INDIA: Students drawn to study overseas

More than six decades after India won its Independence on Gandhi's principle of 'Swadeshi' or self-reliance, an ever-increasing number of Indian students are going abroad for their education. Indeed, more go overseas for higher education than from any other country.

One such is Venkatasubramanian Viswanathan, a bright young fellow who finished all his courses in the five-year dual degree in mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, in three years. Viswanathan was shuttling between Stanford and Chennai in the last two years while waiting to receive his degree.

A Nobel laureate in chemistry was keen to have him join his group at Cornell University, where he had applied for a place in the engineering school's doctoral programme, and was calling him on the telephone every other day. That speaks volumes about the strength of the American higher education system. Once talent is located, universities will go to any length to bring it to their campus. Finally though, Viswanathan decided to join Stanford although he will be working in three laboratories in Europe before the semester commences in the US.

In 2006, some 123,000 Indian students were studying in foreign universities and there are several reasons for this exodus. First, Indian universities do not have the places to accommodate all those who apply, especially in professional courses. For a country of more than 1.1 billion people, there are only 400 universities and last month, more than 311,000 candidates took the entrance examination to win one of the 6,872 places in the seven Indian Institutes of Technology and a few other institutions.

Second, because of India's caste-based reservation system, about 50% of places - or as high as 69% in the southern state of Tamil Nadu - are reserved for students from underprivileged and backward castes. So a large number of bright students belonging to the upper castes do not get places in courses and institutions of their choice.

Third, overseas education is perceived to be superior to that provided by most Indian institutions and is valued highly in the job market. Americans now worry the US is gradually losing ground to other countries, especially China and India, when it comes to the quantity of degree-seeking engineers and scientists: the US National Science Foundation has estimated that China and India turn out 200,000 and 125,000 engineers annually leaving America far behind with a meagre 70,000.

Yet Indian students flock to American universities for their masters and Ph D degrees, especially in engineering; all the Indian institutions put together award fewer than 800 engineering PhDs annually whereas about 400 Indians win these PhDs from US universities alone. India's best engineering institutions, the IITs, are unable to attract their own graduates to their masters and doctoral programmes: only 1% of the graduating BTech class opts for MTech and only 2% of the graduating MTech class go on to do a PhD, says a recent report, while larger numbers go abroad mainly to US universities.

Fourth, unlike in the past when Indian students went to overseas universities only if they were assured of a scholarship, now middle-class parents are willing to support their children's education in universities abroad and banks provide educational loans at attractive interest rates.

America remains the big attraction and more Indian students go there than to all other countries combined. In 2006-07, India led the place of origin for international students in the US with 83,303 (an increase of 10% from the previous year's more than 76,000), says the Open Doors 2007 report of the Institute of International Education.

China was second with 67,723 (up 8%), South Korea was third with 62,392 (up 6%), Japan was fourth with 35,282 (down 9%) and Taiwan was fifth with 20,094 (up 4%). This was virtually an Asian invasion of American academia and was the sixth consecutive year that India had sent the most students to the United States, ever since it overtook China in 2002.

Statistics compiled by the institute indicate that about 18% of Indian students in the US are enrolled in undergraduate degrees, less than 10% register for a doctoral programme while nearly three-quarters are undertaking a masters course.

In 2006-07, there were just under 24,000 Indian students in the UK compared with 50,000 students from China. Other destinations include Australia, New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, Germany and Russia.

India is second only to China in the number of students enrolling for courses in Australian universities where 43% pursue business administration and management, followed by computer science and information systems, medicine, nursing and health services. In contrast, Indian students numbering more than 1,500 at the University of Southern California, or 9% of all graduate and professional school students at USC, are concentrated in engineering and its computer-related classes.

As many overseas universities depend on revenue from foreign students and as they see India as a great catchment area, teams of university administrators and professors from many countries come to India to conduct awareness and recruitment sessions in different cities.

The British Council arranges several such sessions every year and also has a special education desk in each of its libraries. Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries woo Indian students to pursue medical and engineering education. Last year, US Under-Secretary of State Karen Hughes went to India to persuade Indian students to study in America.

In the past, a majority of students enrolled in the US stayed on after graduating but now, with the Indian economy booming, more and more are returning home either immediately on finishing their studies or after gaining some work experience. The return is facilitated by multinational companies and research laboratories setting up offices in India.

For its part, India also trains a few overseas students. Many African leaders, including presidents and prime ministers, have earned degrees from Indian universities but the number is rather small. Currently, India has only 27,000 foreign students compared with about 300,000 in Australia. With some effort India can emerge as an attractive destination for students not only from developing countries but also the more advanced.