1,000 PhD scholarships earmarked for ASEAN students

In what is being billed as its “largest capacity development initiative in partnership with ASEAN”, India will offer 1,000 fully funded scholarships for students from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to do PhDs at the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).

A senior Human Resource Development Ministry official said the government will spend INR 3 billion (about US$42 million), with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi acting as the nodal agency for the programme, which will select 1,000 students over the next three years.

The funding covers the entire cost of study and living expenses for up to five years of their PhD programme.

The first doctoral students from ASEAN countries, who will apply by October this year, will be admitted in January 2020.

"This year 250 students will be selected for the first batch, while 300 and another 450 students will be selected for the second and third batches respectively," a ministry official said.

It is the first time the Indian government is setting up a scholarship scheme specifically for ASEAN students.

By building an active relationship with ASEAN countries, “the idea is to position India’s educational institutions as centres where people come and get premium education at affordable rates,” said R Subrahmanyam, secretary for higher education in the Human Resource Development Ministry.

Such collaborations were important between countries in Asia as “there are serious consequences for societies which are not able to keep abreast with the pace of technological change, let alone to be at the forefront of innovation,” said India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at the launch of the initiative in New Delhi on 16 September, together with Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’.

The minister said PhDs and collaboration would be in cutting-edge areas of technology such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced manufacturing techniques, smart materials, energy-efficient storage, targeted drugs and other fields.

A portal was launched on 18 September to facilitate online applications and admission under the programme. Those selected get a chance to finish their PhD with funding on a par with their Indian counterparts.

Interviews conducted via Skype

Interviews would be conducted over Skype. “We have modified our admissions process, which we need to do to welcome foreigners,” said Director of IIT Delhi Ramgopal Rao.

The IITs are acknowledged to have among the most competitive entrance exams in the world with the joint examination for the 23 IITs attracting some 1.2 million applicants for around 11,000 seats in 2017 – a less than 1% success rate.

Rao said IITs have been keen to improve cultural diversity. “We should have done this 20 years ago,” he added.

Broader collaborations

But the ASEAN PhD initiative extends beyond funding 1,000 students, to much broader international collaborations. “We want to interact with faculty in various countries, institutions in various countries, this is not just a programme where we want to get students, give them a degree and send them back,” Rao said.

He also nodded to international university rankings noting that on research output, IITs were already doing very well by global standards. For IIT Delhi, “if we just had 20% of foreign students and 20% of foreign faculty, we would already have been in the top 100”, Rao said.

ASEAN envoys hailed the initiative. Chutintorn Gongsakdi, Thailand’s ambassador to India, said at the launch that it showed India’s commitment to further its ‘Act East’ policy to sustain the engagement with ASEAN nations and India’s rising power in an evolving Indo-Pacific.

Gongsakdi said: "It's a great initiative and a very magnanimous one. It comes at the correct time. IITs are among the best engineering and technology institutions in the world. They are also among India's most well-known brands.”

He added that the initiative “recognises India’s strengths and ASEAN’s needs going forward amidst the fourth industrial revolution”.