Like most other countries, India aspires to become a global hub for higher education for obvious reasons. International students benefit the higher education sector in a wide variety of ways and also contribute to economic development.
The presence of international students leads to improvement in the educational system of the host countries. They bring in the much-needed diversity in the learning environment, which is considered a sine qua non for promoting excellence. The ensuing cross-cultural communication and change of ideas help students in exposing to a wide variety of perspectives and ideas which, in turn, lead to creativity and innovation.
International students contribute to the economy by spending on tuition, housing, and other living expenses in the host countries. They contribute to the local economy’s health by spending money on food, transportation, and other goods and services. International students may also stimulate job growth due to increased education, tourism, and hospitality demand.
The number of international students in India has increased from 33,156 in 2011-12 to 48,035 in 2020-21, with an average annual growth of 3.78% during the past decade. However, the numbers have not been consistently rising, which is concerning. The highest-ever recorded rate of increase was 13.64% in 2013-14, which slipped to about 7% during the next two years. The number of international students plunged in 2017-18 and 2020-21, declining by 3.01% in 2017-18 and 2.66% in 2020-21. The number of international students has remained consistently low, and there has only been a slight change in the source destinations. While India has welcomed students from 161 countries, its primary source regions are still Asia and Africa. During the decennial, the percentage of African students in India increased from 20.7% to 22.6%, whereas those of Asians declined from 72.8% to 69.4%.
Asian and African students constitute 92% of the international student population in India for the academic year 2020-21, compared to 93.5% in 2011-12. The proportion of South American students has remained constant at about 0.1%, while those from Oceania have decreased from 0.8% to 0.4% during the same period. European students constitute 1.7% of the international students in India, but their share has been oscillating year on year basis. A noticeable change is seen in the North American students, whose share has increased from 3.9% to 5.7%.
Aside from changes in the source composition, there is also a noticeable shift in the program preferences of international students. Close to 76% of them presently pursue undergraduate degrees, whereas those studying at the postgraduate and PhD level higher education constitute 15% and 4.01%, respectively. This marks a significant increase compared to 10 years ago. Integrated degree and diploma-level programmes have also gone up in preference. However, the preference popularity of certificate-level programmes has declined over time. The most critical shift is taking place in the disciplinary choices. Contrary to the popular belief that India can be an attractive destination in humanities, social sciences, philosophy, spirituality, visual arts, performing arts etc., the data shows a reversal in the trend. These disciplines accounted for 17.12% of all international students in India.
The presence of international students in basic, applied, natural, physical and mathematical sciences has marginally declined from 17.10% in 2011-12 to 16.20% in 2020-21. Nearly 6.42% of international students pursue programmes of studies in other or non-specified disciplines they were enrolled in. They mostly do MPhil, PhD, diplomat or certificate programmes. Over the decade, the balance of preference has tilted towards such programmes.
The most noticeable change is happening in agricultural sciences and allied disciplines like floriculture, horticulture, veterinary etc. The absolute numbers in these programmes are still tiny, but the growth rate in such fields has been the highest. The proportion of international students doing degrees in the discipline has increased from a meagre 0.12% to 1.07%.
The preference change may be due to the increasing focus on agriculture, farm sciences, and genetics in many Asian and African countries to address food security issues; India could mainly target students from those countries for this set of disciplines. India has a definite edge in the area due to an extensive network of agricultural colleges and universities. It has a reputation for being a huge success story in the green revolution.
Business administration, commerce and management are losing their sheen and lustre. It now accounts for 18.9% of all international students in India compared to 20.90% in 2011-12. The most significant jump is noticeable in engineering and technology. This discipline accounted for 15.62% in 2011-12 but has risen to make up for 32.32% of all international students.
Overall, the number of international students in India has grown annually by 3.78% during the past decade. In comparison, the stream-wise rate of growth varied significantly across disciplines like agriculture (28.8%), engineering and technology (11.6%), arts, humanities, social sciences and liberal arts (0.51%), medicine and health sciences (negative 2.48%), sciences (3.21%) and others (5.98%).
The Study in India Programme (SIIP) may have yet to attract the targeted number of international students so far successfully. Still, it does provide a single window for disseminating relevant information and inviting applications. It can be made a potent instrument for attracting international students in much higher numbers by embedding strategies in marketing and positioning Indian higher education abroad.
The programme’s focus has been the quality of higher education programmes and institutions. It has focused primarily on engineering and technology, much at the cost of many other vital disciplines. The analysis presented here suggests many possibilities from the consumer preference point of view that must be incorporated into the programmes.
At the same time, due space needs to be provided to the private players in higher education to attract international students. After all, a whopping majority of the top ten higher education institutions that attract the most international students are in private management.
Written by Furqan Qamar, a former adviser for education in the Planning Commission, is currently a professor of management at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi and Hassan Ahmad, a UGC Junior Research Fellow, is a research scholar in the Department of Management Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia.