Internationalisation – What do students think?

‘South to South’ student migration has, arguably, different ‘push and pull’ factors compared with ‘North to North’ (or ‘South to North’) migration. In the former, international students are driven by incentives such as geographical proximity, low fees and cultural similarities.

Against this backdrop, countries like China, India and Malaysia are becoming active players on the global education scene, although India is considerably lagging behind.

India is late to the market – its recent 2018 ‘Study in India’ plan focuses on recruiting international students from neighbouring countries, and Africa in particular, and aims to increase its current number of less than 50,000 international students to 200,000 over the next five years. How realistic is this new policy?

A recent survey of international students in Kerala, one of India’s southern states, provides an insight into the challenges faced.

The centre of Asia

The ‘Kerala model’, which was successfully implemented in the second half of the 20th century, has become a ‘catch phrase’ across India and abroad. The state deserves credit for achieving a 100% literacy rate, socio-economic progress, a strong middle-class community and relative social equality.

In the context of internationalisation, Kerala has multiple advantages, including its safe environment (compared with other Indian states), vast higher education system and rich cultural traditions.

The state is also in a favourable geographic location, being almost at the centre of Asia at the crossroads between Western Asia and South-Eastern Asia. This location provides Kerala with many opportunities regarding intellectual exchange and student mobility within the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

However, Kerala is not yet ready to embark on fully-fledged internationalisation processes on either the academic or social fronts.

In 2017 Kerala hosted just 162 international students, a very small number by any assessment, given that the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, for example, had 7,867 and 2,299 international students respectively in 2014-15.

There are many different reasons for such small numbers, but the main one is a persistent apathy on the part of the local authorities. They are yet to embrace international engagement and the benefits it might bring.

The current scenario is aggravated by the fact that the state’s two main political parties – the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) – are not on the same page regarding internationalisation and inbound student mobility. While the UDF strongly supports international academic exchanges in any possible form, the latter remains apprehensive and-or reluctant to open up to the rest of the world.

For instance, during its tenure (2011-16) the UDF government made substantial efforts in terms of internationalisation of higher education. The most prominent of these were two Global Education Meets conducted in Thiruvananthapuram (in 2014) and Kovalam (in 2016), which served as important platforms for future international engagements.

Those plans were perhaps too ambitious, taking into account the higher education situation in Kerala, especially with regard to quality. It would be difficult to implement plans for ‘academic zones’ and ‘cities with an international outlook’ without addressing existing issues first. Such endeavours sounded almost surreal at the time, and it was strongly felt that it might take years before their actual realisation.

However, Kerala, with all its unique advantages, could certainly aspire to become a hub for international students and contribute substantially to the ‘Study in India’ plan.

Still it would be advisable to take one step at a time, to concentrate on quality issues, to update the curriculum, upgrade teaching methods, adopt the relevant international standards and work on attracting more international students.

In any case, the current LDF government (2016-21) put almost all internationalisation efforts on hold and at present there are hardly any talks among policy-makers regarding internationalisation.

Existing international students

Despite local government’s indifferent attitude, foreign students still choose Kerala as a study destination. They are mainly from Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Kenya and some other East African countries – in other words, the target countries for the national plan. This geographical pattern explicitly represents the student mobility rationale mentioned above.

Undoubtedly, the state government should capitalise on such student inflows as they could eventually bring political and diplomatic benefits within Southern and Western Asia (especially at a time of geopolitical uncertainty within the Asian region as a whole).

Local government could make substantial efforts to attract more international students to Kerala, but societal attitudes towards foreigners also need to change: local people seem to be unaccustomed to the presence of ‘others’ at present. This manifests itself in different forms, from staring to discrimination. Some 24% of the respondents to our survey of international students say they have faced some sort of discrimination in Kerala.

The survey also showed that local food creates a big issue for foreign students studying in Kerala. Some 69% of them find it difficult to adjust to and only South Indian food is available. There is not even anything from Northern India available. There is a definite need to offer different varieties of food.

The survey participants were also asked to share their opinion regarding the curricula at their institutions. Interestingly, more than half of them – 55% – believe that it is internationalised, whereas 40% think that it is either outdated or relevant only in India. Nevertheless, Kerala scored high in terms of the practical knowledge imparted to students – 60% of respondents said they have learnt things that are necessary for meeting life’s challenges.

The majority of respondents were frustrated with their teachers using the local language, Malayalam instead of English. This view was shared by 79% of respondents. This suggests an urgent need to enhance the English proficiency of the academic community in Kerala.

The vast majority of respondents (86%) feel that local people in Kerala are friendly, but at the same time, about 66% of the participants find it difficult to integrate into the local community. Respondents said these difficulties include local people preferring to stay away from foreigners, cultural differences and linguistic barriers. The greatest problem is created by the language barrier.

More than half of international students – 54% – stay in private accommodation. This is in part due to the overall shortage of good-quality hostels provided by the government. Most are not overly concerned about it. Although 45% said their accommodation was just tolerable, 50% said it ranged between ‘satisfactory’ and ‘very nice’.

These are some of the issues that require urgent attention from the local and national authorities if they wish to benefit from internationalisation and student mobility in the long term. The national plan is a good step forward, but the Kerala case shows that it also requires attention and commitment from the different states and their local authorities.

With its unique cultural, social and geographical advantages, Kerala, like other states, could make enormous headway in this regard, provided the existing stumbling blocks are addressed.

Tatiana Belousova is a PhD student in the department of political science at the University of Kerala, India.