NEW DELHI — When Chen Jing and her classmates arrived in India two years ago, they were shocked to discover that their university served meat only twice a week.
"In China we eat meat daily," said Chen, who in May completed a bachelor's degree program run jointly by Wuhan University, in China, and the Vellore Institute of Technology. After a number of students complained, the Vellore institute not only began serving meat daily, but also flew chefs in from China to cook for the students. "Now we get meat every day. Chicken, beef, pork, fish, everything," said a smiling Chen.
Not so long ago, Chen and her friends might have been told to lump it. Indian universities had not historically done much to recruit foreign students, or to help the few that they had adjust to life in India.
But in recent years, that has begun to change — if slowly.
A handful of Indian institutions, like Vellore, are making an effort to welcome international students to their campuses. And the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a former professor, has begun to apply India's first comprehensive strategy to woo foreign students. It is part of Singh's vision to make India a global knowledge hub. Yet academics and policy makers alike agree that India has a long way to go to achieve that goal.
Fewer than 22,000 degree-seeking foreign students enrolled in Indian universities in 2007-8, according to the Association of Indian Universities. By contrast, China attracts more than 200,000 foreign students each year, most on short-term study-abroad programs. India's official numbers are somewhat misleading in that the university association does not track short-term study-abroad students in India. Even so, academics here say that the country must make some changes if it hopes to significantly increase the number of international students coming to India.
As the Vellore Institute of Technology demonstrates, strategic planning and a welcoming attitude can also go a long way to helping internationalize a campus. This fall the institute will enroll about 700 students from China.
"By 2010 we expect more than 5,000 Chinese students to be studying in India," said Sathya Moorthy, chairman of the Sino-India Education & Technology Alliance, a quasi-governmental body promoted by the Chinese government. Moorthy, who is Indian by birth but has spent the past 21 years in China, first approached Vellore Institute of Technology with the idea of enrolling Chinese students there.
Most of the Chinese students in India enroll in computer-science or English-language programs, two major Indian strengths that prompt many academics to believe that India could eventually become a global education center.
That India is not already a major destination for international students, academics say, is a failure of the national government. A number of academics point to China's success, following its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, in recruiting foreign students as an example of what a country can do when political leaders make internationalization a priority. "There is a very concerted effort by the Chinese government to attract international students," said Pawan Agarwal, who wrote "Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future," and has worked at India's university regulator.
Some of India's indifference toward foreign students is due to a simple lack of capacity. Only about 10 percent of Indian 18- to 24-year-olds even make it to college, and the government is expanding the higher-education system to serve its own citizens.
Yet some institutions have been able to expand their foreign-student enrollments in ways that help, not hurt, their domestic programs.
The University of Pune, which is supported by the government of the western Indian state of Maharashtra, enrolls 4,000 foreign students across hundreds of affiliated colleges and institutes. When foreign students enrolled in short-term courses are included, that figure rises to 15,000. They hail from more than 102 countries.
And yet, "we are not just breaking even but making money," said Vasudha Garde, director of the university's International Students Center. At Pune, foreign students are charged higher tuition than are Indian students. The additional revenue has helped the university increase the number of courses offered to all students.
Marketing is, in fact, a big problem for Indian universities. Few do it, or do it well, and until recently the government has provided little support for international-recruitment activities. The main body through which India promotes its universities overseas is the University Grants Commission, but it has done little to spread the word, higher-education experts say.
No other country competing for foreign students leaves recruitment up to a government regulatory agency, Agarwal said. India needs to outsource that responsibility to a semi-independent professional agency, he says. Agarwal said India had the potential to become a destination for cost-conscious families looking for undergraduate options.
"I've got calls from friends in the U.S. wanting to send their children to college in India for the first degree, which will be much cheaper here," Agarwal said. "Then they can top it up with a more expensive graduate degree in the U.S. Even if this starts as a trickle, I have no reason to disbelieve that it won't pick up. Maybe it will take five to 10 years."
Singh, India's prime minister, has been trying to drive higher-education reform here, with mixed success. He has also taken steps to open Indian universities up to the rest of the world.
In late May, as part of the prime minister's directive, the University Grants Commission ordered all public universities to establish international-student centers that will help foreign students set up bank accounts, find apartments, and otherwise get settled. According to Singh's directives, universities should also offer six-month English-language-proficiency courses for foreign students who need the help before they start their regular courses.
Singh's government was re-elected by a significant majority in national elections this spring. And many academics feel the government may make good on this strategy.