Education and skills training were at the top of the agenda during the recent trade mission to India. Expectations for meaningful partnerships have never been overly ambitious, but there was optimism that finally some headway was being made.
It was disconcerting to find, therefore, that this time the narrative from key Indian government representatives had changed. The often repeated mantra that India has 500 million people who desperately need foreign providers to upskill them took a back seat to a different policy imperative. Instead, Australia’s representatives were asked to accept more Indian skilled workers on temporary visas into our labour market.
The motivation for this new policy remains unclear. Was it about having more Indian expatriate workers able to send money back to their families? Was it about creating more Indian trainers to impart expertise gained from working in Australia to classrooms on their return? Whatever the case, with unfortunate timing, one week later, our Prime Minister announced 457 temporary skills visas were to be abolished and replaced with a more restrictive framework.
Questions need to be asked about how and why the education and training narrative coming out of India has shifted so remarkably.
On his frequent trips to Australia, former human resource development minister Kapil Sibal declared that India was in the process of passing legislation that would open up his nation to foreign education providers. When incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi gained power, he made much of the fact 500 million Indians urgently required upskilling. Overseas-based education institutions, Modi argued, had a great deal to offer if they could be given the opportunity to build their own campuses and deliver their own courses to his people.
Unfortunately, under the previous and the incumbent governments, the foreign education providers bill has continued to languish in the Indian parliament.
Observers maintain there are too many vested interests in the domestic education sector who have a great deal to lose if they are forced to compete with overseas institutions.
Ever nimble, Australian education providers’ response to this legislative barrier has been twofold. Universities and TAFE institutes in many cases, quite altruistically, have formed course delivery partnerships with not-for-profit Indian institutions. Apart from providing them with a footprint in the subcontinent, these partnerships also are enhancing meaningful research collaboration between academics at these sister institutions. Monash University has a longstanding postgraduate partner institution in the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and Deakin has made a significant investment with its TERI institute near Delhi.
Given the difficulties of repatriating funds out of India, most of the nascent for-profit education delivery has been focused on customised training for Indian-based corporations.
Challenges for the Australian education sector are not confined to delivering offshore programs there.
Mutual recognition of overseas qualifications remains a vexed issue, as does ongoing intransigence by Indian entities in providing equivalence to a masters program taught in Australia for less than two years. Misunderstandings around popular pathway programs delivered in Australia are also ongoing.
None of these challenges for greater bilateral education co-operation are insurmountable. Australia stands ready to support any country in our region with their capacity-building requirements. Where confusion has begun to arise is the seeming conflict of India wanting to send more of its limited skilled workforce abroad while requesting significant training support for its population back home. It would do well to gets its narrative right in this instance.