Acumen Global Gateway Summit Sessions: International Higher Education and India’s international students – soft & hard power

In an era where global interconnectedness shapes our every endeavour, the role of education, particularly higher education, has evolved into a powerful instrument that not only imparts knowledge but also holds the potential to reshape diplomatic landscapes, foster cultural understanding, and wield economic influence.

At the heart of discussions lies a crucial component – the students. In this instance, the international students of India, who embark on a journey to seek knowledge, enrich their experiences, and expand their horizons on foreign shores. Their presence is not only an embodiment of personal aspirations but also a representation of a nation’s resilience, diversity, and intellectual prowess.

Five Key Takeaways

  • Cultural Diplomacy Through Education: International higher education serves as a potent tool for cultural diplomacy, allowing India’s international students to become ambassadors of their culture, fostering mutual understanding, and breaking down cultural barriers.
  • Economic Influence and Diplomatic Leverage: The significant influx of Indian international students contributes to the economic growth of host countries, thereby granting India a unique form of hard power that can be leveraged in diplomatic negotiations and international relations.
  • Enriched Global Networks: Indian students studying abroad create diverse networks, forging connections that extend beyond national boundaries. These networks facilitate the exchange of ideas, collaborations, and partnerships, amplifying India’s global influence.
  • Human Capital and Innovation: As recipients of world-class education, India’s international students bring back valuable skills and knowledge, contributing to the nation’s human capital and driving innovation, which in turn fuels economic growth.
  • Soft and Hard Power Synergy: The integration of soft power, through cultural exchange, and hard power, through economic influence, creates a powerful synergy. India’s international students act as bridges between nations, reinforcing diplomatic efforts and augmenting India’s standing on the global stage.

Below is the transcript

Sandeep Chakravorty

It is a very strange moment for me to be moderating ambassadors particularly, I’m feeling uncomfortable with Philip with who is my mic and my counterpart, so I promise you, I won’t ask you difficult questions. And also Barry. So if you don’t mind, Barry, and since you chose to sit next to me, maybe we can start with you.

Ambassador Barry O’Farrell

I thought we were running in alphabetical order. Look, it’s terrific to be here. It’s terrific to be here as an Australian because since 1950, Australia has been investing in international education. In 1950, the government invented a programme called the Colombo programme, which offered scholarships to people across Asia, to come to Australia to study. Happily in response to joint secretaries’ concerns. 

The model has changed somewhat these days that in 2014, the plan was turned into the New Colombo Plan, which sees students going in both directions. And I’m happy to say in this audience that the greatest number of students leaving Australia to go overseas, through the New Colombo Plan, which has sent 60,000 people to 40 destinations is India, India is the most preferred destination. The second thing, of course, is that Australia now has the most competitive post study work rights attached to any  education visa in the world. And otherwise, I could not go around India promoting Australian education because no Ambassador wants to say to any country, we want your best and brightest, and we want to keep them. 

What we’re doing is educating Indians in Australia, and sending them home job ready, having not only done the academic education, but also had the opportunity to work in their careers in Australia, before they come back to India. And thirdly, I want to say that the national education policy is remarkable. I’m a former politician, I know that what the government announces at times never matches reality. And yet what I saw with the announcement on the national education policy two years ago, what I saw with the announcement of the regulations a year ago, what I’m seeing on the ground today is an enormous, enormous alignment, which has proven to be far more attractive to universities in Australia, than I predicted, I was worried about the impact of COVID on our universities finances. And I’m happy to say that we, through Deakin University, will open up the first foreign campus at Gift City in Gujarat. That will be followed shortly thereafter by the University of Wollongong, we have universities and we have 450 relationships across India with universities.

But just to pick up the joint Secretary’s comments, we have universities looking to deliver courses through Indian universities here on the ground in India, which does two things. It not only provides a cheaper education for those Indian students who want to learn through Australian institutions. But also, it assists with what your Education Minister has made the point of lifting the standard of other universities across India. It’s not just about the top tier. It’s about all the tiers. 

And finally we, Minister Pradhan and our administration for education, Jason Clear, during his visit in February, announced a mechanism of recognition of qualifications. That means that Indian students who’ve studied in Australia will know their qualifications are recognised here. And equally studying here, they’ll be recognised in Australia, they’re important because no longer is education a one way process, education is about enriching both countries. It is certainly the most powerful weapon in soft diplomacy of any foreign affairs department. And we’re happy with the progress we’re making with India.

Sandeep Chakravorty

Thank you, thank you, Ambassador, Barry. This panel is very interesting, because it represents countries which are the top most destinations for Indian students, and also interesting that Germany is there because Germany is actually a very interesting case study of how the transition has happened. 

So I’ll come to Philip later, but I want to ask Alison, that in the UK, there are some very interesting trends emerging and the UK has become, I think after the United States this number two country for Indian students, at least in the post COVID. So what do you think makes the UK an attractive destination for Indian students? One, of course, is very apparent that your undergraduate degrees are three years. So they’re reasonably less expensive than maybe North American universities. But what is the USP that the UK has that it attracts such a large number of students?

Alison Barrett

Thank you very much. Thank you very much for inviting me, Adrian, Sannam, Acumen, it’s great to be here representing the UK today. Just to say this is my fourth month in this job as Director of the British Council in India, but it’s my 21st year in India because I worked here from 97 to 2016. And hugely excited to be back at this time, it’s probably the best time to be a Director in terms of the exciting things happening around education. And I think that the UK India roadmap that we signed between our two countries a couple of years ago really helps provide the enabling framework for that sort of collaboration.

Coming to your question that the UK is probably one of the most internationalised systems in the world, over a third of our faculty come from overseas. We are, you know, prolific in our research output. We invest heavily in research, we’ve invested with India over the last five years 200 million, just in the Newton Baba fund alone. And that’s a joint investment with India, I should say. So 100 million from the UK and 100 million from India, we have invested in significant numbers of research collaborations and catalyst grants to support flourishing TNE programs, over 70 TNE grants in the last couple of years. But I think the attraction that the UK has for Indian students, it’s really built on the trust that exists between our two countries and the importance of trust in cultural relations. And soft power is really critical, and something that the British Council cares a huge amount about, we do a huge amount of research on this.

Over the last decade, we’ve produced probably 10, or 15 reports looking at the role of trust in international cooperation. And we know that that drives students to the UK because we have a very strong relationship and a strong partnership that’s built on many years of collaboration. We think that trust also supports international cooperation, and helps our students work together to create the global goods that we’ve heard this morning that is so important for tackling the global challenges that we face now, in the world. 

Research that we did with LSE recently also showed that students who have had an international experience are more likely to sacrifice some of the luxuries that they might have in their lives in order to support issues like climate change, for example. So international experience also supports more broad cooperation and support for global challenges. We hope to see the numbers of international students grow. But we see that happening much more now through TNE programmes be that joint dual degree programmes or through following close on your heels Barry, with joint campuses we hope in India, international branch campuses in India so that students can get a UK experience without having to leave the country in the future which is obviously a key part of the NEP goals.

Sandeep Chakravorty

Thank you and in the last year or so, we worked together with the UK Government on recognising the one year the master’s programme I think that was a very positive step before I go ahead, I was asked to do a small task which is good we have people who are from UK here please stand up and get recognised so that we get an idea of who are from which part of the world.

Good presentation thank you from the USA? Okay from Australia?  from Germany? Canada?

Thank you. So we have a very, very diverse kind of participation in this conference. I want to now go to Gloria and I don’t want to ask you the obvious question, which I’ll come to later. But which is of course about visas but I want to ask you what is preventing an American university from opening up in India we know various models that are in existence. We know Harvard Business School runs an executive programme. We know other universities running short programmes. But when can we see American University taking students? And Ashoka is not a good example because it was pioneered by the Indian diaspora. But what is your vision on that?

Gloria Berbena

Well, first of all, thank you very much for this opportunity to speak. It’s just, for me, a real pleasure. Education is a passion for me personally, and at the US Embassy, we spend so much time every day on this issue on growing the relationship. I don’t have to tell you how vibrant that relationship already is. I know there are over 200,000 Indian students studying in the United States, annually. Last year alone, we issued a record of 82,000 visas for students, they were prioritised, we will continue to prioritise. I think there is an absolute recognition of that two way exchange, not just Indian students going to the United States, but also educational institutions. And the presence here in India is valuable for both sides, you know, without a doubt, and I wouldn’t look at it so much in terms of obstacles to US universities coming to India, there is tremendous interest. Clearly those ties are well established already. 

The NEP, I think, has gone a long way in terms of articulating what some of those parameters will be. And so I think it’s all about clarity, and what that will look like in terms of reality on the ground for those institutions to be able to operate here. And then you had touched on it in some of the earlier conversations as well about just that internationalisation atmosphere. 

American students, American scholars, and institutions have a lot of choices in the world. Right now. I think we’re at such a pivotal moment. There is tremendous unprecedented interest in India. Certainly, I think a recognition of India’s growing place in the world leadership opportunity, and just a fundamental interest in the culture here and the opportunities. So I think you have a ready ground here to encourage that interest. And as we say, though, you know, the devils in the details sometimes, and it’s all about what are those specifics going to look like to make it a business proposition in a way that that will work for, for American institutions. 

I’d like to step back just a little bit and take one more minute and just talk about, you know, that enduring exchange environment that already exists between the United States and India, this flow of educational exchange of scholarship, has existed for years at a government level, of course, we have our our flagship programme, and maybe Adam Grotzky had mentioned that earlier. 

The Fulbright Nehru run by the US India Educational Foundation, has sent over 20,000 students both ways over the course of these last few years, since its inception. That’s just at the government level. But I would also note that there is a huge amount of private effort, and in the United States, our system is not centralised. And so there are universities or community colleges, there is activity at every level, that is vibrant, that’s active, it’s at the personal level, it’s at the institutional level. And so I would encourage India, I would encourage any institution that is looking at expanding those opportunities, and we want those opportunities to expand, we want those numbers to grow, we’re ready to support it and look at the whole variety. 

It’s not just about bricks and mortar, though there may be some institutions that want to do that and want to take the risk. But that’s a huge proposition and huge investment. But there are exchange abroad programmes, there are shared degree programmes, there are study abroad programmes of limited duration. So there are, you know, a huge range of versions that can be explored and so just not locking ourselves into one vision of what might work. I think you’ll have very fertile ground there to explore. I’ll stop there.

Sandeep Chakravorty

Thank you. Now I turn towards the Ambassador of Germany. Philip, Dr. Philip Ackerman, and Philip has seen the India relationship from close because in the late I think in 2009 to 2011 or so more or less. He was a Counsellor in the German Embassy in Delhi and now he’s back as Ambassador. He’s been following the India story very closely, and he tells me that when he was last year, in India, there were less than a few 1000 Indian students going to Germany. And he will tell us now the numbers and know how the story has dramatically changed and shifted. Could you, Philip, tell us why this has happened? And what is so special about Germany? And how are Indian students being attracted towards Germany?

Ambassador Ackermann

Thanks. Thank you, Sandeep. First of all, I must say I’m very happy to sit here with you. It’s a non controversial issue for once, which is very good. And I think this is a wonderful story you were referring to, and I listened to your speech, and you made a couple of allusions, which I think was very appropriate. 

So basically, I’m the new kid on the block, as you might consider it. And we are, as you see, the only non-Anglophone countries sitting on this panel and a new kid on the block, because this number you were referring to exploded over the last couple of years. And we have now 35,000 Indian students in Germany. And what is more is that the German Embassy has 25,000 new applications for the next two semesters on its table. So there is a huge interest in Indian, Indian youth to come to Germany, we don’t do recruitment, there is no, you know, publicity done by German universities, that’s mostly due to the fact that German universities are all state run and owned they are not a business interest, they have it’s it’s, they are, you know, state run universities. And that also is one of the reasons why these interests become so big because education is for free. You don’t pay any fees for state run universities in Germany, and you get top notch training in technical matters, but also others. For free, you have to cover your cost of living, but when you go to state universities, you don’t pay any student fees. 

And what is more, there are master courses at universities that are offered in English. So we have about 71-72% of all our applications for Master’s student courses. And many of them are, you know, taught in English and that is a huge plus for Indian students. Because learning German is an effort, it takes an effort. And they don’t need to do that. There is also one other thing which is very interesting. In Germany, you have two levels of academic education, you have the very academic theoretical scientific education at the universities and there is something what we call University of Applied Science, which is a more practical operational training have a very, very good quality that channels you quicker into jobs and in the industry, that also is very popular with the Indian students and this university of applied science have a growing number of Indian of Indian students. 

Now, German universities are super happy with Indian students, their experience with Indian students is extremely positive. They are brilliant, they excel in their work, and therefore, indeed, applications are considered to be very valuable and accepted very easily. So that also adds to the end what you said in your speeches were also very true. After you do your degree you pass your degree in Germany, you have 12 months to look for a job. You can stay in Germany for 12 months and look for a job. I will tell you that in six weeks, every Indian student gets a job in Germany. I will tell you one example which I find very striking, if you’re a young woman from Haryana, she went to University of Applied Science in Ghana, which is a very old university town in eastern Germany where she did a master’s degree in instrumentalism. I had no clue that existed, frankly, it has nothing to do with music. It’s all about, you know, Seismographic measurements, and she got a job in Dusseldorf very quickly. And she tells me, You know, I love this stuff. Everybody is running around with a Louis Vuitton handbag, you know, this is what I want. I want to earn good money, and I want to spend it in Dusseldorf. She says, you know, and that’s basically the formula we would like to see. So what we want is Indian students coming to Germany and then also staying, that’s what we want. We feel that we offer to give them education. It plays out for us when they go into the workforce in the German workforce. And I think that that deal is very good. 

Now. I said it’s non-controversial, but it’s of course, as usual, it has some strings attached to it. And that’s the fact that we are overwhelmed by 25,000 applications. We’ll have to process 25,000 applications in a year. It is tough for us in the Embassy. So we also feel a certain frustration with our proceedings, because you have to get an academic assessment . Unfortunately, we have about five to 10% fraudulent applications, and we have to get them out of the basket, it’s not too much. But still, we have to do that. And therefore the proceedings are taking some time. And we see a certain level of recession, with the Indian students wanting to go to Germany quickly. So we’ll try to improve that. Because basically, this is a win-win situation for both sides. And for us Indian students who stay on in Germany, working in Germany is a big relief in a context where we have a shortage of labour on every level.

Sandeep Chakravorty

Thank you. Yeah. So both of us have been looking at the German story from close, and it’s a remarkable turnaround. But I also see that several other destinations, like the Netherlands have come up and they are challenging the established destinations like Australia, UK, United States, and the diversity of destinations is also increasing. So it’s a very, very interesting phenomena. 

And maybe it’s also linked to opportunities. And before I come to Barry, I would go to Raghavan Srinivasan. You know, in the unit, I was in New York, I was Consul General, one persistent issue there is the cost of higher education. And always there is this debate going on, I don’t know, to what extent it has been dealing with student debt. So United States education is very expensive. You know, because my two daughters are studying in the United States. And, and I know, and, fortunately, unfortunately, they’re twins. So I have to pay for both at the same time. So there is no gap between them to recuperate. And one of them went to study computer science. And after a year, she said she wants to become a Chef. So I don’t know why I’m spending for a computer science education. And even so, that’s my personal story. But one way of reducing costs could be these, you know, the two year degree, if students could complete, you know, a first year or second year in a university in India, and then they go abroad. So the cost would reduce? Are you looking at those solutions? And do you have any models? Here, which, which we could learn from?

Raghavan Srinivasan

Thank you. And thank you for having me on the panel. I probably have some experience in the subject myself, I’m probably the only person on the panel, who was some 20 odd years ago, an Indian international student in the US myself. I was born in Delhi. By the way, at the age of 21, I was a graduate student in the US as an Indian. And yes, the fees are definitely something that gives everyone pause for thought. But let me tell you a little bit about why I thought it was completely worth it. 

For me, myself, five years after I finished my graduate studies, I got my American citizenship, and another five years after that, I had my first diplomatic passport. I think that’s what America, American society as well as American universities, make possible not just in terms of what you do, but who you are as something that’s, you know, something to be celebrated. And, and for me, and for many of my peers who went to school in the US, you know, bearing debt to study in the US, it has been something that we have never, ever regretted. And it’s something that’s, and like you said, Sir, I mean, free education, or highly subsidised education sometimes can come with its own problems. 

This is something that, you know, I’m sure there’s a there this is, you know, that there is an in between which, which, which I think American investors are trying to work on affording some, I think some of the top universities in the US will completely waive fees for students who come from families that make less than $125,000 a year and that’s true of Stanford, for instance. So there it’s not what you see in terms of sticker fees are not are not what most people end up paying. But I think due to the openness of American universities is something that attracts students from the world over the best students, the best faculty. And the ability to go to not just prepare students for careers, but to prepare them for lives anywhere in the world is something that American universities are particularly good at. 

I think that’s the reason why a lot of you know, I think us is still the number one destination for Indian students. And there’s a very good reason for that. And this is it.

Sandeep Chakravorty

Thank you. No, and that is one of the USP’s of the United States that people who go there to study there, they have a pathway and to walk there and and eventually maybe obtain citizenship. Coming to you, Barry, there is an inherent relationship between education policy or attracting foreign students and, and the immigration policies of countries. How is it? Because when I was growing up, when I went to college, Australia was not a preferred destination. But over the last two decades, Australia has become an important destination. Do you think the immigration policy has played a role in that and how do you visualise it playing out in the coming years? And the second question is that, apart from India and China, maybe less China now, which are the other countries that Australia is able to attract?

Ambassador Barry O’Farrell

So I think you’re right, that immigration policy, or at least people wanting to come to live in Australia have had a big impact upon our education system. We have students in Australia, 600,000 students in Australia, from 190 different countries. And that 600,000 may not seem a lot for you. But remember that we’re the smallest nation sitting on this panel. There are more nine year olds in India than the total population of my country. We’re 25 and a half million people. And 600,000 of those people today are students from 190 countries around the world. 86,000 Indian students, and we are home to people from 300 different ancestries. And the fastest growing diaspora in Australia is Indian. 

So we had a delegation of 14 University Vice Chancellors here in February, and they came and saw me and said, what can we do to promote our education? I said, sit back, and strap in. Because the Indian diaspora in Australia are the best advocates for their family, their friends, to come to Australia to study in universities that are high quality, to study in universities that are a 12 hour direct flight away, and to study in universities that have perhaps the best price point for Indians in the world. So I think it’s a great opportunity, that, that the diaspora and the increase in the Indian population, you know, almost a million people in India, either born in India or have one parent born in India, I say, again, you know, that’s in a country of 25, we did people, and it’s having a big impact upon a whole range of a whole range of issues. And we’re determined to keep that going within the comprehensive strategic partnership to be boring about foreign affairs for a moment, except for the Joint Secretary myself, that was signed in the midst of COVID. 

In 2020. A key part of that was around the diaspora was around education, which is the central pillar of the Australia India relationship, lots of elements to the Australian India relationship from defence, all the way through to agriculture. But the thing that has been consistent over the past 2025 years has been education. And we’re proud of it, we want to keep it going and no matter what other countries do to post visa post study work rights, Australia will continue to sharpen its pencil to make themselves attractive to Indian students.

Sandeep Chakravorty

Absolutely. There’s a very umbilical relationship between education and the diaspora and no better example than then the UK where, where the Prime Minister is a member of the Indian diaspora. On that note, I want to thank all the panellists for joining this very, very interesting panel which I think holds promise that Indian education will get more internationalised, and we will see more foreign campuses in India. Thank you.

About the Acumen Global Gateway Summit: India

The Acumen Global Gateway Summit, held at the renowned JW Marriott hotel in New Delhi, marked a milestone in the Acumen@15 celebrationsThis exclusive invite-only event brought together the Acumen Global Team, distinguished guests, government officials, and experts. Client partners convened to discuss international higher education, exchange innovative ideas, and shape a vision for expanding access to higher education. The summit fostered collaboration, inspiration, and knowledge dissemination among higher education professionals. With its unique setting and thoughtful discussions, the event offered an exceptional platform for networking and setting the course for a future of inclusive and transformative higher education.

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