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A Teachable Moment in U.S.-India Relations

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R), accompanied by U.S. President Barack Obama, speaks during a state arrival ceremony in the White House November 24, 2009 in Washington, DC.  (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R), accompanied by U.S. President Barack Obama, speaks during a state arrival ceremony in the White House November 24, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

By Vishakha N. Desai

Originally posted on Far Eastern Economic Review, November 23, 2009

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives in Washington this week for the first state visit of the Obama administration, prompting policy and media circles in the U.S. and India alike to buzz with the question:  “What will be the big drop-dead announcement this time?”

After all, when Prime Minister Singh was here for his last state visit in 2005, as guest of President Bush, the two leaders announced their historic civil nuclear energy deal.  I remember vividly the excitement of Indian officials at the White House dinner where I was one of the guests.  When I asked senior Indian officials whether enough details were worked out for the deal to pass through the two democratic systems, I was told not to worry.  As we now know, it took two more years and an unprecedented effort by many in both countries for that deal to become an operational reality.

It is not clear whether this visit will result in such a huge news-making announcement, but there is an area where the two leaders can transform the landscape of US-India relations for years to come.  I suggest that education is the arena for collaboration in the 21st century.

This may not sound as sexy as a civil nuclear energy deal, but education has the potential to completely transform this bilateral relationship.  The need for education reform in India is obvious and well recognized by the current government, especially the dynamic new Minister of Human Resource Development, Kapil Sabil.  Fifty four percent of India’s population is below the age of 20 and only 11-12% of Indians go to college compared to 22% in China.  If India is to truly take advantage of its “population dividend,” it needs to have a focused and urgent attention to secondary and tertiary education.  Minister Sibal has already developed a bill that will implement required reforms and pave the way for a less bureaucratic and more open education system.  He has also announced the formation of an Indo-US commission on education that will particularly focus on tertiary education.

For the U.S., this will not only open up new financial opportunities for American universities but, more important, it will inject a new level of global partnership in the American higher education system.  Unlike the earlier efforts of American universities to open up campuses in the UAE and even China, where the focus was on exporting the American model in return for financial gains, there is a huge opportunity to leapfrog and develop 21st century higher education institutions in India that would not only combine sciences and humanities, but also inject international perspectives into the very formation of new institutions.  Experiments on Indian soil in new forms of higher educational establishments would also serve as learning grounds for work at home in the US.

Today, India sends the largest number of students to the US (105,000 this past year alone).  The U.S., on the other hand has only 3,500 students in India!  New collaborations will allow for greater exchanges of students and even faculty, resulting in deeper relationships on both sides.

There are opportunities even at the secondary school level.  In both India and the U.S., there is a need to train teachers and school principals to make our high schools more globally literate and our students more globally competent.  President Obama has talked about the need for more vocational schools in the U.S. to prepare American students for the realities of the 21st century.  This is an area that the Indian government has also identified as a priority.

So, the truth is that education provides a rich terrain for our two countries to partner on and develop new 21st century tools for our young people.  It has an added advantage of creating multi-layered public-private partnerships that could reach much larger numbers of people.  Ultimately such an initiative, more than any other, would strengthen this bilateral relationship between two democratic giants for a long time to come.

Vishakha N. Desai is president of the Asia Society