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Great opportunity lies in the Australia-India relationship

Innovation and research is the foundation of our future with India for quality education, graduates and discovery.

Vicki Thomson
Australian Financial Review – Sep 4, 2022 – 12.44pm

Last week’s Jobs and Skills Summit was an exemplar of what can be achieved when we come together with a solutions-based mindset to tackle the genuinely big issues that create barriers to increased productivity and potentially pull the handbrake on our future prosperity. But one big item missing from the agenda was the role of research in boosting our economic complexity and, in turn, lifting productivity.

This week I will be in India alongside senior business and industry leaders as part of the Australia-India Leadership Dialogue. We will be bringing that same solutions-based mindset to our discussions. For Group of Eight universities, underpinning our Australia-India partnership is both our research and education.

India has a huge population of young people to educate. Australia has large, world-class universities with comprehensive programs. What we don’t have – as attested to by the likes of Atlassian and the Business Council of Australia at the jobs summit – is a large enough quality workforce pipeline across key industries, particularly in research.

Putting it bluntly, we have a research skills crisis.

Australia and India have had strong research and education relationships for decades. We face similar environmental and sustainability challenges. Australia is also now home to a significant and growing Indian diaspora.

Herein lies the opportunity. There is now a sense of urgency from both sides to ramp up these partnerships and a strong sense that they must be underpinned by quality.

The fact is, despite having seven Go8 members ranked in the top 100 universities in the world, Australia is not seen as a quality education and research destination for prospective Indian students.

Centre of world affairs

International competition in the research and higher education sector is fierce and Australia has to step up. However, the Go8 will never trade quality for quantity even while we have the capacity and willingness to do so much more.

This is not just a student recruitment exercise. It will have a focus on research partnerships with both Indian universities and industries.

Of course, our two nations share more than our values, interests and objectives.

We also share the Indo-Pacific region, and so we share all the geopolitical challenges visible in the region as it pivots to the centre of world affairs or, at least, the same world order with a range of different emphases.

Here, too, lie significant opportunities to underpin our education and research partnership in areas such as AI and cybersecurity, areas in which India excels and we lack capacity.

Universities are generators of research that fuels rapidly evolving fields, and we contribute to the workforce pipeline through graduates.

Visas are clearly part of this solution and the federal government has acknowledged the need to use migration as a lever to address Australia’s present skills shortfalls. But there are additional options we should also be pursuing.

What to do about our poor innovation record

The recently signed Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement includes the first-ever dedicated innovation chapter. It recognises the critical importance of innovation and the need to facilitate the mobility of skilled individuals across borders.

The Australia-India Economic Co-operation and Trade Agreement should replicate this as a driver of increased productivity and economic growth.

Innovation is an umbrella term for future economic success. It is why federal Trade Minister Don Farrell is heading to India in a few weeks to further develop a formal agreement between the two countries.

This week’s leadership dialogue is an important forerunner to this negotiation.

We have a moment in time to grasp these opportunities with India. Only two weeks ago, we hosted a visit by India’s education minister, Shri Dharmendra Pradhan. If innovation and research can deliver as it should, it is the foundation of our future with India for quality education, graduates and researchers.

Vicki Thomson is chief executive of the Group of Eight.