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'Forces outside govt crucial to boost Indo-US educational ties'

October 14, 2011 03:07 IST

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in opening the first-ever US-India Higher Education Summit at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, -- which she co-chaired with Minister of Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal -- declared that while collaboration in this sphere is a driving force in the strategic dialogue between Washington and New Delhi, whether it will ultimately succeed or not depends on those outside government -- academia, researchers, and business.

Addressing a broad cross-section of academics, university presidents and administrators, non-governmental organisations and foundation executives, and association and private-sector leaders, numbering over 300, that included the likes of Renu Khator, president of the University of Texas in Houston to Professor U B Desai, Director, Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad to Mark Medema, Co-founder of EdVillage, which advocates a 'Better Education for Every Village," Clinton acknowledged, "Educational collaboration is a driving force in our strategic dialogue with the government of India."

"And this summit is a result of the discussions between President Obama and Prime Minister Singh because for those of you who are watching the great rise of India, I hope you share our excitement that this largest of all democracies, this wildly pluralistic nation, is on the path to providing greater benefits for their citizens within the context of freedom and opportunity," she said.

"And they know, as we know from our own experience, that a democracy depends upon education, an educated citizenry. And we, therefore, at the highest levels of our two governments, are committed to this," she said.

However, Clinton argued that "whether or not this takes hold will depend upon those of you outside government -- professors and teachers, researchers, business leaders; you will ultimately determine the success of these efforts."

Thus, she said the summit "is an opportunity for us to take our high-level partnership and begin making it real for the millions of Americans and Indians who care about our shared future and are, frankly, curious about one another."

Saying, "Our college experiences, even those of us who can dimly remember them, do shape who we become," Clinton recalled how "when I was a senior at Wellesley, my first hope was to get a Fulbright to India," but that "for reasons having to do with geopolitics, the Fulbright program was put on pause at that time. So I ended up going to Yale Law School."

"And since then, I have seen the results of my education in nearly everything that I do, on pushing me to become a global citizen, rooted here in my own country, whose values and traditions I cherish, but looking outward," she said. "And almost -- well, I don't want to say how many years later, but now I see higher education as an even greater passport to opportunity and understanding."

Clinton said, "So as we strive to facilitate that between our young people, we have to do more. We don't want to just stand by and let it happen on its own because we believe strongly that investing in learning between us is in very much both of our interests."

"Now, the United States and India have a strong history of exchange. Last year, we welcomed over 100,000 students from India to pursue college or graduate level study here. But we think the opportunities for collaboration are even greater. And particularly, we want to see more American students enrolling for academic credit at Indian institutions."

Clinton asserted that "the United States government is fully committed to enhancing this academic cooperation," and pointed out that "the Obama-Singh initiative provides $10 million for increased university partnership and junior faculty development."

She also noted that "the Fulbright-Nehru program has nearly tripled in size in the past three years, and we are proud that the United States now conducts more faculty exchanges with India than with any other country through this program."

"And with our new Passport to India program, we are working with the private sector to help more American students experience India through internships and service projects," she added.

Clinton also, obviously cognizant of the controversies over sham universities like Tri Valley University in California -- which was shut down by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division -- and University of Northern Virginia -- currently under investigation -- that have duped thousands of Indian students and left them in limbo and facing deportation, said, "We've expanded our Education USA advising services for Indian students and their families to provide information about opportunities for study, and frankly, to help you sort out misleading offers that come over the internet, and we know flood into homes across India, giving young Indian students the idea that a certain approach will work for them when, in fact, it is a dead end."

"We don't want to see that happen. We want to see real exchanges with credible institutions, and we will do everything we can to support that," she said.

She said, "We're also encouraging state and local officials in our country to engage with their counterparts in India to support educational cooperation and connection at every level. So we're going to continue to facilitate dialogues like this, but we're asking you to develop direct connections, faculty to faculty, student to student, business to business."

To drive home her point about what some of these direct connections could lead to, Clinton said, while "there are so many wonderful stories," she wanted to relate one in particular "because it really hits close to home in an area that I care deeply about."

She recalled how "A few years ago, a small group of American and Indian classmates at Stanford University decided to work together to build a better baby incubator. Four hundred and fifty premature and low-weight babies die every hour, and traditional baby incubators can cost as much as $20,000. So the students developed the Embrace baby warmer, a portable incubator for use in poor and rural areas that doesn't require electricity and only costs around $100."

"After graduating from Stanford, this Indian and American team moved to Bangalore to continue working on their idea and launched their project. And it's now in use in hospitals in India and saving babies' lives. Their goal is to save 100,000 babies by 2013."

Clinton said, "Now, this is a simple idea born out of conversations between students from both of our countries talking about shared hopes for a better world that led to action. And it took these American and Indian students from diverse backgrounds and perspectives working together to make it happen."

"So I'd like to challenge all of us to jumpstart these kinds of relationships and opportunities for cooperation today, and there is no better way to do it than to brainstorm in the sessions this afternoon to consider no idea off limits, no outcome impossible, asking yourselves: How can our universities deepen our collaboration and particularly our student and faculty exchanges, and how can we work more on research, and how can we set goals for ourselves that we then work toward meeting? How can the private sector and government help our educational institutions help catalyse the workforce that will be needed in the 21st century in both of our countries? What institutional barriers can we and should we break down, and how do we build forward?"

Clinton reiterated, "We want our relationship between these two great democracies to be as interconnected as possible at every level. Yes, government to government, but that is just the beginning and is clearly not the most important of the lasting collaborations that we seek."

Earlier, in her remarks, Clinton paid special tribute to one of the participants, former US ambassador to India and erstwhile governor of Ohio Richard Celeste, now president emeritus of Colorado College.

Celeste, who was also among the plethora of speakers at the various break-out sessions, was described by Clinton as being "well positioned based on his diplomatic service in India, and of course, his deep knowledge of American higher education, to stress the importance of greater cooperation."

Clinton said she was "delighted, as I look out at this audience, to see faces I recognise – presidents and deans of some of our greatest American colleges and universities," and she thanked "our partners in both the private and the nonprofit sectors for making this summit a priority."

Sibal in his remarks, thanked Clinton profusely for "facilitating this first-ever Higher Education Summit" and recalled that "it was 11 months ago that Secretary Clinton and I recognised that education is one of the primary pillars of the India-US strategic partnership," and that this summit 'is a culmination of that recognition."

Much of Sibal's address centered around the theme he had been focusing on since his arrival on Tuesday and in remarks and interactions at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and at a reception hosted by the US-India Business Council as run-ups to the Summit.

He said that "it is only through education that we hope to empower populations across the globe to confront the challenges of the 21st century," and noted that "without doubt, the United States defined the milestones of the 20th century, while India, as you, Secretary Clinton, described recently -- is a defining story-line of early 21st century."

Sibal, as Clinton had stressed, also acknowledged that without industry and academia, "the defining moments of tomorrow will be beyond our reach," and declared, "the platforms that you create with our young will etch the contours of those defining moments."

He predicted that "this historic summit will forge a new collaborative association in which our young can draw inspiration from your benchmarks of excellence in education and innovation and channelise their energies for public good."

Thus, he said, "Today, we dedicate our partnership for a better tomorrow."

Sibal argued that in today's globalised world, the challenges "are qualitatively different from those in the past," and warned that "business as usual is a sure recipe for global disaster."

He asserted that "the global economy will not be defined by financial flows and trade but by global, collaborative, knowledge networks where ideas move seamlessly."

Sibal said, "The future of knowledge creation will emerge through partnership for the common good. Social networks and resource sharing in cyber-space are precursors to the development of knowledge networks that will aim to address the problems of tomorrow."

He said, technology has led to the "death of distance," and predicted that "partnerships would lead to the germination of knowledge."

Sibal said, "The Gross Enrollment Ratio in higher education in India is presently around a mere 15 percent -- about 10 percent below the world average. We shall endeavor to increase our GER to 30 percent by 2020."

"This would require us to provide for opportunities in higher education for an additional 30 million children by 2020, and to do that, we will need to build an additional 1,000 universities and 50,000 colleges. To serve these institutions, we will require quality faculty of over a million assisted by quality support structures."

And Sibal noted that the new demand for higher education in India was today emerging "from three groups that traditionally did not have easy access to higher education -- the disadvantaged and marginalized, women and a 'rising' lower-middle class."

But he said this was only part of the picture, because "we, in India, to sustain our own economic growth require a skilled workforce of about 500 million by 2022."

Thus, he continued to reiterate the point he had been hammering in all of his speeches and interactions around town even during the run-up to the summit that "as the center of gravity of global economic activity shifts toward Asia, this workforce can provide the basis for sustained economic growth. And, besides, with declining demographics around the world, the global community will require a suitably skilled workforce to serve its needs."

And, in such a scenario, Sibal said, "Our demographic advantage could, thereby, become an integral part of the global workforce."

He said, "For imparting skills to our young, we need top build a robust vocational education system that links education to the world of work, and this requires the award of qualifications of international standards accepted by industry globally."

Sibal argued that "this will enable mobility of students across vocational and higher education and students endowed with skill-sets sought by industry globally will then serve its needs."

This is where, he said, "We can draw from the experiences of community colleges in the US as we proceed to develop the vocational education system in India."

Sibal also argued that it was imperative that "we need to open up the university as a learning space, embrace collaborative knowledge production, and break down the walls between institutions."

"I foresee a day when an engineering student from the Indian Institute of Technology can register for a liberal arts course offered by Yale while simultaneously enrolling for an economic course in Stanford," he said. "The university as a physical entity may no longer remain the unit of learning space."

Echoing Clinton's sentiments, Sibal said, "We together need to lay the foundation for his change and our enduring partnership will define the future of education."

"For this academia, industry and policymakers must work together," he emphasised, and declared, "Knowledge has no limits. Let our partnership dismantle the boundaries that limit us. That is our destiny. Let us embrace it."

The initial take from a quick interaction India Abroad had with some of the American participants, including both academics and businesspeople -- many of whom were seen at the events at CSIS, USIBC and other events Sibal and his delegation spoke and were present at -- was that there was no denying that Sibal--articulate and compelling with his lofty rhetoric and idealistic as well as predictable arguments -- made a strong case and was essentially preaching to the choir.

But one university president from an Ivy League University told India Abroad, and requesting that he not be identified by name was that "we need practical solutions and this for starters means, less regulations, less bureaucracy and most importantly a level-playing field."

"We need to know exactly what we are getting into -- the specifics -- and in this regard, the education bill is still in limbo and we have no idea when it will be passed. So, these are some of the concerns we have," he said, adding, "Let me reiterate, all of the arguments Minister Sibal made are not just compelling but convincing. But we need guarantees."

This president said, "True, we can go ahead and make arrangements with states and start programs and set up campuses, but what happens, if the federal government, after we've set up shop and done all of the initial spade-work comes and says, we haven't met all of the required criteria?"

"You bet we are gung-ho, we are excited, and we know the huge potential that exists in India, and as the Minister said, how we can change the world if we can implement the vision the secretary and the minister articulated. But we need to know the exact parameters under which we can implement this vision," he said.

Meanwhile, a business and industry representative chimed in, "Not to be overly cynical, but look what happened to the nuke deal -- it's still in limbo, after we went to bat for it in the US Congress, at the Nuclear Suppliers Group and everywhere else. The Nuclear Liability Bill passed in parliament in its present form would make us making major investments pretty untenable."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC