The platform for a transformational change in bilateral relations was laid when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia in November 2014. Deviating from script, he spoke of India-Australia relations as “a natural partnership arising from our shared values and aspirations”. He was not talking of cricket, the Commonwealth or curry.
His visit marked a historic shift from the neglect that had held the bilateral relations hostage for nearly 30 years. When he said that he saw Australia as a major partner in every area of India’s national priority, he was, in fact, changing the vocabulary from the 3Cs to the 3E’s: economy, energy and education. This disruptive transition necessarily requires a shift in mind-set from a lukewarm, limited and uninformed engagement to one that is robust, dynamic and aspirational.
It needs to be recognized that when Chief Minister Modi became the Prime Minister of India two years ago, his government faced enormous developmental challenges — both economic and social. This was further aggravated by the wholly unrealistic expectations in terms of the speed and intensity with which his electoral promise of “aache din” (better times) would be translated. He was acutely aware of India’s structural and other limitations in being able to achieve this within an abbreviated time-frame.
Consequently, he 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 emerge as a game-changer in bilateral relations.
India’s demographic trend will soon see it overtaking China as the most populous country. Currently, over 50 per cent of India’s population, or around 600 million, are under 25 years of age. Within the next five years, India will have the largest tertiary age population in the world. Second, the middle class is expected to swell to around 500 million.
With GDP growth rates set to cross eight per cent through sustained high economic performance, the demand for higher education will consistently grow. Coupled with the series of reforms and new initiatives through programmes such as Make in India, Clean Ganga, Digital India, Smart Cities, Start-up India and the like, exceptional possibilities for tie-ups with international institutions that embed education, entrepreneurship and innovation in their teaching pedagogy have opened up. In addition, the demand for vocational education and training is expected to see an exponential surge. This suggests that India will emerge as the biggest opportunity for top quality international education providers in the 21st century.
New Delhi is acutely aware of the importance of quality education, without which the benefits of the demographic dividend might be squandered and reduced, in fact, to a demographic disaster. Large numbers of young would be jobless and could easily be lured into criminal and anti-social activity.
Indeed, one of the biggest challenges India faces is the horrific mismatch between the significant demand for education and its abysmally low supply. Archaic pedagogical techniques, coupled with dodgy fly-by-night education providers, have delinked education from employability. Consequently, it is no surprise that a large number of the unemployed are, in fact, educated.
In addition, as geography digitally shrinks and work environments increasingly become multi-cultural, the Indian work force would need to embrace global standards and innovation.