The first semester of college in India was exciting for Aaron*, a 20-year-old from Afghanistan. He came to Mumbai last year, for an undergraduate degree in Accounting & Finance (BAF). “The course content is of my interest and I am amazed by the culture of the country,” he says. However, problems began a few months into college.
“I was humiliated and laughed at by peers for wearing the pakul, an Afghan cap,” he says.
Aaron is currently in his second year of the three-year course and he’s run into a couple of other problems — with hostel space scarce, he’s having to rent a room in the exorbitant city, a massive expense he had not budgeted for. “My college has no hostel, so I was living with aunt, who recently passed away. Now I’m sharing in a one-room apartment with four others and even that’s costing me Rs 8,000,” he says.
We can soon expect to see more foreign students heading to India, as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) Council begins to conduct the JEE (Advanced) exam outside the country for the first time ever. The exam will be held in countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, Singapore, the UAE and Ethiopia, from the academic session 2017-18.
The aim is to improve the international standing of the IITs, because the number of foreign students admitted is one of the parameters considered by various world university rankings. But in order for this move to pay off, Indian institutes will have to upgrade their infrastructure and sensitise students.
“A good number of foreign students ensure diversity in the classroom. This initiative will ensure that foreign applicants do not have to travel to India to give the examination,” says Devang Khakar, director of IIT-Bombay. “We plan to add about 10% more seats to accommodate students from abroad. The other norms of the JEE remain unchanged.”
Currently, the number of seats is not really the issue. A report released last month by the Association of Indian Universities (AIU) found that of an intake capacity of 4.5 lakh foreign students, Indian institutes could only fill 31,000 full-time places in the academic year 2013-14.
“Of 33 million students in the higher education sector, the government has targeted getting at least 15% students from foreign countries,” says Furqan Qamar, secretary general of the AIU. “We have so far managed to get only 0.64%. The low numbers are mostly attributable to the poor feedback on state universities by existing foreign students, and lack of adequate infrastructure.”
Five years ago, the Kalina campus of the University of Mumbai had over 100 students from the African countries of Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi and Tanzania, enrolled in social science courses. This year, only two students, both from Nigeria, have enrolled.
“The university does not offer hostels on campus and many cannot afford rental houses in the city,” says Aparajita Biswas, head of the Centre for African Studies at the Mumbai university. “They have also experienced racism on campus. This racism is also responsible for the fall in number of students. From just Mauritius alone, for instance, we had more than 20 students on campus. Now we have only three.”
It’s not only students of different races that face prejudice. Canadian Pranav Gandhi, 20, of Indian descent, is a second-year MBBS student at Bhartiya Vidyapeeth, Pune and says his college mates stereotype him as a spoilt brat from the West.
Another core issue is the outdated, book-based syllabi.
“I struggle to adapt to the textbook format of studying here, as Canadian schools offer an evolved model of a classroom with technology-driven education,” Gandhi adds.
Opaline*, 22, would agree. The Mauritian student came to Mumbai in 2014 to pursue a BSc in home science, a course not available back home.
“I was very excited in the beginning but I expected the course to have more of a practical approach — with the use of latest technology in the field,” she says.
The universities in India are not proactive in popularising their programmes across borders either, says Qamar of the AIU. “There is no awareness among other countries about the courses taught in India and hence we do not see many seeking courses here. There is also a lack of focus on making universities friendly to foreign students,” he adds.
The technological infrastructure and living facilities at the universities and towns in which they are situated fails to attract foreign students too. “Campuses lack technology and development and hence we are unable to make them more diverse,” Qamar says.
Foreign students are turning to private and deemed universities instead of the state universities in India, states the AIU report. “The programmes and courses at the deemed universities are contemporary and new-age,” says Rajan Saxena, vice-chancellor at Narsee Monje Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS), Vile Parle, a deemed university.
The universities need to market themselves better in specific foreign countries. “The highest number of foreign students coming to India is from countries such as Nepal, Bhutan and Iran,” says Veena Bhalla, joint secretary at AIU. “So we must promote our courses better in these countries to garner more students.”
State universities should also get international accreditations, to attract students from across countries. “Even if the accreditation is from a regional body in a developed country, it gives the university an edge,” says Saxena.