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India-Australia ties can be changed through Education

Among the multiple opportunities that India offers, education has all the ingredients to emerge as a game-changer in bilateral relations

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Education can improve India-Australia ties. Image Source: intranet.tdmu.edu.ua
  • Among the multiple opportunities that India offers, education has all the ingredients to emerge as a game-changer in bilateral relations
  • New Delhi is acutely aware of the importance of quality education, without which the benefits of the demographic dividend might be squandered and reduced
  • With GDP growth rates set to cross eight per cent through sustained high economic performance, the demand for higher education will consistently grow

The platform for a transformational change in bilateral relations was laid when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia in November 2014. Deviating from the script, he spoke of India-Australia relations as “a natural partnership arising from our shared values and aspirations”. He was not talking about cricket, the Commonwealth or curry.

His visit marked a historic shift from the neglect that had held the bilateral relations hostage for nearly 30 years. When he said that he saw Australia as a major partner in every area of India’s national priority, he was, in fact, changing the vocabulary from the 3Cs to the 3E’s: economy, energy, and education. This disruptive transition necessarily requires a shift in mindset from a lukewarm, limited and uninformed engagement to one that is robust, dynamic and aspirational.

It needs to be recognized that when Chief Minister Modi became the Prime Minister of India two years ago, his government faced enormous developmental challenges — both economic and social. This was further aggravated by the wholly unrealistic expectations in terms of the speed and intensity with which his electoral promise of “aache din” (better times) would be translated. He was acutely aware of India’s structural and other limitations in being able to achieve this within an abbreviated time-frame.

PM Narendra Modi. Image Source: PTI
PM Narendra Modi. Image Source: PTI

Consequently, he reached out to the global community. In his view, as he said in the Australian parliament, partnerships require that countries stand together at a moment of enormous opportunity and great responsibility.

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Among the multiple opportunities that India offers, education has all the ingredients to emerge as a game-changer in bilateral relations.

India’s demographic trend will soon see it overtaking China as the most populous country. Currently, over 50 percent of India’s population, or around 600 million, are under 25 years of age. Within the next five years, India will have the largest tertiary age population in the world. Second, the middle class is expected to swell to around 500 million.

With GDP growth rates set to cross eight per cent through sustained high economic performance, the demand for higher education will consistently grow. Coupled with the series of reforms and new initiatives through programmes such as Make in India, Clean Ganga, Digital India, Smart Cities, Start-up India and the like, exceptional possibilities for tie-ups with international institutions that embed education, entrepreneurship, and innovation in their teaching pedagogy have opened up. In addition, the demand for vocational education and training is expected to see an exponential surge. This suggests that India will emerge as the biggest opportunity for top quality international education providers in the 21st century.

India's GDP growth. Image Source: www.moneycontrol.com
India’s GDP growth. Image Source: www.moneycontrol.com

New Delhi is acutely aware of the importance of quality education, without which the benefits of the demographic dividend might be squandered and reduced, in fact, to a demographic disaster. Large numbers of young would be jobless and could easily be lured into criminal and anti-social activity.

Indeed, one of the biggest challenges India faces is the horrific mismatch between the significant demand for education and its abysmally low supply. Archaic pedagogical techniques, coupled with dodgy fly-by-night education providers, have delinked education from employability. Consequently, it is no surprise that a large number of the unemployed are, in fact, educated.

In addition, as geography digitally shrinks and work environments increasingly become multi-cultural, the Indian workforce would need to embrace global standards and innovation. This can only be achieved through education that departs from the 19th-century mindsets to a more futuristic one.

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A systemic transformation of the education system is, therefore, inescapable. At the same time, New Delhi realizes the urgency of the massive challenge it faces in terms of qualified teachers and faculty, schools, universities, vocational training centres and infrastructure.

University of Sydney. Image Source: Reuters
The university of Sydney. Image Source: Reuters

It is estimated that by 2020, India would need 40 million university places, which is an increase of 14 million or two million starting now over the next seven years, and 500 million skilled workers. While online education might address part of the problem, it is not likely to be the solution, especially not in the vocational training sector. The footprint simply has to dramatically increase if the demographic dividend is to substantively contribute to economic growth and wellbeing in India.

The sheer magnitude of this exceptional opportunity makes it an attractive business proposition. Statistics suggest that even if India succeeds in achieving its target of 30 per cent gross enrolment rate by 2020 in the tertiary sector, 100 million eligible students would not be admitted to university because of the shortage of seats.

This lack of supply and the increasing ability of the middle class to pay for higher education in quality institutions allows for Australian and other world-class education providers to emerge as a viable alternative.

Innovative ways of collaborating with Indian educational institutions and vocational training centres would need to emerge as the new strategy. At one level, this entails tapping into the huge unfulfilled demand but for a sustainable model to be built, international collaboration must include joint research projects with partner Indian institutions and the corporate sector.

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the scale of demand in the education sector would be unprecedented. In Modi’s vision, it is this historic challenge that represents the moment of enormous opportunity and the great responsibility for India-Australia relations. It would be the test of true partnership.

India-Australia relations has never witnessed such expectations and hope among so many that a new chapter in bilateral relations is about to be written. After 30 years of neglection, time has come for collaboration in education and training could provide the much-awaited tipping point. Losing this opportunity will turn out to be a major setback. 

-by Amit Dasgupta for IANS

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More Science Careers: African School Of Physics on Mission To Educate New African Generation Through Traveling Program

"Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement," she wrote in an email. She noted "increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce."

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Africa
Ketevi Assamagan, a particle physicist at the U.S.-based Brookhaven National Laboratory, co-founded the African School of Physics, a training program for graduate students in math and sciences. (Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory) VOA

Africa-born particle physicist Ketevi Assamagan is a man on a mission. His goal is to bring science education to a new generation of young Africans through a traveling program known as the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications, or ASP.

“Sometimes, people just need some help to be able to find the right resources,” said Assamagan, an ASP founder who works at the U.S. Energy Department’s Brookhaven National Laboratory here on Long Island. “So, together with some colleagues, we decided to create this school.”

Born in Guinea, Assamagan grew up in Togo and earned a doctorate from the University of Virginia in 1995. Gratitude to past mentors fueled his desire to start the ASP, he said.

Positive elements

The ASP program runs for three weeks every two years in a different African country. The first was in 2010 in South Africa, with subsequent gatherings in Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda and Namibia. The next is planned for July 2020 in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Each workshop brings together up to 80 students, who are treated to intensive lectures and training by top-flight physicists.

Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)
Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)

“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.”

The students’ expenses are covered by roughly 20 international sponsors, including the Brookhaven lab; the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy; the South African Department of Science and Technology; and Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics.

Another sponsor has been the European Center for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in Geneva. Assamagan worked on CERN’s particle accelerator for several years while conducting research on the elusive Higgs boson subatomic particle. He left in 2001 to join Brookhaven.

Sustained support

After the program, participants are paired with senior mentors who offer advice on additional education, teaching and research opportunities, both in Africa and abroad.

For Zimbabwe native Last Feremenga, participation in the 2010 ASP workshop served as a springboard to a doctorate in physics from the University of Texas. Now he’s a data scientist with Digital Reasoning, an artificial intelligence firm headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I sift through large datasets of written text in search of rare forms of conversations/language. These rare conversations are useful for our clients from health care to finance,” the 32-year-old told VOA in an email. He added that he’s using “similar tactics” to those he learned at ASP.

Julia MacKenzie, senior director of international affairs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says training programs such as ASP are especially important in developing countries.

“Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement,” she wrote in an email. She noted “increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce.”

“A potential impact of graduate training is exposure to new ideas and people,” MacKenzie added. “Any time graduate students can come together, it’s likely that new friendships will form, and those relationships can provide support through inevitable challenges and spawn new collaborations.”

application learning
“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.” Pixabay
Hands-on learning

Assamagan says that when he was in high school in Togo, science was taught from second-hand textbooks from abroad. There was no experimentation.

“Direct involvement … in terms of playing with things and getting mental challenge to try to figure it out was not really there,” he said. “We want to resolve that” through ASP.

The 70 or so science teachers at the workshop last year in Namibia learned hands-on experiments that could be replicated with scant equipment and resources.

For example, using only a small plastic box with an aluminum plate, tin foil, Styrofoam, pure alcohol and dry ice, high school students could build a tabletop “cloud chamber” to simulate the detection of cosmic particles from outer space. Another experiment taught physics to elementary school children by way of art. The children could drip paint on a canvas tilted at various angles, then observe the patterns the paint made as it descended.

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“You can then start introducing the idea of gravity,” Assamagan said. “And then relating things falling down to the Earth going around the sun as being driven by the same force.”

Assamagan predicts a bright future for physics research in Africa. He says he sees talent and commitment, but that more digital libraries, along with continent-wide access to high-speed internet connections and the political will to provide them, are needed. (VOA)