OPINION: When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia in 2014, he described India’s relationship with Australia as “a natural partnership arising from our shared values and aspirations”.
His visit marked a historic shift from the neglect of bilateral relations for nearly 30 years.
When Modi said that he saw Australia as a major partner in every area of India’s national priority, he was changing the vocabulary from the tired-old 3Cs (cricket, the Commonwealth and curry) to the 3Es (economy, energy and education).
At the time of Modi’s election as prime minister, his government faced enormous developmental challenges – both economic and social. This was further aggravated by wholly unrealistic expectations of the speed and intensity with which his electoral promise of “aache din”, or “better times”, would be translated.
He was acutely aware of India’s structural and other limitations in being able to achieve manifest change within an abbreviated time frame. Consequently, Modi reached out to the global community.
In his view, as he said in the Australian parliament, partnerships require that countries stand together at a moment of enormous opportunity and great responsibility.
Among the multiple opportunities that India offers, education has all the ingredients to be the game-changer in India-Australia relations.
But this requires a shift in mindset from a lukewarm, limited and uninformed engagement to one that is robust, dynamic and aspirational.
India’s booming uni-age population
India’s demographic trend will soon see it overtake China as the world’s most populous country.
Currently, over 50% of India’s population, or around 600 million people, are under 25 years. Within the next five years, India will have the largest tertiary-age population in the world. The middle class – those best able to pay for a quality education – is expected to swell to around 500 million.
With GDP growth rates set to cross 8%, the demand for higher education can only grow.
Coupled with the series of reforms and new initiatives through programs such as Make in India, Digital India, Smart Cities and Start-up India, exceptional possibilities for partnerships with institutions that embed education, entrepreneurship and innovation in their teaching pedagogy have opened up.
The demand for vocational education and training is expected to undergo an exponential surge. This suggests that India will emerge as the biggest opportunity for top-quality international education providers in the 21st century.
The Indian government is acutely aware of the importance of quality education. Without this, the benefits of the demographic dividend might be squandered and reduced, in fact, to a demographic disaster.
Large numbers of jobless young people can easily be lured into criminal and anti-social activity. This danger is even more pressing given that archaic pedagogical techniques coupled with dodgy fly-by-night educators have effectively delinked education from employability – a large number of India’s unemployed are, in fact, educated.
Growing demand for higher education
The Indian workforce needs to embrace global standards and innovation. This can only be achieved through education that departs from 19th-century mindsets.
New Delhi realises the urgency of this massive challenge: it is estimated that by 2020, India will need 40 million university places, an increase of 14 million over the next four years, and 500 million skilled workers.
While online education might address part of the problem, it is not likely to be the only solution, especially not in the vocational training sector.
Even if India achieves its target of 30% gross enrolment rate in the tertiary sector by 2020, it is estimated that 100 million eligible students would still miss out on a university education.
India simply has to increase the numbers of its young people receiving a quality education – either in India or abroad – if the country is to benefit from its demographic dividend.
Opportunity for Australia
The current lack of supply, coupled with the increasing ability of the middle class to pay for higher education, offers Australia’s world-class education providers an attractive opportunity.
It is no exaggeration to say that the scale of demand for what Australia has to offer is unprecedented. However, we cannot approach this opportunity with a “business as usual” mentality.
Simply offering more places for Indian students at Australian universities, although welcome, cannot be the only answer.
Australia must focus on collaborating with India’s leading educational institutions and vocational training centres, and do so in innovative ways.
Co-operation must include joint research projects with partner Indian institutions and active collaboration with the corporate sector.
In Modi’s vision, it is this historic challenge that represents the enormous opportunity and great responsibility for India-Australia relations. It would be the test of true partnership.
The history of India-Australia relations has rarely offered so much expectation and hope.
After 30 years of neglect, perhaps this is a relationship whose time has finally come, where collaboration in education and training could provide the much-awaited tipping point.
To lose this opportunity would be a major strategic setback and an opportunity squandered.
Amit Dasgupta is UNSW's inaugural India Country Director, based in New Delhi. He is a former Indian diplomat and was Consul General in Sydney from 2009-12.
This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.