Leader: Come to build, not to cash in

India aims to complete its global rise by inviting foreigners to help revamp higher education, but get-rich-quick artists need not apply

July 9, 2009

So great is the sense of untapped potential in India today that Barack Obama's US Administration has identified the nation as "one of the few key countries in the world that will help shape the 21st century".

Not only is India, which has weathered the economic storm better than almost anyone else, on track to continue its enviable recent growth; it also has a new government with a resounding mandate built on a distinctly youthful sense of optimism and opportunity.

In Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation, Nandan Nilekani says: "The new India is united by a respect for achievement; yearning for a better life; and an unprecedented belief that such a life is possible regardless of caste or social and economic status."

Nilekani estimates that by 2035, India's working-age population will have grown by 0 million, and to compete in a knowledge economy, many of these people will need a higher education. Making that possible is the responsibility of Kapil Sibal, India's Minister for Higher Education, who has set to the task with vigour. His bold plan for his first 100 days in office includes a massive higher education expansion drive and help for students from poor backgrounds and minority communities.

But three moves in particular have made the world sit up: he will sweep away the tangle of regulatory bodies that have helped to separate universities from research and stymied innovation; he will legislate to entice foreign education providers to set up shop; and he has promised a "brain-gain" policy "to attract talent from across the world to the existing and new institutions" of India.

It is not far-fetched to imagine that India could soon be poaching top talent from the US and the UK. Just last week there was talk of a "redistribution of brains" at the conference of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development at Copenhagen Business School, as traditional superpowers (the UK and the US in particular) suffer disproportionately in the downturn and new powers emerge.

But if they get their approaches right, the US, the UK and others could share in the extraordinary opportunities presented by India.

The UK is especially well positioned. Its already rich history with India has for the past three years been intensely cultivated by the UK-India Education and Research Initiative.

And many of the Anglo-Indian partnerships that were formed under the soon-to-be-revamped rules have been cited as shining examples of collaboration in a series of reports from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

But the QAA's documents also contain a warning for those in the UK or elsewhere who might assume that India presents an easy financial bonanza. The agency reluctantly concluded that it lacked confidence in one UK institution's "management of quality and standards" at its partnership because it had "underestimated the resources that would be required" to make the deal work.

Elsewhere in its India reports, the QAA stresses that the importance of dialogue and understanding between partners "cannot be exaggerated". Any hint that the new legions of overseas providers are heading to India to get rich quick will be disastrous.

Mr Sibal has said he expects to see overseas universities "sprinting" to join India's higher education revolution. But it is essential for all that no one tries to run before they can walk.

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