Indian Higher Education Institutions: Loser in Global Market

Dr Gursharan Singh Kainth

Director General,
Guru Arjan Dev Institute of Development Studies

India has tremendous potential to attract international students from all over the world. Sadly, our institutions of higher learning have not been able to capitalise on this opportunity. International students are just not applying to Indian universities, recording a drop in the number of enrolments, which reflects the unfulfilled potential of the country’s education system. Apparently, Indian institutions are not fully maximising their potential to be a global campus with diverse students as well as losing out in revenue. Association of Indian Universities (AIU) report entitled Internationalisation of Higher Education in India paints a picture of a continuing dramatic expansion of Indian higher education. Nearly 33 million students enrolled in nearly 800 universities and 40,000 colleges, the Indian system is one of the largest in the world (and currently second only to China in terms of total enrolment). Going by the demographic trends and rapid expansion, it will soon become the single largest system of higher education in the world. Indeed, the Indian government is in the midst of making good on its very ambitious target to increase tertiary gross enrolment ratios to 30 per cent by 2020. That participation rate stood at just under 18 per cent as of 2010 but had climbed to nearly 27 per cent by 2015. As that rapid expansion suggests, the focus in Indian higher education over the past decade has been very much on building capacity and improving access for domestic students. Even so, the AIU aims to call attention to the limited foreign enrolment in Indian institutions. The figure is a far cry from the 4.85 million universities are allowed to enrol. This comes under the policy framework which enables universities and colleges to admit international students up to 15 per cent of their total student cohort. In contrast, India sends the second highest number of its students overseas, data from the Institute of International Education reveals.

According to AIU  institutions are permitted to enrol foreign students up to a limit of 15 per cent of their total enrolment quotas, meaning that Indian universities have the collective capacity to enrol nearly five million foreign students under current rules. This is, however, a highly theoretical ceiling. The total global population of internationally mobile students only recently moved past five million, and AIU survey data makes it clear that Indian universities are attracting only a small percentage of that total.  Based on a survey of member institutions, the AIU calculates total foreign enrolment in Indian higher education at 30,423 for 2015, down slightly from just over 31,000 the year before. This count is based on 341 completed surveys out of a population of 593 potential respondents. The AIU concludes, however, that the completed surveys provide a reasonably complete picture of foreign enrolment, in part by assuming that “all those universities that had international students reported the data and thus those not reporting the data do not have international students on their campuses. However, the most recent UNESCO data suggests that there is some undercounting in the AIU tally. UNESCO puts the total overseas enrolment in India at nearly 42,000 for 2015 – a number that, while substantially different in percentage terms, does not meaningfully alter the findings in the AIU survey.

Overall, AIU describes a pattern of modest inbound growth, from about 8,000 foreign students in 2000 to more than 30,000 as of 2015. This represents a nearly three-fold increase over the 15 years with total overseas enrolment more than doubling between 2005 and 2015. That slow but steady growth of course pales in comparison to Indian outbound numbers over the same period. As of 2016, there were more than 255,000 Indian students enrolled abroad, and India – again second only to China – has been a major driver of growth in international mobility for some years now.

When it comes to inbound though, most foreign students enrolled in India come from other Asian countries. Roughly six in ten overseas students in India are from elsewhere in Asia and another 20 per cent come from Africa. But where the proportion of Asian students is on the rise (up from just under 50 per cent in 2000), the reverse is true for Africa, which accounted for more like 40 per cent of all foreign enrolment in the early 2000s. Table reflects the leading sending markets for inbound students to India as of 2015. As the table indicates, roughly half of India’s foreign enrolment comes from the top five sending markets.

AIU report further reveals that:

  • Just under 72 per cent of all foreign students in India are enrolled in undergraduate programmes. Another 21per cent are studying at the post-graduate level.
  • Male students outnumber females by roughly a 2:1 margin.
  • Foreign enrolment in India is highly concentrated by institution. Only 23 universities report international enrolments of 300 students or more. In fact, the top ten receiving institutions host nearly six in ten of all foreign students in the country. These include Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi with 3,022 students, the University of Pune (1,896 students), and the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences in Bangalore (1,842).

“PIO/NRI” refers to non-resident Indians, that is students drawn from the Indian diaspora that are not permanent residents of India.Source: AIU

“Lack of enough applications from international students was reported to be a major stumbling block as over 58.93 percent of the universities reported they do not receive enough number of quality applications from international students. Other major stumbling blocks to the internationalisation of India’s higher education sector include:

  • Difficulties in recognising equivalent international qualifications (26.79 percent)
  • Lack of residential accommodation for international students (22.32 percent)
  • Difficulties in obtaining visa for international students (20.54 percent)

OP Jindal Global University reported safety and security in India are other causes of concern, while Maharishi Markandeshwar University feels the difficulty in finding sponsorship is a major obstacle. This means Indian institutions are not fully maximising their potential to be a global campus with diverse students as well as losing out in revenue.

“India has tremendous potential to attract international students from all over the world. Sadly, our universities have not been able to capitalise on this opportunity,” the report said. While it wouldn’t be realistic for India to aim to get 4.85 million into its universities – data from the Institute of International Education recorded only around one million international students worldwide in 2015/16 – the report is urging for the institutions, regulatory bodies and the government to aim for a “more pragmatic 10 per cent of the global outflow”.

While India has seen a massive increase in the number of international students since 2000 – a mere 7,791 then – there were only 30,423 international students in 2014, according to the Association of Indian Universities’ annual report. The figure is a far cry from the 4.85 million universities are allowed to enrol. This comes under the policy framework which enables universities and colleges to admit international students up to 15per cent of their total student cohort.

The AIU is not subtle in expressing its views on the current state of internationalisation in Indian higher education. It is “concerned about the low numbers of international students in our campuses,” notes the report, which adds that India’s global market share is “abysmally low at only 0.61per cent.”The result, AIU adds, is that Indian universities “are losing out on the advantage of not only generating some revenue but also of making their campuses diverse.”The AIU notes as well that many Indian institutions are simply not actively engaged in international student recruitment at this point. (Only about six in ten universities indicate any sort of active marketing or promotion in international markets.) To help build the country’s share of internationally mobile students, the report calls for a national international education strategy, and for greater collaboration between the various levels of government and international educators in India and abroad.

Globally investment in higher education lead to new areas of competition and act as an impetus for every stakeholder towards improving standards of excellence to compete in the global market. India should strive to become a global hub for higher education and attract students from developed countries to gain “economically” and start “get a soft power engagement with the world. India can be a hub for higher education in the world. People will come not just from developing countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, but from United States for education. The American higher education market is extremely expensive and India with its advantage of the English language, very good engineering and finance education can do this and it is possible – a foreign exchequer spinner. This is going to give a soft power engagement with the world. Historically, countries performing economically very well, have done this typically.

The imperative demands to narrow compartmentalization and look forward to a more interdisciplinary set-up with a well-coordinated interaction, both within and outside the university. Indian higher education policy is to develop our capacity to share and generate knowledge regionally and internationally. The mix of the home and international community within the university will help to enrich the academic environment and best serve the larger vision of higher education in India to evolve into a global hub. International students bring with them varying cultures and ethos which make the rich Indian culture even richer and helps cross-border integration. India has a room for all faiths, languages, and people. And dialogue across cultures in the academy becomes a humanizing agency of beneficial social consciousness, thereby enhancing the idea of wider social concerns and effects. Today’s Global village is indicative of changing ethnic and cultural contours, where expatriate aloofness has to give way to plural cultural kinship and a universal vocabulary of a literary community belonging to many nations. Changing scenario of higher education require serious thinking on what are the various aspects of excellence and how best to achieve them. Apart from excellence in institutions, international standards in research as well as promotion of creative ideas and innovative interaction among teachers and students beyond borders is vital to the vision for a more prosperous and peaceful tomorrow in the globalised environment.

There is a dire need to go to the roots of the problem of the ever-diminishing of overseas students in Indian Universities. Need of the hour is to evolve a coherent - consistent policy, both at the college and university level. An objective assessment of the problems faced by overseas students is needed so that sufficient improvements can be made in various areas to finally have an impact on changing scenario where there seems to be hardly any encouragement given to overseas students.

The admission process in our universities needs simplification. The condition to qualify the entrance test should be waived off because it is difficult for a non-English speaking country student to clear the entrance examination and this also discourages many to apply in Indian Universities. Moreover, the physical presence of the overseas students applying to a course should not be necessary. International students should be allowed to apply for admission and also pay their admission fee online. They should be informed by post or email of their eligibility subject to the conditions that the original certificates shall be verified before s/he is allowed to join the department. Additionally 10 per cent seats may be reserved for international students in every department. A single window system can remarkably facilitate the admission procedures of overseas students. The long-stranding demand for a separate transit hostel or a mess that caters to an intercontinental community has been on the anvil without seeing the light of day. Apparently, the will to become an international university with students and teachers interacting from different nationalities seems to be a low priority of our regulatory bodies.

The focus, therefore, has to reflect on the rich extra-curriculum and social life of our country, and give the international community a lively sense of daily experience that generations of undergraduates and graduate students share. The bonds of ethnicity and culture, which hold together Indian must remain as enduring as ever. To achieve this, the university has to work in partnership with educational organizations around the world and be ready to take necessary steps to achieve a close working relationship through exchange programmes. International competitors are made our close collaborators. Renewing links with universities around the world can bring together active citizens who become strong agents or ambassadors of change. For this, we must identify the world-class institutions from which we can gain in our enterprise of both teaching and research. Adequately advertisement are made abroad of our international standards and the academic standing of our faculty. Undoubtedly, over the years, there has been a steady progressive improvement in various areas of teaching and research and some universities in India have been playing a leading role in this region contributing to the intellectual life of generations of students both from India and abroad.

Dr Gursharan Singh Kainth

Director General,
Guru Arjan Dev Institute of Development Studies
Majitha Road, PO Naushera,
Amritsar, Punjab.

A recipient of a Cultural Doctorate of Philosophy in Economics from USA. He is an active member of various professional bodies, namely —

  • Indian Society of Agricultural Economics,
  • Indian Society of Agricultural Marketing,
  • Indian Institute of Public Administration,
  • Agricultural Economics Research Association (India) and so on. 

Among other things, he has participated and presented papers at various international/national/regional seminars, conferences, etc. He was a member of the Academic Council of the Punjab Technical University, Jalandhar. There are about 200 research papers published in internationally renowned journals and 15 research monographs in the collection of an unwearied researcher. During his three decades of professional experience, he has also written, co-authored, or edited 15 books that have been well received and highly acclaimed. He received many awards, including Guru Dronacharya Samman, Vijay Rattan Award, among others.

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