Pause in global college admissions is a chance for India to reverse its student exodus

Updated on: May 10, 2020
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Convincing migrating students to stay with domestic options post-Covid will require sweeping reforms in the education system

International student mobility and educational exchange programmes have been one of the key casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic, after sought-after destinations have clamped down on visitors by way of cancelled flights and travel restrictions. With campus shutdowns putting both summer and fall admissions for the upcoming academic year into limbo, international universities have also replaced their classroom programmes with online versions until January. These factors are prompting many Indian students to reassess their plans to apply to foreign universities for under-graduate and graduate courses this year. This represents an opportunity for India to reverse its annual student exodus — which has seen the number of young people migrating abroad for tertiary education vault from 1.8 lakh in 2014 to over 7.5 lakh in 2018. The rising number of students who seek greener pastures overseas doesn’t just cause a flight of talent and deprive India of its famous demographic dividend. It has also proved quite adverse for its balance of payments position. ‘Studies’ and ‘maintenance of relatives abroad’ figure as two of the largest items under RBI’s Liberalised Remittances Scheme which has seen outward remittances more than double from $81 billion in FY17 to over $187 billion in FY20, resulting in a dollar drain.

Convincing migrating students to stay with domestic options post-Covid though, will require sweeping reforms in the education system. Over the last two decades, Indian students’ access to tertiary education has improved greatly through private sector presence, with the number of colleges and universities rising fourfold. By 2019, the country had 37 million students enrolled in 40,000 colleges across 990 universities with a respectable Gross Enrolment Ratio of 26 per cent. But despite improving physical infrastructure and enrolment numbers, the system is beset by a lack of diversity and quality in its offerings and turns out graduates who are lacking in employability. Poor education and research outcomes have thus made it difficult even for India’s topmost institutions to break into the top hundred ranks in world university rankings. To bring India’s universities up to scratch for students making international comparisons, greater administrative and academic autonomy to colleges to frame contemporary syllabi and woo high-quality global faculty through attractive compensation is imperative, as is a higher bar on accreditation. Greater effort and funding should go into building research capacity at colleges and improving industry-academia linkages.

The Central initiative to grant the ‘Institution of Eminence’ status to select colleges based on the above attainments was a step in the right direction. But it has become mired in controversy on account of net worth-based eligibility criteria, arbitrary choices and slow disbursal of funds. Expanding private presence in tertiary education also cannot come at the expense of publicly-funded institutions that provide affordable higher education. Education outlays in the Central and State budgets need to be at least doubled from their current levels of 3 per cent of GDP.

Published on May 10, 2020

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