The long shadow cast by Covid, perhaps because it forces us to look anew at everything we would otherwise take for granted, also allows us to see our landscape in a kind of different light: the gloom can actually sharpen our perception. Just think of higher education, and what the pandemic has wrought on that sector. The disruption of schedules is the first thing that crosses our minds, and then online learning. But think harder. Covid-19 has also created a crisis of mobility. A simple act such as travelling between cities is now fraught with a sense of uncertainty—not to speak of moving between countries. Now think back on higher education. As so often happens these days, a university is somewhere else. It no longer remains a question such as, ‘Will it open?’—one must also seek answers to other doubts. Is it safe to travel back to that city? What if there’s a lockdown and I have to return? Staying on that thought, let’s take another step back, and ask: Why are universities elsewhere? Why do Indian students have to go abroad for a respectable course? And then, inverting that—Why do other students not come here? Why is the world structured in such a way that the cream of young India is seen as a departing wave? And why can it not be the other way around?
India, as a country with a fine knowledge legacy stretching back over millennia, not just centuries, should have aimed to be a global knowledge hub. A place that has truly world-class university spaces, capable of attracting the best in the world. Where are the Taxilas and Nalandas of today? We simply do not have them. That’s why you see such a skewed ratio if you map the average arrivals and departures from our country. If you leave aside the previous year, where the pandemic created an abnormal situation, around 8-10 lakh students go abroad to pursue higher education. The number of foreign students opting to study in India, on the other hand, is just around 45,000-50,000.