The vision of international higher education in India so far has been driven by a perception of the country as a “sending region”, that is, a country from where students go out into various parts of the world seeking study abroad opportunities. Naturally, policy-making has also been geared to this restrictive notion, focusing on ensuring that Indian students are protected from dubious institutions and fraudulent practices. This is set to change with the Government of India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development’s launch of the 'Study in India' campaign. Since its launch in April 2018, the Study in India official portal has received registrations from 160 institutions from across the country, offering some 1500 courses. Under the general scholarship scheme, students from countries in West Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa are eligible for fee discounts. There is, in addition, a dedicated scholarship fund for children of Indian diaspora.
While the Study in India campaign is a step in the desired direction, there is much to be done to fulfil its potential and thoughtful action is needed at various levels. This begins with creating greater awareness about the value that international students bring to the classroom, the education system, the economy and society as a whole. In the classroom environment, the diversity of backgrounds, experiences and views represented by international students facilitates critical thinking and comparative learning for all students. On college campuses, international students allow those Indian students who may never have the opportunity to pursue higher studies abroad, to experience a global environment here at home. This broadens the horizons of domestic students and can have a truly transformational impact. At O.P. Jindal Global University, I have worked with Indian students who have reported as enriching a learning experience as their international counterparts, simply volunteering on short-term programmes designed for the latter. The life-long friendships and professional associations thus formed are a bonus! Although this problem is not currently faced in India, international students have been instrumental in filling the gaps left by demographic change and population ageing in many other parts of the world.
Having established the multi-faceted contribution of international students, what needs to be done to attract more of them to India? There are two fronts on which most of the work needed can be divided – the first is creating the right environment and the second, sending the right message. Many institutions in India are still not at the adequate levels of preparedness to meet the demands of international students. A student who is not familiar with the cultural setting and lacks the requisite experience of getting things done in an unfamiliar cultural and organisational milieu, must rely on a team of individuals within the university to navigate the system for them. This team can be drawn from a mix of qualified staff who are culturally-sensitive and refined communicators as well as students who are friendly and know their way about campus. This team should also be seen as just the initial step; down the line, campus-wise sensitisation and training on pastoral care of international students will be called for. Similarly, for international students to have the positive impact discussed above on the classroom experience and campus life, institutions must proactively facilitate their interaction and integration with local students. In these times of smart phones and social media, it is not unusual that a young Indian has a virtual buddy in Kiev, but is unable to tell whether the student who sits on the bench next to her in class every week is Ukrainian or Bulgarian. Institutions should also bear in mind that students who find options in India attractive may hail predominantly from regions that face adverse exchange rates, affordability issues and political and economic insecurity. Sustained efforts would have to be made to tap philanthropists and other potential sources outside the higher education space that might be interested to contribute to this cause.
The most crucial factor on which the success of Study in India hinges however, is the perception of India as a viable and attractive destination. It is worthwhile recalling that a young student does not base their decision to study abroad on the degree they are going to earn alone. It is the responsibility of the host culture and institution to make the student feel welcome and ensure they have a well-rounded experience. The Government of India will have to do much better to package the overall experience in a way and through the multimedia formats that are accessible and relatable to the prospective international student. The next set of policy reform should be based on a study of the emerging difficulties with accessing higher education in traditionally more popular markets and an attempt made to do away with these challenges in the Indian case. An example of such a measure could be making student visa application processes more straight-forward, predictable and streamlined across all regions. As things stand, a Chinese national applying for a short-term study visa in Beijing can expect rather different wait times and outcomes that a Chinese national applying under the same category in Shanghai.
Cultural Immersion of International Students
Lastly, a word about the cultural immersion of international students. News of simmering resentment against “aliens”, sometimes inspiring xenophobic attacks and hate-crimes is lately coming out of various pockets around the world. Some Indian cities and towns too have witnessed racially motivated incidents of aggression and assault. Student satisfaction is a key predictor of future flows of international students and this will be adversely affected if the causal factors behind such incidents are not addressed. To achieve this, on the one hand, international students must be educated about certain attitudes and mores that they should understand in context and work with. On the other hand, as many avenues as possible should be made available to them to mingle with local communities outside campus, which may include volunteering and contributing to social causes. Service learning is an innovative type of study abroad programme which may either be implemented as a stand-alone or integrated with exchange and degree programmes. This will go a long way in combating any negative perception of international students among local communities and also allow the students a deeper and more broad-based connect with the host society.
If the Study in India campaign is to be elevated to fulfil the strategic agenda of linking young people around the world to the emerging opportunity landscape in India, then nothing short of a multi-level effort that builds on India’s strengths and unique attributes will suffice.