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India's new schtick: study mecca

China pulls in hundreds of thousands more foreign students than India, but Delhi has a plan

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.