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A little too ambitious

The math behind the proposal of 25% supernumerary seats for foreign students doesn’t add up

A little too ambitious
These notwithstanding, the UGC feels that the existing 10% of seats earmarked for international students and another 5% for the wards of non-resident Indians (NRIs) and persons of Indian origin (PIO) is not sufficient to accommodate international students aspiring to study in India.

By Furqan Qamar

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The University Grants Commission (UGC) is contemplating empowering all educational institutions to create an additional 25% of seats for international students on a supernumerary basis. Further, the international students seeking admission under the category would not be required to undertake any qualifying entrance tests for admission.

Even though the ministry of external affairs (MEA) reported that a total of 23,439 international students came to India in 2021, UGC seems to base its policy on the pre-pandemic number, which it thinks was over 75,000 in 2019.

The latest issue of the All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE), the official data source of the ministry of education (MoE) on higher education, however, estimates the number of international students in India as 49,348 in 2019-20 and 47,424 in 2018-19. The Unesco Institute of Statistics (UIS), the most dependable database on student mobility across the world, reports the same figures.

These notwithstanding, the UGC feels that the existing 10% of seats earmarked for international students and another 5% for the wards of non-resident Indians (NRIs) and persons of Indian origin (PIO) is not sufficient to accommodate international students aspiring to study in India.

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With 38.5 million students on its roll, India is the second-largest system of higher education in the world. Had the higher educational institutions in the country been able to fill up all the existing supernumerary seats earmarked, the country would have had 5.8 million international students. This essentially means that, as of now, the country is able to realise merely 0.13% of its potential.

UGC now intends to raise this potential to 40% of the total enrolment that, over a period of five years, would amount to a potential of 15.4 million. But why would anyone want to add more capacity if they are unable to utilise 99.87% of the existing capacity?

Is the UGC being futuristic? The National Education Policy (NEP 2020) envisions raising the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education from 27.3% to 50% by 2035. In all probability, this would probably be the only NEP target that will be achieved.

As this happens, the higher education enrolment in the country would rise to about 70.51 million. This would mean that even with 25% supernumerary seats, the country shall then have the capacity to accommodate 10.58 million international students!

Besides, why anyone should want to enhance capacity to an impossibility fails reason. It is common knowledge that presently, no more than 5.5 million students across the world leave their homes to study abroad. By the most generous estimate, the number is not likely to go beyond 6.5 million over the next 10 years. Even if the number is higher than that, can India expect to attract all the international students who go out to study abroad?

These computations are based on simple arithmetic for quick comprehension. Specialists in mathematical and financial modelling tell me that the figures would remain unchanged even if predicted by using sophisticated models.

In 1991, India used to get 12,899 international students, which by 2000-01 had stumbled down to an abysmal 6,988. Concerned about the decline, the UGC launched a scheme called Promotion of Indian Higher Education Abroad (PIHEAD) in 2005.

Presumably, as a consequence of this initiative, the compound annual growth rate of international students in the country grew from 8.35% during 2000-2005 to 14.26% during 2006-11. However, the momentum could not be sustained, and the annual rate of growth averaged 6.01% between 2011 and 2020.

During the past seven years, 2014-15 to 2019-20, for which the latest data is available, the annual rate of growth in international students declined to 2.23%.

The much-hyped Study in India (SII) programme, which was conceptualised in 2016 but was formally launched in 2018, has not worked so far. The CAGR of international students during the past two years, 2018-19 and 2019-20, has slid to 2.02%.

Understandably, this is high time that we make a serious retrospection as to why we are not able to attract international students commensurate to the potential of the country.

It has been long assumed that India has a comparative cost advantage. But do we? A comparison of the tuition and cost of living indeed makes us look economical, but can we ignore the fact that most of the popular destinations for higher education provide plenty of opportunities for international students to finance their higher education?

Barring some fee concession under SII, India hardly offers any of these to help students finance their higher education. It hardly offers full fee waivers, scholarships, teaching and research assistantships, and on- and off-campus work provisions.

Additionally, the international students pursuing higher education in most of the developed are not only able to recover their cost of education through post-study work visas but also have opportunities for building a decent career abroad. India offers none of the two.

The second most common assumption is that India offers comparable quality of higher education. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The best of our higher education institutions compare poorly with the best of the world. Besides, they are so few and far between that they account for no more than 5% of the total enrolment in higher education in the country. Critically, the gap between the best and the rest of the institutions is too wide for the comfort of international students.

Unless the issue of quality is addressed substantively through the infusion of sufficient funds, hiring, retention, and nurturing of quality faculty, and creating an enabling framework for excellence through academic freedom, the vision of attracting a larger number of international students would continue to fall flat.

The author is Professor, Jamia Millia Islamia, and former advisor for education, Planning Commission

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