India and U.S. Must Foster Stronger Education Ties

The first ever U.S.-India Higher Education Summit on October 13 underscored a significant opportunity for enhanced bilateral cooperation. This renewed engagement highlighted a shared need for alleviating structural gaps in education provision and encouraging entrepreneurial networking.  Both countries benefit from U.S. educational assistance in India, whether through mutual exchange programs or the establishment of U.S. satellite education programs, since both require external support for satisfying increasing domestic demand for high tech professionals.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Indian Minister of Communications and Information Technology Kapil Sibal led the discussion on strengthening exchange opportunities, joint degrees, research partnerships, and quality assurance mechanisms. This dialogue, which will be renewed through annual meetings, comes at a critical time for India: “Without proper higher education infrastructure,” said Ambassador Karl Inderfurth, “the country’s demographic dividend could morph into a demographic disaster.”

To keep up with demand for skilled labor, India’s National Knowledge Commission estimates the country needs 1,500 universities compared to the current 370. In order to increase enrollment from the current rate of 12% to 20% by 2014, India will have to quadruple its number of professors. 

Additionally, a 2006 National Association of Software and Services Companies’ (Nasscom) study found that only one in four engineering graduates in India possessed the necessary technical, English, and presentation skills for employment. While India’s IT industry adapted to the uneven education system through specialized workforce training, the sustainability of innovation and social stability depends on improving the quality of India’s education infrastructure. Another concern pertains to the roadblocks hit by many Indian entrepreneurs after graduation including India’s opaque legal system, corruption, bureaucratic standstills, volatile capital markets, and its under-educated labor pool. 

An enhanced vocational cooperation, stronger research ties, and the proposed Foreign Education bill could have significant implications for India’s race to keep up with skilled labor demand and to increase its citizens’ standards of living. 

Yet a strategic dialogue on education is just as critical for the United States which faces serious competition from the high technology innovators of Asia. Again, education is an obstacle. America’s public education system is failing to produce a sustainable stream of high quality workers to keep up with global competition. One temporary measure for ameliorating the consequences of educational failures, whose reforms would require at least a generation of gestation, is to continue attracting global talent.    

To fill empty positions with qualified workers, American technological giants and start-ups continue to recruit around the world. Indian Americans occupy a particular niche in the American high-tech landscape. Sixty percent of Indian Americans work in top managerial positions, more than 300,000 Indian-Americans are employed in the Information Technology (IT) sector, and 15% of all Silicon Valley start-ups are owned by Indian Americans. 

Yet many talented and driven innovators who come to the United States face impediments to staying and adding to U.S. jobs and economic growth. Each year educated and skilled migrants are turned away. In 2008 163,000 H-1B applications were filed for only 65,000 visas available through the H-1B lottery. 

Clearly cooperation on education is just the beginning, but for both it is fundamental.

Photo Credit: Kirk Siang