It is not topping the popularity charts just yet, but Tamil Nadu’s capital is welcoming growing numbers of foreign students

Tamil Nadu has always valued education and has a long history of welcoming visiting scholars. Hiuen Tsang, the Buddhist traveller, spent years in Kancheepuram learning Buddhist philosophy under a benign Pallava regime in the seventh century. Not far from that ancient town are Chennai city and its sprawling suburbs with campuses that draw students from far and wide.  

Chennai may lag in terms of numbers, but private universities are now wooing more and more foreign students, citing quality and infrastructure advantages. The relative safety that the city and its neighbouring districts offer is another key factor.  

The Association of Indian Universities says the University of Madras has 404 foreign students on its rolls, and cannot therefore be compared to Delhi University (1,224 international students) or Pune, which has 3,500, or Hyderabad and Manipal, which account for nearly 1,300 students each.  

“Chennai has never figured prominently in the list of places preferred by international students. Missionary institutes have popular ‘study in India’ programmes but when it comes to full timers, the number is much smaller,” says K.B. Pawar of the AIU. However, a study by the association shows a significant increase in the number of international students heading south.  

Deemed universities claim a 15 per cent increase in the number of applicants this year. VIT University alone has 500 Chinese students for its B. Tech courses, besides 400 from other countries.  

Academics say a combination of publicity, attractive courses and agreements with foreign universities have brought about a rise in numbers. VIT University, with tie-ups with 13 Chinese universities and many American and European ones, has an exclusive Chinese and Continental cafeteria. A four-year programme on animation is exclusively designed for foreign students. Other private institutions such as SRM University and Hindustan University have dedicated centres for students from abroad. “Students are flocking here because this part of the country is safe, and has universities with better facilities,” says G. Viswanathan, chancellor, VIT University.  

The sort of courses offered, too, plays a key role. Computer Science and English are preferred, and of late, there has been a surge in demand for bio-medical engineering, nursing and pharmacy. “Many of these courses don’t even exist back home but my seniors have found good jobs there,” says Sinah Ti, who has come from Bhutan to study bio-technology at SRM.  

Arts and Science colleges have seen fluctuating numbers over the years. “Some students cannot come due to political reasons. In the 1970s Iranians students were aplenty, the ‘80s saw Africans and later Sri Lankans coming, along with many Tibetans, and a few from Europe and America,” says Oscar Nigli, former foreign desk director at Loyola College.  

Students from Southeast Asia and Europe are keen on studying Indian culture, religion, languages, politics and the economy. Buddhist and Tamil studies remain favourites for some. Of course, studying in India is challenging. “Besides food, the climate here is a big concern,” says Frank Burton from Germany, a student of Vaishnavism at the University of Madras. Universities conduct orientation courses, and offer advice on Indian accents and why ‘low-necked tops’ and such ‘revealing dresses’ should be avoided.  

That she is paying a higher fee than Indian students does not deter Rabka Khadar from Nigeria, a B. Tech student in Computer Science at SRM University. “My college has a tie-up with this institute. It would cost me thrice the amount to study engineering in the U.K., Australia or the U.S.” The course content and the evaluation are easier.  

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