India had 47,427 foreign students from 164 countries in 2018-19. That sounds like a good number, but is a minuscule fraction of the entire student population. For the government’s Study in India initiative to make a difference, we need a lot more foreigners taking admission to colleges and varsities in India. According to a report in this newspaper, that number for 2018-19 was less than 1,500 more than the count for the previous year. Most of the students were from Nepal (26.9%), followed by Afghanistan (9.8%), Bangladesh (4.4%), and then Sudan, Bhutan, Nigeria, the US, Yemen, Sri Lanka and Iran with fewer numbers. So far, India’s global appeal has been the low cost of higher education available here. That advantage should remain. But the quality of life on campus is no less significant a factor that influences student decisions.

Among poorer countries, for decades India has stood out for the sheer diversity of opinion on its campuses. Some foreign students have been impressed that the range of political views, spanning the spectrum from left to right, is even wider in India than it is on America’s famed Ivy League university campuses. As most educationists believe, exposure to thoughts of all kinds and the free exchange of ideas are crucial to the process of education.

Of late, however, political polarization globally has meant that campuses have begun to witness increasing intolerance of unpopular views. In the US, various colleges have stopped leaders from speaking because their views were considered offensive to most students. Such trends need to be resisted. Informal settings in India may be relatively immune to them, but there is reason to fear a loss in the openness of campus culture in many places. If India can make freedom of speech on campus a real selling proposition, it could attract a lot of students from everywhere.

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