India is a key source of international students – can it become a destination?

In the summer of 2014, Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister in a landslide election, giving him a mandate to launch much-needed reforms to the country’s education system. Mr Modi’s convincing win sparked optimism for a new era of prosperity and opportunity, and indeed, India is set to overtake China in terms of yearly GDP growth by 2017.

As the government moves forward in implementing improvements to – and increasing the capacity of – India’s education system, it is also faced with questions about how to further internationalise its universities and institutions. In this ICEF Monitor article, we explore the inbound and outbound mobility of students to and from India, as well as the dynamics at play in both directions.

Relatively low inbound mobility rates

The Indian government aims to increase the current higher education participation rate from its relatively low level now – 18% (compared to 26% in China and 36% in Brazil) – to 30% by 2020, a target that would require an increase of 14 million spaces over six years. As ambitious as this goal is, the British Council has still observed that, “By some estimates, even if India succeeds in its target of 30% [gross enrolment rate] by 2020, 100 million qualified students will still not have places at university.”

The drive to get more Indian students into higher education is necessarily a huge undertaking, and it may be why there has been limited success in (and focus on) increasing the number of inbound international students to India. In 2000/01, there were roughly 7,000 international students studying in the country, while in 2012/13, there were just over 20,000 – an increase that is lower than the overall growth in international student mobility, and a level of inbound that is considerably less than the roughly 200,000 Indians who study abroad.

It is understandable that India must concentrate on expanding its higher education capacity (the number of universities has increased from 266 in 2000/01 to 700 in 2013/14) and domestic student enrolments (from 8.4 million to about 20 million over the same period) before it places more emphasis on internationalising its universities; ensuring talented Indian students find the places they need in universities at home is naturally the key consideration.

And yet, with India’s growing economic power and the surge in other Asian destinations’ ability to attract foreign students, it may well become a greater priority to further establish India as a study destination in the region. Internationalisation would also – as it does around the world – bring in important revenue flow to Indian higher education institutions and expanded diplomatic, economic, and community links. There is, however, a steep climb ahead: for example, there are currently 20 Indian institutions in the new QS global rankings devoted to institutions in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), with two in the top 50 and seven in the top 100. By comparison, China has 71 institutions in the BRICS top 200, and six of these are within the top 10.

The 2014 QS BRICS ranking devoted a specific section to internationalisation, and on this measure, India did not fare well: only one Indian institution made it into the BRICS top 100 for proportion of international faculty, and just two made it into the top 100 for proportion of international students. In a related development, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations found that of the 3,465 scholarship slots offered to foreign students for study in India, 1,361 (39%) were unused in 2013/14.

In terms of existing international students in India, a recent research study published in International Higher Education found that since the mid-1990s the share of students choosing India from other Asian countries has increased, while that of Africa has declined. The study found that South Asia and the Gulf Region continue to be important source countries for Indian institutions, but also that new opportunities have emerged in Central Asia and East Asia.

Roughly 80% of international students come to India for undergraduate studies, about 18% for postgraduate studies, and approximately 2% for doctoral programmes/research.

Underlying challenges in India’s higher education system

India’s relatively weak inbound numbers also highlight challenges within India’s tertiary system – challenges that prompt so many Indians to study abroad. A recent British Council report paints a picture of a system beset by issues of quality in many of its institutions. It cites “a chronic shortage of faculty, poor quality teaching, outdated and rigid curricula and pedagogy, lack of accountability and quality assurance, and separation of research and teaching.” The report also notes issues regarding research capacity and innovation, pointing to low levels of PhD enrolments thus an insufficient number of talented researchers.

There are also concerns about the ability of Indian-schooled graduates to compete in the Indian and global economy. A recent report by Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and Ernst & Young (EY) – Higher Education in India: Moving towards global relevance and competitiveness – found that only a small proportion of Indian graduates were employable. It concluded that this low employability “is driven by factors like out-dated curricula, shortage of quality faculty, high student-teacher ratios, lack of institutional and industry linkages, and lack of autonomy to introduce new and innovative courses.”

The report establishes a goal for India to have 90% of graduates “readily employable” by 2030.

Growing demand continues to fuel outbound mobility

As we reported in 2014, Indian outbound mobility is driven by a supply-demand gap and concerns with quality in education, and the US remains a leading destination for Indian students. The US-based Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) reports that US graduate schools have seen dramatic increases in the number of admissions offers for Indian students over the last two years (25% more in 2013/2014 following a 27% increase in 2012/2013). And the Education Testing Service (ETS) reported that the Graduate Record Examination test volume in India for 2012 grew by approximately 30% compared to the prior year. Finally, the American Embassy in New Delhi reported that early data on student visa approvals to the US increased by a massive 50% from October 2012 through early 2013 compared to the same period in the previous year.

In Australia, the number of Indian students is also on an upswing. The director of the Victorian Government Business Office in Bangalore, Annie Santhana, recently told University World News that, “In September 2014 over 50,000 Indian students enrolled across Australia, of which half (25,000) are enrolled in Victoria,” contributing to a 20% increase of Indian students to Victoria alone. Similarly, the latest industry statistics from Australia report a 29.3% increase in Indian enrolment year-to-date November 2014 (compared to the same period in 2013). And forecasts indicate that the number of Indian students in Australia will continue to grow substantially in coming years.

In New Zealand, meanwhile, India remains a key market, particularly for the Private Training Establishment (PTE) sector, according to a recent market profile by Education New Zealand. India is New Zealand’s second-largest and fastest-growing source country for international students – thanks in part to New Zealand’s marketing and media efforts. Overall, there are almost 12,000 Indian students in New Zealand, two-thirds of whom study in the PTE sector.

Will India emerge as a regional destination?

With the current push to expand and improve India’s domestic education system, it’s possible that before long, India will join a growing number of Asian education hubs in presenting new study abroad options for foreign students. Already collaborating with many other nations in business and trade, already a formidable economic power, India seems poised to push its education system forward to the point it becomes yet one more way it connects to the rest of the world. And as the British Council observes, Indian institutions will be “looking globally for partners” as they expand to accommodate domestic demand and improve to the point where they can attract and accommodate greater numbers of international students.



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