Opinion Editorial: Universities to focus on PhD training push in India

18 Apr 2017

Australian Financial Review, 9 April 2017

By Vicki Thomson


As it celebrates 70 years of Independence, India has a Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, with a determined and strategic vision for his nation's future through the modernisation of the economy.  Equipping India's population with the skills to participate in this new economy underpins many of Mr Modi's flagship policies from "Make in India" to a Smart Cities initiative.

Australia has an equally determined vision of how both countries can further strengthen our long-term relationship through increased collaboration. Within this collaboration, joint university research, and the vital training of the researchers of tomorrow through Group of Eight PhD programs, are core elements. India wants to work with the world's best universities.

In Australia we take for granted what universities put back into a nation through their teaching and research. India does not. India is hungry for what it recognises universities can deliver for economic development and keen to work jointly with us to deliver for its economy.

It is interesting as we focus on this stage of collaboration with India how much Australia's existing relationship with India is too little recognised in Australia. It gets lost as China and Europe take prime media and public focus. Yet our economies are highly complementary.

India is Australia's fifth-largest export market. In 2014-15 our major exports there included coal ($5.5 billion), education-related travel ($2.1 billion) and gold ($903 million).  India is also Australia's largest source of skilled migrants and the second-largest source of international students. And through the government's New Colombo Plan 900 Australian undergraduates were studying and completing internships in India during 2015-16.

It seems that if we can put Test cricket to one side, our existing relationship with India works well. But as our former trade minister Andrew Robb has stated, regardless, this is not the time to "coast". Unless we engage more and better, India's transformative plans will see us left behind with our small population of just 24 million compared with India's 1.3 billion – 65 per cent of whom are under 35 years old –  and with India's burgeoning middle class expecting First World services and capabilities from the changing economy.

We, especially the research and teaching skills we can assist with, now have the opportunity to be a vital part of India's ambitious future. This upcoming visit centred on Delhi will enable the Go8 – with political support from the Australian government – to move to that most important next step of an already established research-focused relationship with India.

Meeting with some of India's top academics and researchers, the Go8 will map out the quality pathway forward between our two nations for PhD training. Part of that is working through ways to mitigate barriers to PhD mobility between our nations. We are also establishing a Go8-India Advisory Taskforce aimed at creating high-quality industry-ready PhD graduates, able to supply their skills and knowledge to priority areas of need in both India and Australia.

The taskforce will be launched by the federal government in Delhi. This is an outcomes-focused group with a short timeframe to map out how this is best delivered, and then how to ensure that it is.

India has much to offer Australia as a partner in what we are about to further develop. It is of critical importance that this opportunity to be part of the next phase of India's economic development is harnessed at it should be. The will from government and Australia's leading research intensive universities is there.

Vicki Thomson is chief executive of Group of Eight Australia.