UK university show climaxes on India TV

August 17, 2007

A primetime Indian reality TV show reached its climax this week as the first winners emerged from the tens of thousands of teenagers who have battled it out to secure one of five scholarships to a British university.

Scholar Hunt: Destination UK has followed the fortunes of students chasing undergraduate courses at Sheffield, Cardiff, Leeds, Warwick and Middlesex universities, with international tuition fees and living expenses paid.

For the British universities, the show is just the latest - though perhaps biggest - effort to reach out to the baby boom rippling through the Indian population of 1.1 billion.

Dreamed up by representatives of the British High Commission and broadcaster NDTV for a generation with a huge appetite for education not easily met in its home country, the show has provided the kind of sustained, positive and primetime publicity for UK higher education that money cannot buy.

"After getting a property, education is the second most important thing in a person's life," said Kanika Marwaha, who has been Warwick's representative in India for ten years. What British universities can offer is "quality education, and that's the crux of it", she said. "Warwick is synonymous with quality education, and, I think, competitiveness."

The student who won Warwick's engineering scholarship fought off 14,000 students to convince academic judges of his competence in everything from differential equations to the construction of a catapult.

Speaking to The Times Higher before his identity was due to be formally revealed on-air on August 18, he said he hoped to become an astronaut and that he was looking forward to studying with students from around the world.

"I hadn't even thought about this until I saw the contest," he said. "I wasn't aware that much of the UK."

While some institutions have been trading on their established reputations in India, others have been building theirs from scratch. Maroof Raza was, with Ms Marwaha, one of the first full-time representatives in India when he set up offices for Middlesex nine years ago.

"I worked on the assumption that the Indian market knows nothing about Middlesex," he said.

Professor Raza has been using mobile vans, billboards at youth hangouts, 20 second radio advertisements and sponsoring fashion events to raise the university's profile.

With 19,205 Indian students studying in the UK in the 2005-06 academic year, the second largest group after students from China according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the efforts seem to have been paying off.

British institutions continue, however, to face tough competition from Australian and American universities, and Scholar Hunt may give the UK a major extra boost.

The show "gave us the oppor-tunity to be featured on a medium that we could never afford to pay for otherwise," said Sandra Elliott, director of Cardiff's International Development Division.

Leeds Business School has already noticed a surge in applications since advertising for the competition began, said Sara Avery, the school's director of international relations.

At least two rejected competitors for Sheffield's scholarship are considering applying to the university as fee-paying undergraduates, said the acting head of the department of biomedical science, Matthew Holley.

The show's success has prompted a rush from British universities to be considered for a second series of the show, and interest has not stopped there.

Leeds' international office has already heard from representatives in China asking for something similar, said Ms Avery, and a spokesman for Warwick said that the university also planned to discuss opportunities there soon.

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