Can universities stop decline of Indian student numbers?

There are now as many German students coming to study in British universities as Indian students, a conference in London was told last week.

In just four years, the number of Indian students at United Kingdom universities has halved – from 40,000 to 19,500, Alan Mackay, deputy vice-principal (international) at the University of Edinburgh, told the International Higher Education Forum 2016 organised by Universities UK and its international unit, the UK Higher Education International Unit, on 1 March.

By contrast the number of Indians studying in the United States has risen by 29% since 2010. The number of Indian students is also going up sharply in other countries like Canada, Australia, Germany and France.

Two UK universities, Edinburgh and Aston, were singled-out for swimming against the tide in a session titled "Bucking the trend: UK collaboration with India", chaired by Manjula Rao from the British Council India.

Mackay said: “Edinburgh had 318 Indian students compared with 279 last year, but we see this more as stability than growth.”

Edinburgh’s links with India date back to 1875, the year the university’s first South Asian student society was set up by Indian students.

With just 19,500 Indian students overall in the UK, the number is on a par with German students studying at British universities, he said. “The US has seen the biggest increase in Indian students – up to 102,000, so we now have only a fifth of the number studying in the US,” he said.

Historic links

The key to Edinburgh’s influx, Mackay stressed, was not seeing a country like India purely in terms of student recruitment.

“Five years ago we set up an office in Mumbai, which has been hugely important as a pathfinder.

“Our people are interested in how the Indian education system works and take a cross-cultural approach. We get top academics, students and alumni involved in a range of academic events that are hugely beneficial for us,” he said. “The key is visit, visit and visit again.”

Mackay said between now and 2020, India will require an additional 14 million university places. “The scale is tremendous.”

But the Edinburgh approach is not to build overseas campuses. “We build partnerships instead and develop joint research programmes.”

Among Edinburgh’s more novel approaches to cross-cultural collaboration was the awarding of an honorary degree to Bollywood film star, Shah Rukh Khan. That generated one million hits on Facebook, said Mackay.

Aston University’s pro-vice-chancellor for international relations, Professor Helen Griffiths, told delegates to the London conference that Aston’s undergraduate Indian student numbers were holding up, while postgraduate figures had fallen in line with the overall British picture.

“Five years ago, we founded the Aston Indian Foundation for Applied Research which is very strong in engineering.

“We’ve also continued to engage in educational fairs in India, abandoned by some UK universities. We continue to attend them.”

Visa controls deter students

But she admitted that their agents in India continue to tell her that Indian students are put off coming to the UK by the tightening of immigration controls.

“They tell us the perception that Indian students are not welcome in the UK is still strong and we are having to work hard to get over that.”

Aston University is also working on the Erasmus+ and Erasmus Mundus projects to attract Indian students and is offering as many scholarships as possible through its own Aston Anniversary Scholarships together with the British Council and Commonwealth scholarship schemes.

The university also has good partnerships, said Griffiths, and takes Indian students with a diploma from their home university for the final year at Aston.

Aston University also emphasises work placements as part of its offer, which proves popular with Indian students.

“But the post-study work environment is the problem,” said Griffiths. “We have small and medium sized companies, or SMEs, in the West Midlands that would like to employ international STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] graduates. But because the starting salary is below the level now required by UK regulation, they can’t employ them despite the companies being short of people with STEM skills.”

Mackay agreed and said the lack of flexible post-study work options in the UK was a problem, as is the amount of choice that students now have when thinking of studying abroad.

“It means the decline in Indian students coming to the UK is likely to continue. Students are going abroad, it is just that they are going to different places like the US,” he said.

The British Council is this month publishing the second volume of The Indian States: Opportunities for international higher education collaboration. This will focus on the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, the National Capital Territory of Delhi, Telangana and West Bengal.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist who runs De la Cour Communications. He regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website.

It's not just Indian students that do not feel welcome. It is all non-white non-British students, and there is even growing hostility towards white but non-British students from the EU. All the backward, xenophobic views stem from down South in England; the atmosphere in Scotland is completely different (it is very welcoming, but due to the Tory policies, still suffering).

Christopher Haggarty-Weir on the University World News Facebook page