Indian students have been going abroad for higher education for over seven decades. There have been many reasons behind this. In the earlier decades, the attraction was essentially the US and this has continued unabated. Great academic institutions, the concept of a melting pot and that of a land of immigrants and infinite possibilities were the primary drivers in the earlier decades. This was ‘the pull factor’ and the lure of being part of the American dream.
The best and brightest students left for the US. Most of them stayed back to work, got a green card and finally, citizenship. They became part of the Indian diaspora. Around 1970s, the Government of India myopically criticized this exodus as brain drain and as a loss in foreign exchange and started to contemplate obstacles to diminish numbers going abroad for higher studies.
Over time, lack of focus and reforms triggered a deep crisis in India’s education sector. Top-rated educational institutions were unable to accommodate increasing numbers of aspiring Indian students and thereby, disrupt their Faculty-student ratio. The minimum entry score for admissions was raised to absurd limits and it was not unheard of to read of students scoring a perfect one hundred percent in their school-leaving examinations! A debilitating demand-supply mismatch triggered the mushrooming of sub-standard educational institutions and rampant corruption. The situation reached such proportions that as per a report barely five percent of India’s engineering graduates were, in fact, employable. This resulted in ‘the push factor’, whereby aspiring and meritorious students were pushed out to other countries for higher studies and quality education.
As numbers of the Indian diaspora increased in different countries, there was increasing recognition that several Indians occupied positions of professional and even, political influence. They had blended superbly with the local population and culture and were, in fact, respected members of the community. Perceptions of Indians living abroad dramatically shifted and they now came to be seen as assets and as ‘the true ambassadors’ of India. When the US and India negotiated the historic 123 Agreement on the civilian use of nuclear energy, the significant role played by the Indian diaspora in the US was acknowledged by the then US President and the Prime Minister of India.
Several first-generation Indian Americans did extremely well professionally, as doctors, academics, engineers, lawyers, etc. Many others set up shops and retail units. Second and third generation Indian Americans continued to do well and prompted US President Biden to acknowledge their contribution when he recently said that they were taking over the US. The Government of India realized their extraordinary soft power potential and shifted perceptions from ‘brain drain’ to ‘brain gain’, as increasingly numbers of overseas Indians started to explore how they might contribute to India’s growth and development story.
The Report of the High Level Committee under the Chairmanship of L.M. Singdhvi submitted in 2002 was the first official and comprehensive document that detailed the soft power of the diaspora and the need to see it as a foreign policy asset. The Government of India, thereafter, introduced the Pravasi Bharatiya Sammelan and Awards to regularly engage with the diaspora and to honour them. Various initiatives were introduced to tap into insights and recommendations of select members of the Indian diaspora on India’s developmental challenges. It also became established practice for visiting Indian dignitaries to meet and engage with the diaspora as part of their official programme. Prime Minister Modi raised the bar significantly through massive rallies and interactions dueing each of his foreign tours that not only reached out to the diaspora but also sent a strong message to the local government of the emotional connect the diaspora continued to enjoy with India and hence, how it might influence bilateral relations.
The US wasn’t the only destination for Indian students. Canada, the UK, Europe, Singapore, Japan, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere also offered exceptional education opportunities. As was the case with the US, many Indian students stayed on or moved to other countries for work and professional opportunities. Over time, they settled down abroad and became an integral part of the communities they were now part of.
But Indians are not the only ones who went abroad for higher studies. The Chinese top the list globally and it was a conscious policy of Beijing that young Chinese needed to fluency in the English language, build networks and study at prestigious institutions. At one level, it was to establish a pipeline of intellectual property theft and they did this with great consistency and sophistication over several decades. Beijing also recognized the importance of its human capital and how quality education is a multiplier of growth. While it sent out its young population to study abroad, it simultaneously, built its own educational institutions and research capability, several of which are now internationally ranked. The number of Chinese in Australia, for instance, is so large that the second most widely spoken language in Australia is Mandarin.
Win-Win of Overseas Education
The globalization of international education is mutually beneficial. The push and pull factors clearly demonstrate the aspiration for quality education and for a better life. Till India is able to provide quality education at scale, overseas education will remain an attractive proposition. Even, thereafter, as is the case with several students from advanced countries, global and future-ready education requires openness and knowledge of other cultures. Workplaces of the future would increasingly become virtual and technology-driven, where your accountant might be sitting in Tamil Nadu, your Executive Assistant in Paris, your Project Manager in Tokyo and your Marketing Head in New York. Understanding and managing cultural diversity has already become a critical part of top-quality education because of the correlation education enjoys with employability.
International education providers and host countries also see international students as contributing to revenue generation. According to US government reports, in 2018, international students contributed US$ 44.7 billion in revenue to the US economy. According to the Australian Minister of Education, in 2019, international students contributed A$ 37.6 billion to the Australian economy. This is not small change.
Both, consequently, need each other and it is understandable that the travel restrictions. following the pandemic, have had a devastating impact on international education providers, as also students aspiring to go abroad for studies.
Building Brands, Winning Friends
Following India’s independence, Pandit Nehru advocated South-South cooperation as a development model for all emerging nations as a way of avoiding reinventing the wheel and leveraging the resources of fellow developing economies. This led to a massive education programme for students from newly independent developing countries, across South Asia, South and East Asia, Africa. Several of those who came to study in India rose to positions of prominence in their own countries, including Aang San Suu Kyi and the current King of Bhutan, to name a few.
It also triggered India’s highly successful Technical Cooperation for Developing Countries programme through which not only was technical training provided but also financial aid and technical assistance for development projects ranging from road construction to building dams, hospitals, renovating monasteries, setting up educational institutions, etc.
It became an integral part of India’s foreign policy because it helped build deep ties of friendship that cut across territorial boundaries. I recall how a student from Ukraine became an overnight sensation when she sang a Bollywood song in perfect Hindi at an international students festival in Pune! This was soft power at its best.
Student life is an extraordinary experience. Studying overseas opens the mind up to other cultures and new ways of seeing. You make friends from different parts of the world, you eat different, think different, behave different. You build a cluster of memories associated with your life abroad and the extraordinary friendships you made. This is the soft power of the international study experience. It is the basis of an open society and a globally integrated one. It makes us realize that while we might look and appear different, we are all essentially the same.
(Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat. The views expressed are personal.)