Is Modi Chasing Away His Brightest?

Pundits are pointing to new trade potential with India as the U.S. works to disengage with much of the Communist Party-linked economy in China, but one American “export” opportunity isn’t getting enough attention: enrollment in post-secondary education.

U.S. universities, for all their widely discussed flaws, nonetheless have long been a draw to talented or wealthy foreigners. This inflow suffered mightily during the Covid pandemic, but now has resumed from most of the world (less so, China). In some cases, not only is there a “pull” to attend in America, but a “push” to escape sub-par conditions at home. India appears increasingly to be in the latter camp, and this is true even in graduate-level programs where it has famously top schools.

The reason, according to scholars here and there, is more pervasive interference in academic and intellectual affairs by the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi. The problems were laid out last fall in this article by historian Ramachandra Guha. The impact was flagged last week at a Council on Foreign Relations symposium by Prof. Lisa Mitchell of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of South Asia Studies, who noted an “explosion of applications” from Indians to U.S. programs.

The evidence at the application stage is still anecdotal–Mitchell reports a doubling at her base from past years–and even the matriculation data from last fall aren’t catalogued nationally. But the Modi effect, both from the outside on India’s institutions as well as from nationalist intimidation on the inside, has been increasingly felt. That could explain a jump to 102,000 Indian graduate students in the U.S. for the 2021-2022 term, after a string of declines pre-pandemic, to 85,000 in 2019-2020. (The trend in the smaller numbers of undergraduate is more mixed, though the most recent total of 27,545 is a high.) These figures come from the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors database.

“I’m hearing from many that there’s a feeling that India’s top universities are being destroyed (especially programs in the Humanities/Social Sciences) through political appointments of Vice Chancellors and harassment of faculty, and that universities are ceasing to be sites for the free exchange of ideas,” Prof. Mitchell emailed me.

The latest enrollment count, when it emerges, will tell an important story, as will the applications that can lead to attendance starting later this year. It is possible that graduate interest in the U.S. diminished in the U.S. from 2017 because of President Trump’s hostility to many visa-dependent employment opportunities, and has now jumped back up with perceptions of more openness. But elite Indians have all the while enjoyed access to Institute of Technology campuses (IITs) and other premium-flight options at home leading to international careers. If more choose to study–and discourse–in America instead, it is our gain and India’s loss.

–March 7, 2023

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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