Attracting International University Students: India & China

Ambassador (retd.) Kishan S RanaHonorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.

The Economist (19 March 2016) estimates that the global total of university students that go to foreign countries for studies is about 3.5 million, and estimates that the number may rise to 7 or 8 million by 2025. It also calculates the number of US students in foreign countries at 300,000, which could go up to 600,000 by 2020. China and India are two other major contributors to this form of ‘export’ of education services. China currently has about 500,000 that study in foreign countries, while India has sent out more than 300,000.

I wrote about what India should do to attract more foreign students in an article in Business Standard dated 22 June 2014, titled ‘The Power to Attract.’

Foreign students are important to major countries for a mix of reasons.

  • They are a great connector between countries. Research shows that even when foreign students face problems during their education years, and do not go back home with totally positive experiences, they understand and ‘contextualize’ their experiences, and almost always look back with nostalgia. It adds to a country’s soft power of attraction and persuasion.
  • Their presence widens the horizons of all the students, and builds inter-cultural awareness.
  • Often their presence also lifts education standards, and indirectly encourages international faculty exchanges.
  • The receiving country earns money from educating foreign students; this becomes a service industry.

Consider the way India and China go about attracting foreign students, and their policy, and experience.


1. Policy goals: A calculated policy to attract more foreign students. The 500 Confucius Centers around the world, established since 2004 (besides around 400 Confucius Classrooms at high schools), crate a rising catchment. The aim is to build connections across the world, enhance soft power and earn money.

1.1 Public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP much higher than in India. Public universities flush with funds.

1. No official policy to attract foreign students, but private universities do their bit to earn profits; at some such as Manipal, Symbiosis and others, 10% or more are foreign students. A new act of parliament on education policy has long been stuck due to internal dispute; Min. of Human Resource Development has little time for this issue.

1.1 Low public expenditure on education, with very little growth in the budgets of public universities, whose budgets leave little scope for discretionary spend or growth.

1.2 Press reports in March 2016 that Modi govt. plans major overhaul of education policy. But the backlog of issues is so vast, starting with primary education, that this subject may not get early attention.

2. Foreign student numbers: In 2001, the number of foreign students in China was 60,000, which has since been ramped up remarkably through deliberate policy actions; in 2014 it had 328,000. An announced goal is to receive 500,000 foreign students by 2020. Typically, they pay 3 times the fee for Chinese students; total earnings are perhaps around $12 billion.nst 2.  Official figures place the total at around 30,000, which may be an under-estimate as NRI students may be under-counted. One recent press report indicated that the number of students from the US and Europe has risen in 2015.
3. Foreign universities: Not allowed to set up campuses, save in partnership with public institutions. But a large network of such collaborations exists and is expanding. Chinese universities have the resources to deal confidently with such collaboration.

Announcement in Feb 2016 that policy on foreign universities entering China is to be reviewed.

3.1 Private universities exist, but do not seem to play a prominent role.

3. Tight controls inhibit installation of foreign university campuses. Public universities lack funds even for faculty exchange, to say nothing of wider collaboration.




3.1 Private universities are dynamic and have collaborations with foreign counterparts, but no joint campuses as yet.

4. Other elements: A ‘Thousand Talents’ program brings in overseas Chinese and foreign faculty, paid at international rates, to teach, but even without this, foreign professors have long come to China.

4.1 A sizable percentage of Chinese students abroad do not return to China; since some do come back later, it is hard to quantify numbers.

4.2 Number of Chinese going abroad each year for study higher than India’s figure.


4.3 Many more Chinese (and even South Koreans) go to universities in continental Europe than Indians.

4. Other than those coming for short periods, foreign faculty rare at Indian universities, save at elite IIMs and the like.


4.1 Similar situation of non-return of Indians going abroad, but anecdotal data suggests that the returning percentage may be higher than with China.

4.2 A new trend is for students to go abroad for under-graduate study, whereas in the past it was mainly for graduate study.

4.3 For reasons not clear, the number of Indians in France is barely 8000, and 12,000 in Germany, despite low tuition fees.


Attracting foreign students to one’s country and sending our one’s own students abroad are two separate but linked issues, and add up to the theme of  ‘internationalization of higher education’. The subject deserves more attention than it has received so far.

One thought on “Attracting International University Students: India & China

  1. As usual from Ambassador Rana: a very clear exposition, to the point. It would be worthwhile to study the incentives (effectively Expat Allowances) that Chinese institutions give to Chinese technical personnel returning to China — especially in new and innovative fields. If I recall correctly, India once had something like a Scientific Officer pool (or some such) to give returning scientists a berth till they could find a regular job. That was Nehruvian era stuff, and the emoluments as per status. I don’t know whether the Pool still operates, but even so it would be nothing like the incentives that China is offering top-notch scientists and doctors to set up their own labs, routinely train youngsters, etc.
    Not only that, but these incentives outdo those of other countries (at least in the Anglo-American sphere), where scientists now find suitable employment and lab facilities to the extent that they “bring in” with them substantial projects.
    How is Skill India and Innovation to proceed without pro-active encouragement?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *