India plans to attract hundreds of thousands of foreign students to its best universities, hoping to recapture its ancient glory as a hub of scholarship and knowledge.
The government is promising to waive or discount fees and to expedite visas under a programme called Study in India that will be marketed to 30 countries — including the UAE — in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.
At the programme’s launch on Thursday, Sushma Swaraj, the foreign minister, referred to the ancient Indian universities of Nalanda and Takshila, which had attracted scholars from around the world before falling into ruin.
“The quest for knowledge has always been fundamental to India’s culture and civilisation,” Ms Swaraj said. “We can rightly say that India is one of the very few places in the world where ancient traditions and modernity coexist in harmony.”
In the first academic year of the programme, beginning this autumn, roughly 15,000 seats across 160 public and private educational institutions will be set aside for foreign students. The government hopes to increase this figure to 200,000 by 2023.
The government did not specify whether these seats would be taken from the existing capacity at these institutions, or whether they would be added.
At present, India hosts about 45,000 international students — just 1 per cent of the world’s population of students who move overseas for higher education. India has around 40,000 colleges and 800 full-fledged universities, according to government statistics.
“We observed that the number of students coming to India for higher studies had become stagnant and more students were going to countries like Singapore and Australia,” said Prakash Javadekar, the minister for human resource development.
Apart from the UAE, Study in India will target “partner countries” — countries with which India has warm diplomatic relations — such as Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Iran and Rwanda.
Meeta Sengupta, founder of the Centre for Education Strategy think tank in New Delhi, said Study for India was a “win-win” proposition. For students from many of these countries, which have emerging economies, their higher-education needs “are not met by traditional first-world systems”.
Either the fees in western universities are too high, visas too difficult to procure or the admission process too competitive - issues that Ms Sengupta said they would not face in India.
Through Study in India, foreign students will have access to a range of educational institutions, from smaller private colleges that offer diplomas to large universities offering undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral degrees. The list includes the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the 23 universities devoted to scientific research which Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, once described as “the temples of modern India”.
The budget for the first two years of the programme runs to 1.5 billion rupees (Dh83.2 million), a sum that will be used to promote the programme and to subsidise student fees.
About 55 per cent of the 15,000 seats offered in the first year will be eligible for partial or complete fee waivers.
The waivers suggest that the government regards Study in India not as a money-spinner but as an instrument of soft power which will raise the country’s international profile.
At the moment, having few international students and faculty on Indian campuses shuts down avenues for cultural interaction and exchanges of ideas, said S S Mantha, a former chairman of the All India Council for Technical Education, a government-appointed advisory body.
Study in India is “a good move to start with”, Mr Mantha said, but Indian institutes "will have to do much more with their infrastructure and facilities”.
While India’s best universities, such as the IITs, see a scramble for admission, there are also thousands of lower-quality colleges and universities where the faculty are poorly trained and the facilities are inadequate.
“A lot of work has to be done with these institutions,” Mr Mantha said.
Getting faculty of equal calibre to western universities who are doing research of interest is very important, he said. "This happens now in some small pockets of excellence, but it remains there. It doesn’t move around to other institutions.”
The decision to admit thousands of foreign students “may seem to be taking away seats from local students”, Ms Sengupta said. “But the Indian university sector has shown its ability to grow in the past 4-5 years.”
India has added roughly 130 universities and 3,000 colleges — private as well as state-funded — since 2014, and altogether about 34.6 million Indians are enrolled in higher education institutes,
Mr Mantha said "the expanse of education is so huge in India" that an additional 200,000 foreign students "will hardly make a difference".
“But the value those numbers will bring, in terms of ideas and cultural exchanges, will be far higher.”