Under India’s ambitious overhaul of higher education, the country aims to internationalise universities, taking advantage of strong domestic offerings. But its elite institutions continue to struggle to attract overseas students to their Indian campuses. At the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) — arguably the country’s most prestigious universities and its best known higher education brand abroad — international students make up just a fraction of overall learners.
Recent years have seen IITs pay attention. In 2019, heads of IITs met to tackle the issue, noting that the low number of foreign students is negatively affecting their institutions’ global rankings. Since then, many institutions have lowered fees for international students, offered scholarships to ease fee barriers and introduced goals to increase their numbers. But such efforts appear to have helped only marginally, if at all.
Sanjeev Sanghi, former dean of international programming at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT-Delhi), concedes that IITs have failed to significantly increase share of overseas learners — partly due to a reluctance to change admissions requirements. “Currently, we have 113 foreign nationals in Masters and Ph D programmes in IIT-Delhi out of about 10,000 students total. So it’s still a very low number, but we don’t want to make any relaxation on entrance criteria,” says Prof. Sanghi. The figure is slightly lower than in 2019, when IIT-Delhi set a target of 500 international students by 2025.
Among undergraduates, the picture is no better, with the proportion of foreign students dipping even lower. Prof. Sanghi estimates that of an undergraduate class of 1,200, international students number in single digits. “At undergraduate level a lot of universities are trying to get students — but for IITs it’s almost non-existent and that’s because of our entrance system,” he says.
To enter one of India’s 23 IITs, applicants must pass a rigorous entrance exam jointly set up by these institutions. In India, many students prepare for years, often receiving tailored tutoring, a fact illustrated by the country’s massive home-grown coaching industry. “We are very particular (at IIT-Delhi) that anyone who enters the undergraduate programme has to clear our entrance exam — we’re not saying that international students are not smart enough, but the entrance examination is a very tough competition,” says Prof. Sanghi.
Years ago, the IITs created a Direct Admission for Students Abroad programme to admit international students based solely on their high school grades. But it was limited in scope, and once admitted, students often struggled, recalls Sanghi.
For now, at least, those barriers look unlikely to change much. Without the willingness to change their entry criterion, the prospect of IITs’ Indian campuses becoming more international in the future seems slim.