Student Exchange Programs: The Way Forward for Economic Integration in SAARC?

Kriti Samnotra
Kriti Samnotra

Kriti Samnotra is a Research Intern at New Delhi-based Bureau of Research on Industry and Economic Fundamentals (BRIEF). She is pursuing economic studies at University of British Columbia, Canada. Views expressed are personal.

In May 2021, the Chinese government proposed a Pakistan-China Institute of Higher Education which will be linked to the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan to increase scholarship programmes and attract Pakistan’s best students. This is following the rise in the number of Pakistani students studying in China, which is currently more than 28,000, and over 1000 Chinese students are pursuing higher education in Pakistan.


This surge in cultural diplomacy has improving economic relations in the background. In January 2020, China and Pakistan entered into the second phase of the China-Pakistan Free Trade Agreement (CPFTA2), under which China has eliminated tariffs on 313 priority tariff lines of Pakistan’s export interest. Similarly, infrastructure development in Pakistan has been progressing under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as work on USD 1.7 billion electricity transmission line was completed in June 2021. It is tough to argue whether study abroad programs might be improving economic relations due to cultural diffusion or better economic relations lead to more student exchanges – a classic chicken and egg problem.  


Under India’s Neighbourhood First policy, there have been different initiatives towards improving bilateral relations between the members of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). These initiatives include student and cultural exchange programs. In 2019, around 10 students from St Patrick’s college in Sri Lanka visited India for a week, as organized by the High Commission of India. Through the NGO Routes to Roots, over 20,000 children from India and Pakistan have virtually participated in cultural programs and 100 students have visited India since 2010. As a means to improve bilateral relations, Governments of India and Bangladesh organized a student-teacher exchange program through which 4 teachers and 12 students from each country visited the other. The most ambitious initiative undertaken by SAARC has been the South Asian University located in Delhi. While the South Asian university has been mired in controversies such as student protests on scholarship disbursal or failure to employ the university president from a non-Indian pool of applicants, non-Indian SAARC students comprise 50% of the student population, indicating the desire for scholarly exchange among SAARC nations.


The South Asia Economics Student Meet, which is an annual conference that focuses on regional economic development, welcomes students from across South Asia. Since its conception in 2004, more than a thousand students have participated in the conference. SAESM highlights the potential that exists for academic and cultural exchange in South Asia. As integration in South Asia remains at low levels, student exchange programs are required at a higher frequency and on a larger scale to improve students’ technical skills and help them in developing an international approach, to shape international political behaviour and improve cultural diplomacy and integration.


Technical Skills and International Approach: As the standards of education are rising across East and South-East Asia, with Chinese, South-Korean, and Singaporean universities being ranked among the top 200 universities in the world, an interconnected network of universities in South Asia is required for college students to study abroad such that they gain technical skills, an international outlook and are able to compete on an international level.


Similarly, researchers have found that exchange students return home with a positive view of the country in which they studied and attempt to use the knowledge they gained in improving their home country. In the 1970s, Mario Boza and Alvaro Ugalde of Costa Rica were trained in National Park management in the United States. After returning to Costa Rica, they focused on developing a national park system and were able to convince the Government of Costa Rica to set aside 400,000 acres of the park system. Through their work on national park management, Costa Rica is now considered the most ecotopian of all developing countries as its park system has helped to preserve a rich area of rainforests and biodiversity (Gerald Fry, The Economic and Political Impact of Study Abroad).


Shaping Political Behaviour: Student exchange programmes have historically been used for shaping international political behaviour. During the Cold War, the United States hosted exchange students from the Soviet Union to expose them to the freedom and prosperity that could be found under a democratic institution and a free-market system. This form of scholarly exchange fostered gradual liberalization of the Soviet (Carol Atkinson, Does Soft Power Matter? A Comparative Analysis of Student Exchange Programs 1980-2006).


Cultural Diplomacy and Integration: Research has shown that student exchange programs allow students to develop a broader identity such as a “South Asian identity” or an “African identity” by experiencing “cultural collisions”. This permits students to find similarities with other cultures and develop a more globalised outlook of the world, as they are able to put behind the “curse of nationalism”, as termed by French diplomat Jean Monnet (Gerald Fry, The Economic and Political Impact of Study Abroad).


SAARC countries don’t have to reinvent the wheel as there are examples of successful study abroad programs across the world such as the European Union’s Erasmus Program that has been running since the late 1980s. Through sound funding and cooperation among 37 countries, over 900 universities in Europe have facilitated student mobility over 4 decades. More than 300,000 students participate in this program annually.


While transport connectivity and infrastructure are core pillars for economic integration, people to people contact is equally important. Scholarly exchange programs have the potential to make the next generation of students ambassadors for global change as they learn multicultural attitudes and adopt an international outlook. While the chicken and egg problem persists and we cannot determine if a certain level of economic allyship is required for student exchange programs to work, South Asian countries have shown commitment towards building economic bridges and student exchange programs can act as catalysts to reach their goal.