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Growth and Exchange in India-Australia Higher Education: Prospects for the Future

21 Aug 2023
By Dr Brigid Freeman
Students from Amrita University. Source: Kushal Das /

Important opportunities exist for Australian universities to realise a thriving relationship with Indian higher education. In STEM and HASS disciplines specifically, outbound mobility and joint research programs are on the rise.  

The Australia-India relationship has long been on the cusp of flourishing, with established priorities focusing on the resources, defence, and security sectors. The 2018 Varghese report to the Australian Government, An India Economic Strategy to 2035, sought to position “education” as an additional pillar. And more recently, following the 2022 India-Australia Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA), the 2023 Mechanism for the Mutual Recognition of Qualifications between Australia and India removed barriers holding back the Government of India’s recognition of many Australian higher education qualifications. Negotiations regarding the mutual recognition of programs for regulated professions including medicine, veterinary science, architecture, and accounting will likely continue for many years to come.

Overall, the last twenty years have seen remarkable inbound flows of Indian students, primarily to the eastern seaboard’s metropolitan universities, non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs) (e.g., Holmes Institute) and vocational education and training (VET) institutions. Fluctuations have reflected shifting migration policy settings (for instance, post-study work rights and education-migration pathways), issues concerning Australian education provider integrity, changing eligibility criteria, and social challenges including racism. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic would see renewed focus on student engagement and well-being such as financial insecurity, homelessness, mental health in the context of suspended international travel and constrained economies. Border closures required Australian universities and NUHEPs to accommodate “offshore online” students (predominantly in India and China), initially consisting of students unable to enter or re-enter the country.

Compared to the number of inbound Indian higher education students (56,000 in 2022, down from 90,000 pre-COVID in 2019), reciprocal mobility remains low as students prefer European and United States destinations over Asia in general. Universities Australia (UA) data for 2020 reveals that, of the 450 active “top-down” memorandums of understanding with Indian higher education institutions, most involved academic/research collaboration (80 percent), and staff exchange (23 percent), with far fewer focusing on student exchange (15 percent), or programs for short-term (7 percent) or longer study abroad experiences (7 percent). The number of students travelling overseas for work integrated learning is negligible, and few outbound New Colombo Plan scholarships support India visits. Notwithstanding mobilities supported by the Australia India Research Students (AIRS) fellowship scheme, outbound student experiences in India do not at this stage appear to be a high priority for Australian universities, or indeed students.

Most efforts have been focused on research in and/or with India in disciplines including medical science, engineering, chemistry, and physics. However, Australia has global competition in building further on this essential plank of the education bilateral. US, UK, German, and Chinese universities and scientific bodies increasingly work with tier 1 and 2 Indian higher education institutions, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratories, and the R&D arms of Indian companies (e.g., Tata, Wipro, Mahindra). Indian diaspora academics, especially graduates of the famously selective Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), are crucial in forging such ties. In many respects, Australia remains at a disadvantage compared to the larger, better resourced scientific systems of more populous advanced economies. Potential abounds, particularly MOU-driven collaborations involving accredited institutions ranking well in India’s National Institute Ranking Framework, and “bottom-up” research partnerships that emerge around shared interests. However, it is through a global lens that Australian institutions should imagine future opportunities.

Australia-India research collaborations have been notably fruitful through leveraging India’s scale, infrastructure, culture, and diaspora including learned academy fellows, medical, and agricultural scientists, and early career researchers. In the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS), while efforts both reflect and advance greater exchange between the countries, opportunities are curtailed by Australian universities’ diminishing emphasis on India studies, including Hindi. Also problematic is the continued privileging of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines by governments and universities for funding, which prevents other research flourishing. Indian and Australian academia alike find themselves navigating both greater precarity in academic careers and evolving bounds of academic freedom, phenomena that benefit from careful analysis.

Several Australian universities partner in flagship ventures that include joint doctorates with elite IITs – the IIT Bombay-Monash Research Academy and the University of Queensland-IIT Delhi Academy of Research, for instance, –  and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (IISc). These partnerships provide huge advantages to Australian universities, enriching the Australian STEM ecosystem with excellent Indian research students and academics. I have argued elsewhere for the extension of these innovations to HASS disciplines, including PhDs in the field of education. Such progression makes sense given India’s National Education Policy 2020 (NEP2020) agenda to transform teacher education, emphasise the liberal arts, give autonomy to leading comprehensive universities, and extend IIT offerings to non-engineering courses. In the short term, the Australian Government could curate opportunities for universities to share their experiences in developing high-level interactions with India’s internally and internationally recognised network of leading institutions.

There are, of course, opportunities at all levels of higher education. Further to the NEP2020 embrace of internationalisation, the University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced regulations on joint and dual degrees whereby Indian students can complete part of their undergraduate or postgraduate program in Australia. While these are early days, the University of Melbourne Bachelor of Science Dual Degree with the University of Madras, Savitribai Phule Pune University, and the Gandhi Institute of Technology and Management (Hyderabad) provides good examples. Many other Australian universities are considering options. Eligibility criteria (i.e., accreditation and performance on rankings schemes) go some way to addressing concerns around quality and corruption. Monitoring and analysing such developments ought to be an ongoing priority.

We are seeing the coalescence of the first branch campuses of foreign universities permitted in India. Deakin and Wollongong are contributing branches to the greenfield Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT City) concept, which in many ways serves as a national pilot. Initially offering targeted disciplinary offerings to small student cohorts, such ventures as yet look more like branding exercises rather than sweeping solutions for India’s unmet demand. However, they allow the UGC, other Indian states, and foreign universities to gauge interest, reputational risks, financial implications, and flow-on effects for overseas enrolments, at home and online. It is well understood (in India at least) that TAFE colleges and private VET providers are not, and will not be in the foreseeable future, eligible to deliver accredited higher education in India. The GIFT City experiment could have a major impact for foreign early entrant universities and for Gujarat itself, for better or worse.

So how to read the state of play for Australian higher education’s India links? There are four emerging lines of opportunity in order of how advanced the groundwork appears. First is research collaborations (in STEM and HASS) with well-ranked Indian higher education institutions, CSIR laboratories and other institutes with research-active faculty, and with lesser-ranked higher education institutions where shared research interests exist; second, joint PhD and postdoctoral academies and programs; third, transnational higher education coursework pairing with elite Indian higher education institutions; and fourth, outbound student mobility from Australia to India, associated with courses and work integrated learning. Together, these options would lead to a flourishing higher education bilateral.

Dr Brigid Freeman is Academic Fellow, Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne, and most recently, Visiting Professor, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi (February-April 2023). Brigid is currently working with the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise on STEM policy in advanced economies.

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