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Op-Ed

Strengthening India-U.S. Relations through Higher Education

Shamika Ravi

Over the last decade, India has witnessed an explosion of aspiration among its large youth population and it is widely accepted that access to quality higher education – world class universities and a culture of academic excellence – is critical for social and economic upward mobility. India is, however, struggling to meet the educational expectations of its youth. College and university education remain off-limits to many talented Indian students.

Increased number of school graduates are opting for college education but the shortage of quality higher education institutions has led to unreasonable entrance requirements (very high cut off marks) and proliferation of dubious illegal institutions. Compared to China, access to higher education in India looks dismal. In 2000, the gross enrolment ratio in higher education was 8 percent in China and 10 percent in India (this measures the number of individuals going to college as a percentage of college-age population). In less than a decade, by 2008, Chinese higher education reforms ensured that their gross enrolment ratio rose to 23 percent while in India this rise was only marginal and the gross enrolment ratio rose to 13 percent. This reflects the extreme shortage as well as the slow pace of growth of Indian higher education sector where India is rapidly falling behind its successful neighbour.

The United States remains the undisputed superpower in the higher education sector globally. It dominates all global rankings of universities, significantly ahead of other countries including the United Kingdom and Germany. At the same time, not a single Indian university has featured in the top 200 list by either the QS World University Ranking or the Times Higher Education rankings. India’s best universities are Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Calcutta and Madras but none of them make it into the global rankings. The few IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) and IIMs (Indian Institute of Management) are centres of excellence in teaching but have low research productivity and are not universities.

It is estimated that today nearly 100,000 Indian students study in American Universities. These students advance innovation and research in U.S. universities and have the potential to make significant contributions when they return to India. Collaborations and partnerships between Indian and U.S. higher education institutions can produce advances in science, business, health, agriculture among other sectors, while strengthening civil society in both countries. A natural area to strengthen India-U.S. ties, therefore, would be in the higher education sector. It makes economic and strategic sense for both India and the United States, which share common values of liberal plural democracy.

Critical areas for cooperation between India and U.S. in higher education

India can start by exploring ways to increase investment in the higher education sector and ensuring that the quality of curriculum and teaching is world class with an overriding objective of making higher education accessible to anyone with the talent for it.

  1. Financing: This is a major bottleneck in the Indian higher education system. With pressures to cut fiscal deficits and tight central and state government budgets, there is an extreme shortage of resources that are necessary for expansion of access to higher education to all. While the Indian government has allowed foreign universities to open campuses in India, several regulatory constraints and manoeuvring a cumbersome bureaucracy remain serious impediments. As a result not a single foreign university has made an independent entry into India.
  2. Teaching quality: The quality of a higher education degree is only as good as its curriculum and the quality of the teachers. Universities are unable to compete with the rising private sector salaries and find it difficult to recruit and retain top quality teachers. This is an area where India can learn from the vast positive experience of the United States.
  3. Research: Good quality independent research is the hallmark of any global university. It actively feeds into pedagogy through cutting edge curriculum, forms the basis for business development in the corporate sector, and can be the anchor for government policy making. Except for a handful of stand-alone research institutes, India lacks the culture of independent academic research and here again it can learn from the experience of the U.S. higher education system.
  4. Governance: for higher education institutions to thrive and compete globally in the three areas above, India must develop a robust governance structure for this sector. What aspects of the regulatory framework and accreditation system of the U.S. higher education sector make it flexible and innovative? This could be the most critical component where India can learn from the successes of the U.S. university system.

“Chalein Saath Saath”: starting with baby steps

In September 2014, marking their first bilateral summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama committed themselves to a new mantra for India-U.S. relationship, “Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go.” The joint declaration, endorsing the first vision statement for the strategic partnership between the two countries, is meant to serve as a guide to boost cooperation between the two in various sectors, including higher education, over the next decade.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is tasked with providing a range of high level analytical, diagnostic and organizational development services to support the efforts of Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) of setting IITs. This will include faculty development, exchange programs and partnerships with leading U.S. higher education institutions. USAID is also going to boost the InSTEP project (India Support for Teacher Education Project) through three month customized training for over 100 Indian teacher-educators at Arizona State University. This would enable the teacher-educators to offer high quality training to Indian teachers back home, thereby raising the overall teaching quality.

Starting in 2012, both countries have pledged $5 million to the 21st Century Knowledge Initiative, to support research and teaching collaboration in the fields of energy, climate change and public health. The Fulbright-Nehru program supports more than 300 scholars between the two countries. The U.S. government has re-launched the Passport to India initiative partnered with the Ohio State University. The main objective of this initiative is to work with the private sector to increase internship opportunities, service learning and study abroad opportunities in India. This initiative is also about to launch a massive open online course (MOOC) for American students who are keen to learn more about Indian opportunities.

The U.S.-India Higher Education Dialogue creates opportunities for student mobility and faculty collaboration across the two countries. The government of India proposed several new ideas for faculty exchange through its Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN) program where the MHRD will create a channel for U.S. professors in science, technology, and engineering to teach in Indian academic and research institutions on short term exchanges. This would be a mutually beneficial collaboration if it were to allow faculty members from U.S. universities to spend six months of their sabbatical year in India. Indian academic institutions would gain tremendously from such visits, and such short term appointments should be facilitated and strongly advertised.

Given the gap between the quality of higher education in Indian institutions and the demands of the expanding job market, skilling has become a top priority for the new government. Employability is a key concern and several efforts are been made to encourage new certification programs, knowledge sharing and public-private partnerships between the two countries. There are significant potential gains to be made through the U.S. community colleges collaborating with Indian institutions to adopt models of best practices in skill development. There is an agreement between the All Indian Council of Technical Education and the American Association of Community College for curriculum development and adopting demands of the industry to train future workforce.

Governance Structure of Indian Higher Education is Key

Beyond the baby steps, the Indian higher education system has to prepare for a marathon, to fully meet the demands and aspirations of Indian youth. Most of the ideas highlighted for U.S.-India collaborations will remain token measures until the Indian higher education system undergoes a tectonic shift in governance structure. A few educational entrepreneurs might perhaps be able to realize the positive intended impact of these collaborative steps, but they are unlikely to be widespread until India brings about a change in the regulatory framework of its higher education sector.

Beyond the good intentions of the government, India has to develop an incentive structure within Indian universities that would welcome such collaborations with the U.S. universities. How can such collaborations be made sustainable, on their own account, without government pushing it? Do the Indian universities have the flexibility to offer long term positions to high quality foreign faculty? Would Indian universities accept course credits for students who spent semesters studying in universities that are incorporated under U.S. (foreign) regulations? India is keen to have high quality foreign universities open campuses here, yet there is lack of clarity on whether their core product – a four-year undergraduate degree – would be recognized by the Indian higher education regulators. India needs to modernize its own higher education regulatory framework such that students and faculty can take maximum advantage from such collaborations with foreign institutions of higher learning. The overriding objective of these collaborations, from the Indian perspective, has to be to improve access to quality higher education for Indian students and to raise the research and teaching capacity of India’s faculty pool.