India losing out as South Asia students turn to China

China is beginning to attract more students from India’s neighbouring countries than India itself, despite India’s advantages in proximity, culture and the English language in higher education, say the authors of a new report by think tank Brookings India, who say this could reduce India’s regional soft power and higher education attractiveness.

In the past five years (2014-19), the growth in the South Asian student population at Indian universities and colleges has plateaued, notes the report titled Is India Still the Neighbourhood’s Education Hub? released last month, while the number of inbound students from India’s neighbourhood to China has increased by 176%. Numbers coming to study in China rose from 6,879 in 2011 to 18,966 in 2016.

Historically, India has been the destination of choice for students from the region – from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

With the exception of Pakistan, which has a particularly close relationship with China through the latter’s Belt and Road Initiative and a fraught relationship with India including military conflicts, “almost every country in the South Asian region now sends the same number or more students to China as to India,” the report says.

In 2016, for example, there were three times more Bangladeshis studying in China (4,900) than in India and 17 times more students from Myanmar in China than in India.

China is not just a draw for students, but “India is rapidly losing attractiveness for students from neighbouring countries”, said report co-author Constantino Xavier of Brookings in New Delhi.

“We’ve seen a massive dip in the year-on-year growth of students coming into India from South Asia,” says co-author Geetika Dang, research analyst at Brookings India. “Given the cultural proximity, it really stands out.”

While students from South Asian countries excluding Pakistan still constitute half of the total foreign student population of 47,427 in India, annual growth in the number of foreign students in India from the neighbourhood has decreased from 30% year-on-year growth in 2013 to just 9% growth last year. Year-on-year growth plateaued to zero growth in 2017-18.

“These patterns – and cultural indicators – speak volumes about the subtle power shift currently underway in the South Asian region,” the report notes, adding that attracting more South Asian students to India could advance the country’s foreign policy goals as well as furthering its role as a higher education hub.

Pakistan accounts for approximately 50% of all South Asian students in China or 18,626 students out of a total 37,592.

Apart from Nepal, which accounts for 27% of foreign students in India, mainly because of fee waivers and around 3,000 Ministry of External Affairs scholarships allocated to Nepal, only slightly more than one-fifth of the total foreign student population in India or just 10,557 students now come from neighbouring countries excluding Pakistan.

The report uses figures from the All India Survey on Higher Education reports published by India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development, based on voluntary reporting by universities – and in 2018-19 this had a voluntary participation rate of around 94%. For China, statistics are from the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ ChinaPower Project under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The slow growth in the number of students from South Asia and the rest of the world can be attributed to a variety of reasons ranging from a lack of institutional quality in India to logistical concerns with regard to a dearth of facilities for foreign students,” the report says. Quality of life in many Indian cities is seen as low.

Main reasons

“We found a mix of reasons, including regulatory and visa hurdles, but none is more significant than the quality of higher education,” Xavier notes pointing to significant Chinese investment in higher education quality, including many programmes taught in English.

“China tremendously stepped up the amount of scholarships for students from South Asia, but in the end, it’s quality and cost competitiveness that really explains the variation in the country’s attractiveness to foreign students,” Xavier told University World News.

Despite huge investment by China in campus facilities and in attracting foreign students, Xavier notes that the key question is “not so much what is China offering but the opposite – Why are they not coming to India?”

He says the Indian government has simply not made the effort to focus on attracting foreign students or internationalising universities. “This is a larger issue about internationalisation of higher education and about the benefits of internationalisation. The thinking is not there, and that is my conclusion – that this has not been a priority for the Indian government,” Xavier says.

Over the years India has failed to provide separate infrastructure or separate facilities to attract international students and students from the region. But it has also not done any “proper analysis based on data and surveys on who the students are that are coming and what they are looking for,” says Xavier.

“We don’t know what Nepali students are coming for; we don’t know why Bangladeshi students are going to Australia and not to India – this is exactly what the Indian government should be asking itself and should be surveying that population to find out those answers and then make a proper strategy in terms of targeting them and offering them what they are actually not getting in India.”

Regulatory obstacles

Instead Xavier points to “tremendous regulatory obstacles”, such as the difficulty in getting visas. “It’s even difficult to find out which universities offer which degrees, so it is a lack of information often.”

Except for a dozen or so very active private universities, “the majority of the smaller colleges or universities do not have an active outreach programme internationally and they don’t recognise the benefit of the foreign exchange potential of attracting foreign students,” Xavier says.

The problems precede the current government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Xavier says. “There has been significant continuity in this lack of strategic thinking about higher education in the country which predates the current government,” he adds.

India’s ‘Study in India’ promotion campaign was allotted some funding for overseas outreach activities, but its main thrust was to invite Indian universities to provide fee discounts to foreign students.

Co-author Dang describes the Study in India programme as a failure. “We have not found any information that any university is willing to offer any discounted fees just because of the Study in India campaign,” she says.

The report recommends more fee subsidies for PhD students from neighbouring countries, preferential treatment compared to students from other regions for post-study employment visas to stay and work in India, and more collaborative research projects.

“The University Grants Commission should prioritise joint research projects and academic partnerships with universities in neighbouring countries. Hard infrastructure is urgent but not sufficient for India to win over hearts and minds in neighbouring countries. Enhancing educational connectivity should be a key priority if India wishes to retain its role as the region’s intellectual hub,” Xavier says.

Xavier adds that with the coronavirus pandemic, however, “proximity may become more salient and may benefit India more than China, Australia or Japan or the universities further away”.

“The questions of distance, transportation, worries of parents and in the farther away [countries] rather than next door – that may benefit India or may be a blessing in disguise over the next one or two years,” he said. Though it also depended on how countries were dealing with the crisis and and how soon they get out of it.