INDIA: Reforms to attract more international students

India is planning reforms to make the experience of studying at the country's institutions more enjoyable, as it aims to increase the number of international students.

The National Knowledge Commission has strongly advocated increasing the number of international students, which it says will enrich the academic environment, enhance quality and be a significant source of finance.

A government committee has already suggested extra help with English proficiency classes, online entrance examinations for some courses to enable more students to apply, additional funds to build hostels, and mandatory health insurance for self-financing international students.

The committee has also suggested streamlining the process of visa extensions, as this requires some students to return home and apply to Indian missions in their respective countries.

"Granting a visa for [the] entire study period will help," said Sekar Viswanathan, Vice President of the Vellore Institute of Technology in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The university has close to 1,000 international students, of whom 359 are Chinese.

A committee led by the Ministry of External Affairs will look into issues related to the welfare of foreign students, including health safety, security, easy credit transfers, problems relating to the use of Hindi and other regional languages in some universities, and assimilation into Indian culture.

A mechanism for keeping track of international students through a standardised system of verification of documents is also on the cards.

According to the Association of Indian Universities, the number of international students has risen from a little over 13,000 in 2004-05 to more than 21,000 in 2007-08. While most students are from Asia, especially countries in South Asia, Africa sent some 2,000 students.

However, these numbers are insignificant compared to the number of international students studying in other Asian countries.

Singapore had 80,000 international students in 2006 and aims to raise this number to 150,000 by 2015. China received 190,000 overseas students in 2007 and has set a target of 500,000 by 2020.

While the Indian government has stopped short of setting target figures, it hopes changes in the admissions process, improvements in education infrastructure and an emphasis on academic support will encourage more international students to come.

All universities have been asked to provide or strengthen existing English proficiency classes for international students.

"We have seen that low proficiency in English leads to below-par performance in examinations. Also many students are not aware about the standards or formats of Indian universities and are struggling to cope. We are working on a proposal to set up a screening examination as an entry requirement," said a vice-chancellor who did not want to be named.

Vasudha Garde, who is head of international admissions at the University of Pune, which attracted the maximum number of international students in 2007-08, said students came because of the quality of courses.

"Quality education is the most important factor. We have a streamlined admission procedure, a single window system and provide adequate academic support for our international students. We don't have to market our university."

However, lack of infrastructure and adequate support facilities in most public universities, even leading ones like Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, are thought to discourage international students.

"Students expect international standards," said Viswanathan of the Vellore Institute of Technology. "We ensure the entire experience of studying with us is a good one."

Unlike most government universities, Vellore provides fully furnished air-conditioned accommodation and offers a variety of cuisine. Moreover, periodic reports of academic performance, information and updates about the university are regularly emailed to parents.

Viswanathan said the state could do more to attract international students. "The government should also provide scholarships for international students and provide partial funding to institutions for developing research, infrastructure and facilities. Government could also support universities in international marketing to attract foreign students."