Higher education experts have predicted that India will become a major recruiter of overseas students at last, under a new internationalisation strategy that eschews the revenue-focused approaches favoured by other countries.
The Study in India scheme, launched jointly by four ministries, aims to increase the number of international students from just 47,000 to 200,000 in the next five years, by targeting 30 countries across South Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the former Soviet republics.
The longer term aim is to attract 1 million foreign learners to the country.
The quality of Indian higher education institutions – none is in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings – means that it is doubtful whether the country’s move will erode enrolment in traditional hubs such as the UK, the US and Australia in the near future.
But, while the country is hoping to improve the standard of its universities via an “institutions of eminence” excellence initiative, its recruitment strategy is very different from that of the established players, which typically eye the financial rewards of international student enrolment.
The Indian government said that it would reserve an extra 15,000 places across 160 universities for international students in the 2018-19 academic year, meaning that there would be no adverse impact on the number of seats for Indian students.
It added that the top 25 per cent of students would receive a full tuition fee waiver, and a further 50 per cent would receive a partial waiver of between 25 and 50 per cent, but this cost will “have to be borne by the institute concerned, based on cross-subsidisation or through its existing funding”.
India’s universities have historically been very weak when it comes to internationalisation, with a 2017 report from the Association of Indian Universities claiming that the country’s recruitment of foreign students was “abysmally low”.
But, announcing the new scheme, human resource development minister Prakash Javadekar said that “India can become a hub of affordable education for foreign students”.
The government has approved an investment of Rs 150 crores (£16.5 million) for the programme for 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over time, the scheme is expected to bring in revenue.
Rajika Bhandari, head of research, policy and practice at the US-based Institute of International Education, said that various administrations in India have introduced initiatives focused on internationalising higher education that have “not really come to fruition”, but this is the first time that the country has made such a strong financial commitment.
India “will definitely emerge as a regional leader” and “a regional hub within Asia” for international student recruitment, she said, adding that “that spot is currently being occupied by China”.
Dr Bhandari said that India had several attributes “working in its favour”, including a very large higher education system, a rapidly growing economy, the use of English-language instruction and low-cost education.
However, she said that the quality of institutions in India was “highly variable”, with only a handful of universities situated within the global arena, and added that safety concerns and credit recognition would be issues for international students.
Hans de Wit, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said that the target of reaching 200,000 students in five years was “rather ambitious”, especially given that “the competition is far ahead of them, even in the region”.
He added that, while the government is aware that many public universities have poor quality services, infrastructure and teaching, they “still lack a clear plan” to address this.
But Professor de Wit praised the country for focusing on a select group of countries that have prospective students who value education but cannot afford to go to university in the West, rather than “trying to compete…on a global level”.
He added that it will be “interesting to see” how many private universities, which have much higher fees than public institutions, will be willing to swallow the cost of waiving tuition fees.
“At the same time, [private universities] are also probably much more eager to have an international student body” and could see fee waivers as “a long-term investment” in driving up the quality of their institutions, he said.
Antara Sengupta, a research fellow specialising in higher education at the Observer Research Foundation, an independent thinktank based in India, said that the country’s plan to create 20 “institutions of eminence” will provide a “major boost” for the Study in India scheme.
“Since these will be some of the best institutes in the country, they will be able to attract students from the targeted regions. Also, given the autonomy that these institutes will enjoy…they will be in a much better position to provide an ecosystem of excellence required for a global student base,” she said.