Foreign learners can be at home here

DID you know that the University of Madras and its affiliated colleges have about 170 foreign students?

Actually, a small number, compared to that two decades ago, when at least a few hundreds of Nigerian, Sudanese and other African students used to flock to institutions in the then Madras.

The presence of foreign students has come down significantly for quite a few reasons: such as dwindling funds support from the respective governments; and more countries, especially Australia and New Zealand opening their doors to foreign learners.

But now, Madras University's new Vice-Chancellor is keen on changing the situation.

Prof. S.P. Thyagarajan wants to make the university a favoured destination for foreign learners. First, he plans to have an exclusive centre to cater to international learners. It will implement the University's plans for offering specialised short term and degree courses to foreign students.

The centre will be functional by January 2004 so that it can receive students from the academic year 2004-05. "That needs a lot of planning to work out the nitty-gritty," he says.

The centre will be a single window for admitting students, counselling them, helping them find decent accommodation, solve visa and documentation problems. Its advisory board will help in all these activities. It will also have a major mandate to evolve courses for the foreign learners.

The centre will offer only niche courses — the ones only Madras University will be able to provide to the exclusive group. Normal degree courses are available anywhere across the globe. But we hope to offer exclusive courses in areas such as Indian music and dance, Ayurvedha, Siddha, Performing Arts, Archaeology, Tourism, Indian heritage and Culture, or Traditional medicine systems. Creating a brand equity for our programmes can help to attract foreign students.

There are also other methods such as twinning programmes or offering joint programmes with foreign universities... But we need to have a commitment to sustain quality and be ready to undergo international assessments.''

(One model available to Madras University is the University of Pune's International Students Centre. Incidentally, the centre in Pune is headed by a Madras University alumni).

A seasoned academic will head the Madras University's International centre.

The would-be head has a lot of work to do, in terms of watching global trends and use them to fine-tune local offerings.

The VC says he starts with one advantage. "Under the `University with Potential for Excellence' scheme, we have got UGC funds to offer international level courses, provide centralised facilities for research, testing, validation... All this will help us in really internationalising our education."

Of course, the academic head is cautious in his approach. "We really need to deliver what we promise, and combine it with international quality."

K. Ramachandran

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