China is the new hub for South Asian students
India’s Neighbourhood First policy recently achieved many successes, focused on infrastructure investment. But while a focus on such physical infrastructure is critical, it often also misses the softer and cultural dimensions.
The capacity to attract students is one of the strongest indicators of soft power. Educational links can influence diplomatic relations. Surveys show that student mobility facilitates knowledge transfer and research collaboration, besides being a key source of foreign exchange. After returning to their home countries, students often become brand ambassadors for the foreign country that hosted them.
By using this soft power technique, after 1947, India quickly established itself as the region’s educational, scientific and intellectual centre. Nepal’s former Prime Minister BP Koirala, Afghanistan’s former President Hamid Karzai and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi are among the most prominent alumni of Indian educational institutions.
Given this history, and geographic and linguistic ties, one would assume that India today continues to be a natural destination for students from the region. The official numbers, however, tell a different story. In our recent study for the Brookings’ Sambandh Initiative, co-authored with Geetika Dang, we discovered that India is quickly losing its attractiveness. Based on the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) and comparative figures from the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, we focused on students from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and found two worrying trends.
First, while students from South Asia still constitute half of the total foreign student population in India (49% in 2019), their numbers have been stagnating. The annual growth of students in India from the neighbourhood has decreased from 30% to just 9% in the last seven years. Mostly due to fee waivers and thousands of scholarships from the ministry of external affairs, one in four foreigners studying in India hails from Nepal.
Second, even if one excludes Pakistan, China now receives approximately the same number of students from South Asia as India. In the last six years, the number of inbound students from India’s neighbourhood to China has increased by 176%. Almost every country in the South Asian region now sends the same number, or more, students to China as to India. In 2016, for example, there were three times more Bangladeshis studying in China (4,900) than in India. In the case of Myanmar, there were 17 times more students in China than in India.
Looking ahead, it is increasingly likely that the future academic, business, diplomatic, military and political elites of India’s neighbouring countries will have been shaped by Chinese education. This is an overlooked aspect of the softer dimensions of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which, beyond just big-ticket infrastructure, also silently invests in educational exchanges and regulatory harmonisation.
Why would young Nepalis go to China if they can cross the open border to attend Indian colleges? Why would Sri Lankans prefer expensive institutions in Singapore to south India? And why are more Bangladeshi students not coming to Kolkata?
We found a mix of reasons, including regulatory and visa hurdles, but none is more significant than the quality of higher education. China now has 22 universities in the global top 500, against just nine from India. China also spends three times more than India on research and development, including infrastructure and innovation. While India’s educational reforms are a work in progress, there are a few things Delhi can do to enhance educational connectivity in South Asia. It can invest more in the “Study in India” promotion campaigns, in closer collaboration with universities that tend to neglect the immediate region. After completing their studies in India, citizens from neighbouring countries should also get preferential employment visas.
The Indian Council for Cultural Relations could engage with its international counterparts to offer scholarships with trilateral exchanges. Also, the University Grants Commission should prioritise joint research projects and academic partnerships with universities in neighbouring countries. Hard infrastructure is urgent but not sufficient for India to win over hearts and minds in neighbouring countries. Enhancing educational connectivity should be a key priority if India wishes to retain its role as the region’s intellectual hub.