Indian exchange programmes should start at home

Following global trends or fashion, many Indian institutes have set up study-abroad exchange programmes. Far fewer have succeeded in attracting significant numbers of overseas students through similar initiatives. This means that one of the aims of exchange – greater diversity – has not been attained at Indian universities.

Student exchange programmes in India have tended to mean exchange at the international level.

Despite the tremendous language, cultural and social diversity that various Indian states and regions enjoy, both at the interstate and intrastate levels, India has not considered whether there could be more effective, more affordable and more popular national-level student exchange programmes between institutions within the country, particularly in areas such as business studies or other applied academic programmes.

India has more than 30,000 higher education institutes, some 600 universities and more than 3,000 business schools. These institutions are distributed across metropolitan cities, and in second-tier towns and cities as well as in smaller towns, and many even have campuses outside the city in areas that border rural settings.

It is difficult to believe that an MBA student studying in Assam would not benefit from the cultural diversity and sharing of local history, culture and traditions that could come through an exchange programme with an MBA student in Tamil Nadu or with a student from a business school in Gujarat.

The other key objectives of exchange programmes – increased subject knowledge, employability and analytical skills and a greater ability to think independently – depend on the quality of courses offered and the quality of teaching staff.

It could be argued that most Indian institutes offer more or less the same quality of teaching, a standard that places them in the bottom percentile in terms of global rankings.

The important question therefore is how many overseas institutions with links to Indian institutions rank among the global 500 or so, how many Indian students visited quality campuses compared with the number of students who participated in student exchange programmes and what both these figures look like when set against the total number of Indian students in higher education.

National exchange potential

It is true that there are not many social, cultural and historical differences to absorb when a student from a big Indian city like Delhi visits a university in another big city like Mumbai. Although each city has its own culture, globalisation has made almost all large cities similar.

Even languages in Indian metropolitan cities are likely to be similar, as most students are fluent in English and are multilingual.

However, if a student from one of these universities took up an exchange in another, more rurally based institute, a lot of learning could be gained. Rural marketing, rural consumption and many other subjects relevant to India's economy are better understood in such surroundings.

Many students at business schools in India have never travelled beyond their own state. I know of many MBA students who have not been much beyond the Saurashtra-Kutch parts of Gujarat or interacted with other students or faculties in Ahmedabad. And yet there are Indian students who have travelled to other countries, or visited NASA.

The world, for the first group of students, means not even Gujarat, but the area surrounded by Saurashtra-Kutch, where Rajkot is the central hub. Many of these students come from families with a background in farming or small-time trading. They represent a world within Gujarat that differs significantly from the world of Ahmedabad, Baroda or Surat.

Such diversity within many other states of India is not uncommon. Sociologists know that there are many states in India where one part of the state seems to be another nation compared to other parts of that state.

The urban-rural divide, languages, social beliefs, customs and dialects all present more than an international experience within a single Indian nation-state, and this experience can be had at a cost that Indian students can easily afford.

The vast majority of Indian students pursuing a business management degree cannot easily afford the thousands of dollars needed for an overseas exchange programme. Even after graduation most of them do not command the fat salaries that students from the very few top-ranking Indian institutes can.

If The Wall Street Journal is right, barely 29% get a job, and the average salary of such jobs is no more than Rs250,000 (US$5,000) a year. For them, an overseas exchange experience is nothing but a pipe dream.

In the current age, when marketing gimmicks and shortcuts to success are rife, many institutions claim international student exchange programmes to be unique selling points. But knowing that quality is at a premium and how much such programmes cost, the vast majority of students are not tempted by them.

If we Indian academics believe that a homegrown solution to the exchange programme can exist within India, we can collaborate and ensure our students get the flavour of different courses, pedagogy and lecturers along with a different sense of history, culture and local practices at a fraction of the cost of an international programme by leveraging Indian diversity.

This could be truly enriching for students who do not come from elite educational backgrounds or families.

In North America, there is a National Student Exchange programme. However, the diversity it offers might not be as socially, culturally or economically great as what different states in India offer. The government could support students who may not be able to fund such national-level exchange programmes within India.

There are also huge benefits to be obtained from faculty exchange programmes within India, if teaching staff from premier engineering or management schools would teach in second-tier institutes for a semester or so. Similarly, when teaching staff from ‘ordinary’ institutes visit better quality institutions, the practices and processes they encounter could help improve their own institutes.

Need to think out of the box

The Indian educational landscape offers much scope for coming up with out-of-the-box solutions; however, our mentality is to put the blinkers on.

The best practices of the West may not work in a country like India due to the huge socio-economic differences.

In a nation where enough internal opportunities exist, only providing international exchange programmes with institute X from a developed nation, rather than exploring similar opportunities within India, shows our tremendous inability to find effective homegrown solutions.

Various educational scandals in the UK (London Metropolitan University) and in the US (Tri Valley University) highlight our love for the West. It is probably the same sentiments that many Indian institutes try to exploit when they promote exchange programmes with less than top-class overseas institutes.

Yes, the Western world offers lots of economic opportunities, but student exchange programmes are not about such economic opportunities alone, as students have to return to their home country. Exchange programmes have educational value and associated social, cultural value.

Whatever the student exchange programme offers, it can all be done better by Indian institutes coming together and joining hands, while maintaining international exchange programmes with good quality institutes overseas for those students who can afford it.

Of course, a national-level exchange programme is not supposed to be a substitute for international exchange programmes, but could supplement them and be effectively used by a much larger number of students.

As of now, our policy-makers or market forces have only looked at the minority of students’ needs with regard to exchange programmes, seeing them more as a unique selling point, or even as a marketing gimmick, denoting a measure of quality.

Adopting national exchange programmes would not only make exchange accessible to hundreds of thousands more students, but could also help the institutions involved gain a much better and closer understanding of one another.

As most institutes in India operate with single-digit faculty numbers or at best in lower double-digit faculty numbers, such exchange programmes can expose students to different teaching staff, and therefore to different types of pedagogy.

Yes, these teaching staff may not be as good as those at globally ranked institutions, but exposing students to a greater variety of teachers and teaching methods would be a starting point. And to make the programme more effective still, India could also include its neighbours like Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

It is surely an idea worth exploring.

* Ranjit Goswami is professor and director of the school of management at RK University.