China is the new South Asian student center – analysis
India’s Neighborhood First policy recently achieved many successes, focused on infrastructure investment. But while a focus on such physical infrastructure is critical, the softer, more cultural dimensions are often lost as well.
The ability to attract students is one of the strongest indicators of soft power. Educational ties can influence diplomatic relations. Surveys show that student mobility facilitates knowledge transfer and research collaboration, as well as 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.
Using this soft power technique, after 1947, India quickly established itself as the region’s educational, scientific, and intellectual center. Former Nepalese Prime Minister BP Koirala, former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar are among the most prominent students in Indian educational institutions.
Given this history, and the geographical and linguistic ties, one would assume that India today continues to be a natural destination for students in 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 rapidly losing its appeal. Based on the Indian Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) and comparative figures from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we focus on students from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and found two worrisome . trends
First, although South Asian students still make up half of the total foreign student population in India (49% in 2019), their numbers have stagnated. Annual student growth in the neighborhood India has slowed from 30% to just 9% in the past seven years. Mainly due to fee waivers and thousands of Foreign Ministry scholarships, one in four foreigners studying in India comes from Nepal.
Second, even if Pakistan is excluded, China now receives roughly the same number of students from South Asia as India. In the past six years, the number of incoming students from the India to China neighborhood increased by 176%. Almost all the countries in the South Asia region now send the same number, or more, of students to China as to India. In 2016, for example, there were three times as many Bangladeshis studying in China (4,900) as in India. In the case of Myanmar, there were 17 times more students in China than in India.
Looking to the future, future academic, business, diplomatic, military and political elites of neighboring India are increasingly likely to have been shaped by Chinese education. This is an overlooked aspect of the softer dimensions of the Beijing Belt and Road Initiative, which, beyond high-value infrastructure, also quietly invests in educational exchanges and regulatory harmonization.
Why would Nepalese youth go to China if they can cross the open border to attend Indian universities? Why do Sri Lankans prefer expensive institutions in Singapore to South India? And why don’t more Bangladeshi students come to Kolkata?
We find a mix of reasons, including visa and regulatory hurdles, but none is more significant than the quality of higher education. China now has 22 universities in the world top 500, compared to only nine in 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 that Delhi can do to improve educational connectivity in South Asia. You can invest more in the “Study in India” promotional campaigns, in closer collaboration with universities that tend to neglect the immediate region. After completing their studies in India, citizens of neighboring countries must also obtain preferential employment visas.
The Indian Council for Cultural Relations could collaborate with its international counterparts to offer scholarships with trilateral exchanges. Furthermore, the University Scholarships Commission should prioritize joint research projects and academic partnerships with universities in neighboring countries. Hard infrastructure is urgent but not enough for India to win hearts and minds in neighboring countries. Improving educational connectivity should be a key priority if India wishes to retain its role as the region’s intellectual hub.
Constantino Xavier is a member of Brookings India Foreign Policy and Security Studies. Aakshi Chaba studies at Yale University and interned in Brookings’ Sambandh initiative
The opinions expressed are personal.