The United States and India are two of the largest economies and home to some of the world’s most innovative individuals. While a cornerstone of the U.S.-India partnership is mutually beneficial global economic development, both countries face a significant challenge in improving education and enabling their vast human capital to succeed.

What are India’s challenges and successes in the development of human capital, and what are the bilateral opportunities for collaboration in skill development and education? Indian Minister of Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal addressed this question in his remarks. Arbind Prasad, director general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, provided comments. Carnegie’s Jessica T. Mathews moderated.

Great Challenges

  • The Indian People: India’s greatest strength is its people, Mathews said. The country has some of the finest science and technology institutions in the world, and it has made great strides in literacy and education. But she warned that major challenges remain, and that India must develop an effective set of policies in order to realize the opportunities at hand.

  • Indian Economic Growth: Sibal echoed Mathews’ analysis, noting that India has made enormous progress in the last twenty years and maintained an unflagging rate of economic growth that stands in sharp relief to the global slowdown. Nevertheless, great challenges remain for Indian education, and they are compounded by the fact that democracy has its own rate of progress, especially when it is as vibrant as India.

  • The Major Challenge: Sibal stated that the greatest challenge for India is how to educate the Indian population enough to reach the critical mass that allows India to finally reach double-digit growth. He noted that entry-level education is relatively strong in India, but that the country desperately needs to increase university enrollment. Today, the gross enrollment ratio is 17 percent. India must increase it to 30 percent by 2020, Sibal asserted.

Investing in Higher Education

Sibal and Prasad outlined several ways in which India could re-vamp its higher education system:

  • A Multipronged Approach: India must enact a multipronged strategy in order to adequately meet its challenges, Sibal said. India must rely on private investment, private sector innovation, and the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) revolution in order to bridge the gap between the demand for higher education and its supply. India is in the process of building a national knowledge network that connects all its institutions of higher education, with the final goal of creating a national highway of knowledge that is accessible to everyone, Sibal added.

  • The Importance of the Private Sector: Prasad emphasized the importance of the private sector in meeting the challenge of capacity enhancement and quality. The role of industry needs to be expanded, he argued, suggesting that India could move towards a “knowledge hub-and-spoke model.” In such a model, premium industries and institutions in a region form a hub that then connects with other institutions in the region to share best practices and to design an education that has practical value for its students.

Skill Development

Sibal asserted that the second challenge India must meet is that of adequately teaching skills to Indian students who choose not to pursue higher education. India has an enormous demand for skilled workers, but it lacks the supply.

  • Integrating Students, Industry, and Society: Sibal argued that industry should help with curriculum design, and that India must start including vocational skill education in high school. He noted that it was important to maintain flexibility, however, between academics and skills, so students felt free to pursue whichever they preferred instead of being locked onto one single path. Prasad agreed, noting that currently, there is a lack of flexibility between the skill and academic paths. India must also change its mindset to reflect that skilled workers are as important to civil society as those who pursue higher education, Sibal said.

  • Certification: Prasad agreed that the focus on skill development is the right model. India must create a globally recognized certification mechanism for its skilled workers. Otherwise, Indians who choose to work outside of their hometowns may find it difficult to secure employment despite their qualifications.

Sibal concluded by arguing that other countries also needed to change their mindset to reflect that the world has become a global community, and that education is no longer limited by borders. He pointed to the United States as an example: today, the American educational system is too expensive, as is American manufacturing and services. Over the last decade, American manufacturing moved to China, and American services moved to India, because economically, it was the only sustainable way to proceed. Sibal argued that education will increasingly be outsourced as well – so long as quality remains the same, if the costs of education are cheaper abroad, education will become more international in character. Sibal asserted that in the future, the world is likely to see more “meta-universities” located in cyberspace rather than brick-and-mortar institutions, as well as an increase in collaborative research across schools and countries.

This event was co-sponsored by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and supported by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.