2020 seeks to encourage Indian higher educational institutions to establish campuses abroad. This is easier said than done and requires structural changes in the governance and administration of the higher educational institutions. Universities need to learn from the experiences of some of the private and deemed universities which already have branch campuses abroad. Besides, a fair degree of autonomy may have to be granted to the overseas campuses in academic, administrative, and financial matters.
Finally, a singular factor that can go a long way in attracting international students is promoting the overall quality across all higher educational institutions. A few islands of excellence in the sea of mediocrity may not help in achieving the targeted goals. Ubiquitously, the good ones have limited capacity and are highly selective, while no one would want to study in the bad or poor quality higher educational institutions.
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About the author
Dr. Furqan Qamar is a former Advisor (Education) in the Planning Commission of India. He has been the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Rajasthan and Central University of Himachal Pradesh. Dr. Qamar is currently the Professor of Management at the Centre for Management Studies (CMS), Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), New Delhi.