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Australian universities step up engagement with India

Dawn Freshwater, THE AUSTRALIAN

In the past decades, Australian universities have learned that they must adapt or perish.

There is no quick death for universities, whose buildings may have stood for decades or centuries. The sledgehammers of the higher education sector take the form of rankings and perceived relevance: less violent, but just as inexorable in their effect.

Rankings and relevance are determined internationally, in the same challenging global environment that taxes the wits, skill and ingenuity of our investors, politicians and diplomats.
There is no entirely safe retreat for any of us. Academics understand that if they do not form international connections, they may become part of an endangered species.

Australian universities must engage with Chinese universities. In the days following president Richard Nixon’s historic visit, Australia appointed its first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, at a time when it was presided over by Mao Zedong.

Stephen FitzGerald took a course in Asian history at the University of Tasmania, and began to think differently.

In the 1960s, as a doctoral student at Australian National University, he visited a China filled with the storm and rage of the Cultural Revolution. When he became our ambassador in 1973, he predicted that China would become one of the world’s dominant economic powers.

In the years that followed, China has loomed ever larger in the Australian consciousness, so much so that we are at risk of underestimating the enormous and growing potential of India as an economic, political, cultural and academic partner.

During the past five years, India has been the fastest growing major economy.

In a nation with a population of more than 1.3 billion, such growth is beginning to change the entire economic landscape. The opportunities are recognised in Australia and this week federal Education Minister Dan Tehan is visiting India and focussing on future collaboration, including in a research forum being run with the Group of Eight.

The University of Western Australia, which has adopted a determined Indian Ocean-­focused strategy, has just signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Mumbai to work together on studies in aquaculture, fisheries and heavy metals.

The MoU will include student exchange programs that will bring an Australian presence to a university with more than 500,000 students in more than 700 colleges. Among them will be future leaders of India.

The scale of human affairs in India is enormous and plans are being made accordingly.

In the higher education sector, India is planning to replace more than 800 universities and 40,000 non-degree granting private and public colleges, with 10,000 to 15,000 institutions divided into three tiers. Tier one institutions will focus on research and teach students through to PhDs. Tier two institutions will be focused primarily on teaching while also carrying out research; and tier three institutions will be teaching-only undergraduate colleges.

The restructure has been undertaken with a view to improving practical employment prospects of graduates, and meeting the needs of the growth areas in the economy.

In a world where it pays to have options, this offers extraordinary possibilities for Australian universities.

If India succeeds in modernising its system of higher education in programs of research collaboration with Australia’s leading universities, particularly in its tier one institutions, exciting prospects are on the horizon for the Australian economy.

A start is already being made on collaborative research for mutual benefit. Monash University has combined with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay to form the IITB-Monash Research Academy. Its aim is to quicken the pace and intensity of research in collaboration with external industry partners. Students will be supervised by academics from both institutions and receive joint degrees.

The Australian National University has launched a Future Research Talent program offering research experience to talented Indian students in science, health and medicine.

Those students form friendships and connections that open up a world of new possibilities for those who study with them, and share ideas and dreams.

Sharing students and expertise is based on shared concerns. Australia and India both need research on dry lands agriculture, climate adaptation and water-sensitive habitats.

A global team led by Punjab Agricultural University with researchers from University of Western Australia already has made significant breakthroughs in strengthening crops against attack from stem rot.

Genuinely co-operative research is fostered by shared cultural understandings. Indian universities, like Australian universities, know what it is to exist within a parliamentary democracy with all its opportunities, challenges and vitality.

India and Australia both understand that cricket is one of the greatest games invented, and we understand what is to stand at silly mid-off. We can work, learn and play together.