In an interaction with the media at the Indian embassy in Washingtion, DC at the end of a week-long visit to the United States -- during which he met with the presidents and other key players of leading US universities to exhort them to come to India and set up campuses to help improve quality higher education there -- Sibal said another reason for his visit was to institutionalise an infrastructure in the form of a Council so that these collaborations when they do take place can be formalised.
When he broached the idea with US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the proposal had been welcomed with the latter hoping that it could be formalised in time so that it could be one of the tangible dialogues consummated during the prime minister's visit.
Sibal said in view of Dr Singh's visit, "we wanted to see if we could actually start a dialogue with these top universities so that down the road, we could actually enter into some kind of a formal arrangement with these universities."
"And, because the prime minister was coming, we had proposed to Under Secretary William Burns when he came there (to New Delhi) and had a meeting with me that we would be interested in setting up an India-US Education Council much on the lines of the India-US Business Council," the minister said.
"I raised that issue with Mr Duncan, who has said that 'yes, we should try and see if that is possible.' And, so a dialogue has already started and hopefully the ambassador (Meera Shankar) will carry this dialogue further," Sibal added.
"And if it is possible, maybe that's something that can be put in place before the prime minister comes," he said.
When asked in what ways he saw it in terms of the USIBC (which has many Fortune 500 companies that do business in India as members), Sibal said that besides some of the leading universities and colleges in the US coming together with top Indian educational institutions, the Council would also comprise "lots of representatives of industry and entrepreneurs."
Sibal, who met the presidents of Harvard, MIT, Yale, and Boston University, also held a roundtable with several other university presidents of Washington, DC universities and also some from across the country in DC, and said, "They are extremely interested, and not only are they interested, but they have been proactive in expressing their hope that the law will be put in place very soon so that actually they can come forward and come to India as foreign education providers."
"All that they wanted was a level playing field, which we will give them," he said.
Later, when rediff.com asked if it wasn't a case of putting the cart before the horse in his making a strong pitch and inviting these universities to come to India, when there was no law yet in place, Sibal said, he fully expected the law to be in place by July 2010.
Earlier, US officials had hoped that this would be in place by Dr Singh's visit so that it could be the education pillar Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had mentioned among her five pillars to take US-India relations to the next level -- 3.0, as she had described it.
In an interview with rediff.com in August, the Obama administration's point man for South Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake had said as part of Clinton's effort to take US-India relations to the 3.0 level was trying "to figure out ways to remove obstacles for private sector cooperation, cooperation between academic institutions, scientists and so forth."
"It is really about unleashing the potential of people outside of government to cooperate, because we feel that such a vast range of contacts are already taking place between India and the United States and one of the most effective things that we can do is to try to empower those contacts further," Blake said.
When asked to provide an example, Blake said in the field of education, "for many years, American educational institutions have wanted to do much more in India but haven't been able to because of various restrictions."
"Now we understand from our Indian friends
"So, I can say our colleges and universities are chomping at the bit to do more in India, and this is a very good example of the kind of things that our two governments can to do allow our private institutions to work together," Blake added.
At the press conference, Sibal said the "level of excellence achieved by graduate institutions in the United States of America is globally benchmarked and so, if we could actually tie up with some of these high quality American universities and persuade them to enter into an arrangement, either with existing institutions or setting up innovation universities in India, we thought that we would then set an example of the levels of excellence that we aspire for so that other institutions in the higher education sector, which will come up should be able to match that benchmark."
The minister said there is no way India could "on our own finance education in India. So, we need private sector involvement in the higher education sector as it is in the engineering sector, where 90 percent of education providers in India are from the private sector."
"So, we need quality private players in the system, who will also invest in India and produce quality people," he added. Sibal said the reason he brought representatives from India's higher education sector like Professor Sanjay D Dhande, director, Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, Dr Debashis Chatterjee, director, Indian Institute of Management-Kozhikode, and Professor B B Bhattacharya, vice-chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, was because "we also wanted to showcase that we have quality institutions with a leadership which has brought education, especially IITs and IIMs, now being recognised by the world."
When he was informed that while he had been meeting largely with the heads of Ivy League universities and colleges, and that community colleges in the US had been highly successful, he replied, "That's exactly why we want the India-US Education Council, because I think through an institutional framework, we'll be able to collaborate with a variety of institutions in the US, including community colleges."
On the questions of endowments, which is a large part of the Ivy League university system in the US, and if the same system would be allowed if some of these foreign universities and colleges decide to come to India and set up institutions, Sibal said, "The issue of endowments is wholly irrelevant to this, because if foreign education providers want to come to India, they will have to conform to the laws of India in the context that we allow education providers to set up charitable institutions in India set up societies in India, and also thinking of at the moment -- we have not decided anything -- to set up not-for-profit Section 25 companies, and it is within that framework that they will conduct their educational activities in India."
When also informed of a perennial complaint by non-resident Indians, particularly those in the US, that when they admit their children to private universities in India, they are asked for sizeable donations, Sibal said that without whining about it, they should bring this to the notice of the Government of India that they have been asked these capitation fees.
"But there's no point making a public comment about this," he said. "So, that's between the NRIs and those private universities. We are in the process of passing a law that this kind of capitation fee would be a malpractice under the law and that educational institutions will be dealt with under the law."
Sibal who said he had had "a full range of discussions with academia, with government, with individual presidents of universities," reiterated that "the sense that I get from them is that the US academic world is ready to start a very serious dialogue with the university system there (in India). And, of course, we are going to encourage that dialogue as soon as we go back."
The minister said he had also met with the leadership of the Pan-IIT alumni association in the US, "who have also unveiled a road map for the future in terms of faculty, assistance and collaboration in terms of wanting to solve the common problems of common people, and they have a road map for that."