Study Abroad in India: Redressing the Student-Mobility Imbalance
By Dr Vinayak Rao
Dr Rao is a specialist in higher education, leadership and international affairs.
The relationship between India and the United States has generated a great deal of excitement in recent years with the two countries building on new areas of friendship and cooperation. Shared values, common transnational threats and robust bilateral trade between the two countries have rendered them natural allies. One of the most significant sectors yet to realize its full potential for collaboration is higher education. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the United States in 2005 strengthened several existing bilateral agreements and enhanced opportunities to open new avenues for increased cooperation, with education figuring as a prime means of furthering the relationship between the two knowledge societies1. However, the current nature of the bilateral relationship in education largely a one-way street, especially with regards to student mobility.
According to data from the annual Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number of U.S. college students studying abroad as part of their college program has increased 150 percent over the last decade to more than 240,000 students annually2. The number of US students studying in China, Argentina, South Africa, Ecuador and India in 2006/07 each increased by more than 20 percent over the year prior3. This growth has been fueled in part by an increase in new program opportunities, partnerships between higher education institutions in the United States and abroad, and a broad range of fields and program durations to accommodate the needs of an increasingly diverse study-abroad population, according to the IIE news release that accompanied its latest Open Doors report4.
Despite these trends, however, the Open Doors data also reveal a significant educational mobility imbalance of more than 2.5 to 1 between the United Sates and the rest of the world. While there were 623,805 international students in the United States in 2006/07, there were only 241,791 U.S. students, or 0.3 percent of the total student body, studying abroad. With regards to India, the imbalance is of significantly larger proportions, with almost 95,000 Indian students in the United States and just 2,627 U.S. students studying in India. In addition, over 60 percent of all Indian students studying abroad choose to do so in the United States, while less than 1 percent of all Americans studying abroad do so in India. The total number of international students in India has increased four-fold since 2000 to 26,000, or about one quarter the number of Indian students in the United States.
In a bid to redress these student-mobility imbalances between the United States and the rest of the world, Senator Paul Simon’s Study Abroad Foundation Act was introduced to Congress in 2007 with a goal of sending a million U.S.-based students abroad annually within 10 years5, quadrupling the current volume. While the legislation received bipartisan support from both houses, it ended up packaged with other legislation for the purposes of expediency. The packaged bill, ‘Advancing America’s Priorities Act,’ failed a vote to move forward in the Senate, prompting backers to reintroduce the original study abroad bill in February of this year. The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act of 2009 has the same express goals of helping build global awareness and international understanding among undergraduate students, and it is nearly identical to the legislation that enjoyed such strong bipartisan support and public momentum in the last Congress.
The U.S. government would create a Study Abroad Foundation, which would give international study grants to universities that comply with certain conditions, one of which has become a main focus of the bill: to encourage students to study in non-traditional destinations in developing nations – that is to say destinations beyond Western Europe, which currently account for 60 percent of US study-abroad experiences. The proposed Study Abroad Foundation would redirect larger numbers of U.S. students to developing countries by giving more grants to universities that set up study abroad programs in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
India has the potential to be a main focus of those wishing to study in non-traditional destinations, but in order maximize the number of international students coming to South Asia, the Indian government and private sector have to do their part.
Shifting the Geopolitical Focus of U.S. Study Abroad Programs to Bolster the National Image
Universities and colleges in the United States need to pay increasing attention to the geographic distribution of their study abroad offerings. As noted above, six out of every 10 students who spend a period studying abroad do so in Europe, with almost 50 percent focused in just four countries – United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France. Only 15 percent go to Latin America, 10.3 percent to Asia, 4.2 percent to Africa, and 1.2 percent to the Middle East. With major geopolitical and economic power shifts taking place in the early part of the 21 st century, as marked by the rise of India and China, study abroad programs can become more relevant by including, if not emphasizing, emerging regions of geopolitical importance.
This need to re-engage with the rest of the world has become increasingly important in recent years, as there has been a growing misperception and distrust of the American government since the Iraq War and the commencement of the global war on terrorism6. There is a pressing need for the new administration of President Barrack Obama to make concerted efforts at reshaping global public opinion and engaging in an intensive public diplomacy effort. Students can be at the forefront of this effort with the face-to-face contacts they make every day while studying abroad.
It can be said, therefore, that the scaling up of study abroad programs not only helps in creating global citizens but also in mitigating the negative perceptions of America among the youth of the world. There is enough research to show the tangible and intangible benefits of face-to-face interactions in fostering understanding and tolerance across nations and cultures. Hence, there is great scope for more coordinated attempts to shape perceptions and views of the United States in the rest of the world. This task can best be fulfilled by the top leadership of U.S. colleges and universities joining hands with like-minded educators overseas in broadening their study abroad programs.
Study Abroad in India: Opportunities, Obstacles and Reform
There already exist some very good bilateral educational exchange programs between the United States and India at both the governmental level and the institutional level. The Fulbright Program, in existence since 1950, currently sends 100 Indian researchers to the United States and 100 Americans to India each year, and the program recently received a 100 percent funding increase designed to double the number of scholarship recipients. The New Delhi office of the Fulbright Program also houses the India office of the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowship Program, which will provide 40 fellowships in 2009. Other important image-building programs that bring Americans to India include the Peace Corps and the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). However, these programs are limited in impact due to the relatively small number of opportunities.
At the institutional level, many U.S, schools have developed partnership agreements with Indian institutions of higher education. These agreements have led to an increase in the two-way flow of students between the two countries. Cornell has long-standing ties with India through which hundreds of Cornell students travel to India each year for research and study abroad purposes, while a 2007 visit to India by Cornell President David Skorton reaffirmed the Ivy League school’s commitment to India. Many business schools also offer short study abroad programs in India, many in collaboration with the reputed Indian Institutes of Management. However, these programs are few and far between, and further growth in this area is being stalled by the Indian government’s inability to clarify the rules governing foreign educational provision in India7.
With that said, the fact remains that the opportunities available for U.S. colleges and universities to implement study abroad programs in India are immense and often grossly under-utilized. A pluralistic country of a billion people marked by multiple faiths living in relative peace, a fast-growing emerging economy of continental dimensions, a robust democracy, a vast English-speaking population, an exciting menu of course offerings in soft sciences and emerging global issues across its higher education institutions against the backd.rop of expanding India-US bilateral relations is a compelling reason for any U.S education administrator to consider India as a new destination for such cross-cultural learning experiences.
India has one of the largest systems of higher education in the world. It plays host to approximately 10 million students enrolled at approximately 350 degree-granting institutions and more than 17,000 colleges. While quality is an issue at many colleges and universities, a wide range of quality program offerings are available across the length and breadth of India. Institutions offering these programs are ready to work with U.S. universities and educational organizations and other international partners to design and deliver study programs in an integrated manner with a focus on the ‘quality of the experience’ and the ‘safety of the students’.
Despite the many centers of higher-education excellence that do exist, one of the major hindrances for institutions in India wishing to host foreign students is their inability to offer the physical infrastructure needed to accommodate them. One of the most basic criteria for students when they choose a host institution is the availability of adequate infrastructure and student hospitality centers. These centers provide a wide array of services with regards to the security and comfort of the student, such as accommodation that meet adequate standards of hygiene, convenience, proximity to shopping complexes, libraries, and cultural and entertainment centers.
According to recent reports in a number of Indian newspapers8, many more university campuses are soon to be equipped with international student centers to help the growing number of foreign students who have problems with issues such as bureaucratic red tape and substandard accommodation. This reflects the understanding in India that if the country wishes to attract foreign students, including those from developing countries, improvements have to be made.
In response, Prime Minister Singh’s government has accepted recommendations of an inter-ministerial task force focused on making visa processes simpler. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations is in charge of coordinating the blueprint, and the changes are to be implemented later this year.
Furthermore, a new marketing campaign of Indian higher education will reportedly begin at Indian missions abroad. Embassies and high commissions will provide detailed information about Indian culture, the education system, list reputed universities and programs, eligibility criteria and required documentation. The marketing plans were finalized between the Prime Minister’s Office and the ministries of home affairs, external affairs and human resource development. In an amendment to Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) rules, foreign students will get a provisional visa upon arrival, and final registration will be granted within 90 days. Another decision designed to help research scholars is that requests to visit “sensitive” areas will be deemed to have been granted if the government does not respond in a given timeframe. In addition, an online system will be created allowing for an expedited visa process for foreign students, cutting out the need to travel and wait at FRRO offices.
On campuses with large student populations, there will reportedly be student agents to help foreign students with needs and concerns. Universities have also been told to arrange six-month English language orientation courses for non-English speakers. Also, procedures for opening bank accounts — a common complaint — will be made easier.
While the plans outlined by the government would be implemented through the public sector, another practical solution to this problem would be to outsource the operational aspects of hosting foreign students to private service providers that are either inbuilt into the host institution’s administrative mechanism or are entirely independent bodies.
Learning from China
China has had great success in attracting foreign students in recent years. In academic year 2006-7, 11,064 of the nearly 200,000 international students in the country were Americans9 studying at one of hundreds of study-abroad programs offered in China. The appeal of China as a study destination is due in part to the desire of many to learn the language, which is borne out by the fact that a majority of students in China are studying Mandarin. However, academic programs are also becoming more and more popular, especially in the fields of medicine, history and business.
The Chinese are able to offer visiting students modern facilities that in many cases are comparable to those at American universities. This is largely because the Chinese government has chosen to invest more in higher education than the Indian government has seen fit in recent years. With returning students providing positive first-hand accounts of Chinese institutions of higher education, the sector will begin to build on its own success. Until India can offer the kind of services and infrastructure that foreign students demand, the kind of word-of-mouth promotion that China currently enjoys will continue to stagnate.
India has immense potential to tap into the study abroad market, given its history, vibrant culture and rich heritage, which have always been most captivating for foreign travelers since ancient times. This, in consonance with its growing economic strength and political significance, has evoked great interest in India as a study abroad destination. A growing number of American students are interested in studying in India and consequently U.S. universities are looking for partnerships with Indian universities. According to U.S. Ambassador to India, David Mulford, young people in the Unite States are fascinated by India and this is putting pressure on American universities to have more exchange programs with Indian varsities10. It is important to respond positively to this opportunity, which has the prospect of fostering and building upon institutional collaborations, especially if India wants to take advantage of the increased funding given to U.S. institutions for travel abroad, should the Paul Simon Act be passed.
It is estimated that American universities invest $6,000 to $8,000 per student per semester on study abroad programs. In return they rightfully expect their students to be provided with adequate facilities and an assurance of a pleasant and productive stay in India in terms of instruction, safety, convenience and the opportunity to enrich their experience through all that India has to offer.
While many government-funded public institutions might currently be unable to furnish these essential amenities for foreign students, it is imperative for private institutions to invest the necessary time and resources to develop the requisite infrastructure and support systems to cater to the needs of visiting students in order to benefit from this tremendous opportunity for collaboration and growth. Without this initiative from the private sector, prospects for the expansion of the Indian study abroad industry would be greatly hampered. There is immense scope to expand global educational services through exchange programs, and with the present upward swing in India-US relations the time is ripe to demonstrate the willingness to evolve India’s institutions of education into truly international centers of learning by effecting the necessary changes. The ball is now in the court of the private sector and the government to fully appreciate the relevance of the study-abroad market and to take the next step forward in collaboration with potential host institutions. The task ahead is to find innovative ways to create incentives for more foreign students to study in India giving them a country and cultural familiarity that will impact the rest of their lives and develop stronger people-to-people ties between India and the rest of the world.
1 Indian Embassy Press Release (2008), India-US Educational Cooperation, September 25, Washington, DC
5 U.S. Representatives Tom Lantos and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen introduced H.R. 1469, Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act of 2007. This Act is a congressional initiative to expand study abroad opportunities for U.S. undergraduates.
6 Pew Global Attitudes Project Report (2008), Global Public Opinion in the Bush Years (2001-2008), December.
8 See Times of India, “Govt plans measures to make life easy for foreign students”. Feb. 11, 2009.
9 Lewin, Tamar, “Study Abroad Flourishes, with China a Hot Spot”, New York Times, November 17, 2008.
10 Ganeshan V, “US Students Keen on Studying in India”, The Hindu Business Line, May 20, 2008.