Students emerging as new constituency of Sino-Indian rapprochement

Swaran Singh China Plus Published: 2018-01-12 11:46:33
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By Swaran Singh

Centuries of India's subjugation under the British imperialism had resulted in the Council of India adopting English Education Act of 1835 to fulfill Thomas Babington Macaulay's dream of producing "a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect", which was to produce thousands of Indian support staff for the empire.  But this also resulted grooming revolutionaries and other leaders of India's national liberation moment as also the successive generations of power elite of independent India. This explains why India had a peaceful transfer of power in 1947 and chose to continue with British laws and institutions and why British universities continued to be the mecca for India's future leaders in most sectors.

A photo taken on May 20, 2017 shows an Indian student at a cultural event in Nanjing in east China. [Photo:]

A photo taken on May 20, 2017 shows an Indian student at a cultural event in Nanjing in east China. [Photo:]

In spite of the national literacy rate of mere 18 percent in India's 1951 census, its first elected parliament of 1952 had 38 per cent of its members as graduates and English was the language in which India's constitution was debated and drafted. This monopoly in training India's rulers across all fields of knowledge had gradually begun to erode in favor of the United States and the booming middle class of reforms period since early 1990s  and it has seen increasing numbers of Indian students filling seats in universities across Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other English speaking countries. More recently it is the non-English speaking destinations like German, China, Singapore, Ireland and United Arab Emirates that have become equally attractive destinations for India's students, especially those in technical and vocational steams.

What makes China the most interesting destination for India's students today is not just phenomenal rise in numbers. China has, no doubt, drawn increasing number of Indian students making it the fastest growing destination for Indian students' emigration. China is the only country amongst the top ten destinations for India students with which India has had a complicated history of relations. Indeed, even in face of several irritants continuing to mar Sino-Indian relations last year -- including their 72 day long border standoff at Doklam -- number of Indian students choosing China as their home continues to rise. Apart from providing them with opportunities of training in useful knowledge and skills that promise to make them productive citizens of India, this trend promises to make these Indian students in China the new powerful constituency for promoting mutual trust and understanding between these two emerging powers of Asia.

According to Academic Mobility: the 21st Century Silk Road report from International Institute for Education (Washington DC: December 2017), China was host for 397,635 foreign students during 2015 and plans to take this figure to 500,000 by 2020.  It is attracting largest numbers of students from South Korea (70,540), U.S. (23,838), Thailand (23,044), Pakistan (18, 626), India (18,171) and Russia (17,971). This makes Indian students fifth largest community amongst China's foreign students. More interesting is that figures for 2016 have challenged the sanctity of an enduring umbilical cord of centuries of India's education connect with United Kingdom. China overtaking UK (which received only 18,015 students for 2016) is not the same as US overtaking UK during 1970s. In cumulative terms though China will take several years to overtake UK but that may not be too far in future. China, for instance, has announced 10,000 scholarships under its Belt and Road Initiatives and also created avenues for greater faculty exchanges and recruitment from abroad. 

Starting from 2005, when there were just 765 Indian students in China, various studies today count India amongst the top five nations for sending students to China. These numbers are expected to change much faster as in last three years (2013-2016) number of Indian students going abroad for studies has witnessed a sharp rise of 24 percent which is way above compared to even China's 12 percent. This is partly so because China itself is becoming home for global higher education. Starting from early 2000, medicine courses in China had come to be favorite of students going to study in China. China's Ministry of Education statistics show numbers going up from 58,150 for 2000 to 442,000 for 2016. Lately, many more are going to China to join various engineering streams as well. 

This author has spoken to several of these students over years and low costs (sometimes as low as one/tenth of the United States) with similar advanced equipment and facilities remain their main pull factor. They are often not aware of the complications in China-India relations or the nature of their politics in the two nations. Most of them do not seem to care much! China is also physically closer to their home with easy air connections between multiple cities on both sides.  China's unprecedented rise and development offers far better lucrative job opportunities. China is increasingly focusing on branding and innovation and its universities have risen in global rankings. Courses conducted in English and Chinese medical degree are recognized by the Medical Council of India though it seeks candidates to pass through an examination before starting practice. 

Amongst the recent push factors, uncertainties of 'Brexit' can explain stagnating numbers of Indian students going to UK.  The largest numbers used to go to the United States but president Donald Trumps anti-immigration policies have drastically reduced intakes in universities across America. At home as well, India's efforts to start a National Eligibility and Entrance Test for medicine which has faced multiple hiccups making students explore destinations abroad. It is interesting to speculate how this rising trend of larger numbers of Indian students studying in China is going to influence mutual perceptions and policies on both sides.

(Swaran Singh is professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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