How the 'Study in India' Initiative Can Boost India's Soft Power

While soft power in the form of world class universities is rewarding in all sorts of ways, the presence of large number of international students further boosts the soft power of recipient countries.

YES Abroad students visit U.S. State Department after concluding their academic year of study in the YES Abroad program in India. Credit: Exchanges Photos/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

YES Abroad students visit the US State Department after concluding their academic year of study in the YES Abroad program in India. Credit: Exchanges Photos/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the first part of this article, it was noted that India hosts a relatively small number of international students, even from neighbouring countries, and their numbers have remained flat over the past few years. In contrast, China has consciously and aggressively pushed for attracting larger number of international students to its shores and succeeded in doing so. Large numbers of foreign students have brought enormous economic benefits to Western nations.  However, that is not the main reason why the Chinese government has been actively “wooing foreign universities and foreign students”. Such form of internationalisation is among the more important indicators used in world university rankings and China has been making a concerted effort to place more of its universities among the world’s top 100 institutions. Indian universities too have recently become more interested in foreign students. It has been reported that the IITs could start accepting foreign students from the next academic year. The government too has taken some preliminary steps to launch a Study in India initiative.

Economic benefits and world university rankings aside, there is another angle to the issue of foreign students that was hinted at towards the end of the first part of the article – ‘soft power’.

Higher education and soft power

Nations do not just want to be respected and feared for their economic and military strength; they also want to be admired and liked. This is where soft power comes in. Joseph Nye, who coined the term in his book Bound to Lead (1990), describes it as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” The sources of soft power, according to Nye, lie in “the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.” In contrast, hard power is derived from the military and economic might of nations.

Here, I am less interested in what soft power precisely is than in its sources – culture, political ideals and policies – and impact. For Nye and others who subscribe to the importance of soft power, ideas such as democracy, human rights and individual opportunities, which are deeply ingrained in most Western countries, are among those that many nations and peoples around the world admire and want to emulate. This gives Western nations a privileged position in the international community, adding on to the influence they already have because of their hard power. Countries like India, where democracy has survived and flourished despite high levels of poverty, are also admired for their success with democracy. It is important to understand that both the state and civil society contribute in different ways, independently and together, even in conflict with each other, to the making of a nation’s culture and politics.

Soft power is not disconnected from hard power. Indeed, a nation’s economic success and/or its military strength may enhance its soft power. China may not be a democracy but in many parts of the world including India, its rapid economic growth is much admired and envied. Many nations would like to emulate China’s economic success. Nations may however accumulate soft power even when they are lacking in some aspects of hard power. Canada and Scandinavian countries are good examples of cases which despite lacking in the military aspect of hard power, are considered to be closest to ideal-type countries in terms of the quality of life, cultural values and other virtues, and therefore worth emulating.

Hard power also matters in a nation’s projection of soft power. In the Cold War era and after, rich North American and European countries, particularly the US, the UK and France have used their resources liberally to project their image abroad in cultural and other spheres. A country like China has been able to mobilise more resources from its growing prosperity to project its image abroad via Confucius Institutes in ways that others have not.

But what does soft power have to do with international students?

First of all, world class higher education institutions count as an important source of soft power. Young people all over the world admire and want to attend the best universities in the US, the UK and elsewhere. Ordinary people, whether in Chile or China, India or Indonesia, would like their universities to measure up to the world’s best institutions. For Nye, “much of American soft power has been produced by Hollywood, Harvard, Microsoft, and Michael Jordan.” Countries with abundant soft power in the form of world-class universities attract the best students from around the world and large numbers of them. This brings them, as noted earlier, enormous economic benefits and more.

While soft power in the form of world class universities is rewarding in all sorts of ways, the presence of large number of international students further boosts the soft power of recipient countries.

Students appreciate the training and skills they learn at universities since it improves their life chances, whether in the host country or elsewhere. Even those who do not stay behind to work in the US or Australia carry home a favourable image of the country where they received good quality education and spent a good many years as students. Many of those who return often move up into influential positions in the government or elsewhere which they use to support closer economic and more generally better diplomatic relations between their home country and the country where they attended university. In academia, foreign-educated academics enable greater research cooperation between countries which is to the benefit of both nations.

Study in India

It was reported last year that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) under Smriti Irani was preparing for a ‘Study in India’ scheme. The new minister Prakash Javadekar should take this initiative seriously and act on it in the coming months. Study in India deserves to become a major higher education initiative also because it has important implications for foreign policy and diplomatic relations. However, at the same time, the government must thoughtfully strategise Study in India keeping in mind our limitations.

First, few of our universities can compete with the better ones in the world or even in Asia. The government’s efforts in recent years to improve the quality of education have not been very effective so we cannot entertain high expectations that things will change anytime soon. As such, we may not be very successful in attracting foreign students based on the quality of education at our universities.

Second, we must understand that foreign students from rich countries which have robust higher education systems are less likely to be drawn to India to study science and technology, except perhaps for shorter periods (on student exchange programs for example). Our science and technology institutions and programs can however appeal to students from low- and other middle-income countries because of severe deficiencies in their higher education sector. Students from rich countries are more likely to be drawn to study in social sciences and humanities programs and take up courses in history, politics, culture and Indian languages.

Third, India is not an easy place for foreigners, whether black or white, whether from rich or poor countries. Therefore, seeking international students for a longer duration may be a tough sell, except in relatively ‘protected’ campuses and larger cities or towns that are more friendly or tolerant to foreigners.

In the context of the above, Study in India should place greater emphasis on attracting foreign students for shorter durations, for a semester or a year. Semester abroad programs for international students from potential ‘target’ countries should be developed, both at the government level and independently.

Academic institutions and other organisations should also actively develop summer programs, an idea that is under utilised in India, even though it coincides with a 3-4 months break that students and faculty enjoy in North America and elsewhere. Courses ought to be designed in a manner that students can transfer credits earned here to their home institutions with ease. The success of summer programs will require mobilising the services of well-qualified faculty, particularly those with international experience, who are known to be good teachers. Summer programs have a lot of potential, probably more than semester abroad programs since international students can earn course credits in shorter periods of 4 weeks or so. If designed and executed well, summer programs can become the launching pad for reaching out to a larger number of international students for longer duration programs.

Students have become increasingly mobile in a globalised world. Most students travel from poor countries to rich countries or from rich countries to other rich countries. International students bring economic and other benefits to the host country and the largest beneficiaries have been Western nations. However, in recent years, countries like China have taken concrete steps to attract a larger number of international students and have succeeded in doing so. India, however, lags behind. Unlike China, the gap between the number of Indian students who head abroad and the number of international students who come to India is huge. The government is reportedly working on a Study in India initiative which must be pursued seriously. Economic benefits aside, a larger number of foreign students, especially from neighbouring countries, will improve India’s status in the region and its foreign relations with neighbours. Some of these benefits may not accrue immediately but there is no doubt that India stands to gain from a successful Study in India initiative.

Pushkar is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.