The nascent idea of such diplomacy has a potentially global dimension, although Australia can be a key partner of India.

Australia has the potential to become the first frontier which India may reach in its possible push for educational diplomacy. Such a prospect became evident during Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal's visit to Australia at this time.

The apt phraseology of educational diplomacy, as different from the economic and political aspects of foreign policy, was not formally invoked during his latest tour of Australia and New Zealand last week. However, there was no mistaking his drive in that direction.

And, in the present tense of the grammar of international politics, a newly-possible Australian role in India's domestic education sector, even if only on paper as of now, will be significant. Such significance can be explained by the fact that any kind of Australian role in India's domestic education sector, still only a proposition, will imply a qualitatively new relationship between the two countries. Right now, they still need to overcome the residual trust-deficit in their ties over India's concerns regarding its students' safety in Australia.

Interestingly, the view under a totally future perspective is that Australia's education-providers can reach out to the Indian students in India itself — instead of or in addition to their going to an Australian city as at present. However, the notion of such a reverse flow was not the sole talking point during Mr. Sibal's latest visit to Australia.

Moreover, the nascent idea of New Delhi's educational diplomacy has a potentially global dimension, although Australia can be a key partner of India. The context, of course, is the current move in New Delhi for enacting a law to allow foreign players direct access to India's domestic educational scene. On balance, the outlook for New Delhi's educational diplomacy will be determined by the outcome of India's parliamentary process over the controversial foreign universities bill.

The relevance of Canberra to this future scenario is evidently heightened by the fact that India and Australia have now decided to set up an education council on the bilateral front. Being the first of its kind for New Delhi with any country, the “historic” India-Australia Education Council may come into being by September. On other tracks, New Delhi has also begun engaging the United States and a few other education-powerhouses so as to give them access to India. India's Human Resource Development Ministry is the prime mover as of now in this diplomatic exercise.

At the “forefront” of Mr. Sibal's latest Australian tour were other key issues, essentially the safety and welfare of the Indian students in that country and the quality of education they were now receiving there. On both these questions, he sought to “sensitise” his interlocutors, ranging from Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith to the state-level Premiers in Victoria and New South Wales. Of particular focus in this sub-text were the urgency of solutions and the necessity of detecting the root causes of the problems at stake.

As if timed for Mr. Sibal's visit, the recommendations of a relevant panel, the Bruce Baird Committee set up at the Commonwealth or federal level in Australia, were now made public. A key recommendation is that the genesis of the problems confronting the Indian students in Australia should be traced and that research will be required for this purpose. Such a prescription by the panel is expected to address the unanswered questions about the frequency of attacks on Australia-based Indians.

Beyond these topical questions lies the desire in New Delhi's Establishment to make India “the hub of knowledge in the world”. In a conversation with this correspondent in Singapore, Mr. Sibal outlined the calculus of India's educational diplomacy, which could become a reality if the relevant bill were to gain parliamentary approval. He did not, of course, use the relatively-new term of educational diplomacy to refer to the vision which he spelt out as follows:

“[Under] the bill, which is not yet in the public domain, the foreign education-providers will not be allowed to repatriate any profits. ... This will ensure that only those [foreign] players who are interested in education and are serious about it will actually invest [in India]. ... About 15 per cent of the profits [of a foreign player] can go to the corpus of the institution [set up by him in India]. We can [then] ensure that even with greater profits that are made they are ploughed back into the institution [for its academic work] — not put into the corpus. These are two key provisions.

“The foreign players will be given [the same] national treatment [as will be applicable to the home-grown education-providers in India] — neither discrimination nor any favouritism. The foreign players [under this bill] are entitled to what they wish: they have complete freedom as far as syllabus is concerned. [Of course,] each of them has to go through the accreditation process. Nobody is exempted from that. We cannot have fly-by-night operators.

“The big advantage [for the foreign players] is in the human resource that is available in India. [Now,] the Fortune 500 companies are coming to India — not to give any benefit to India. There is that high-quality human resource [in India] they get benefit from. That is exactly what these [foreign educational] institutions are going to do [in India under this bill]. Some of them will be at the research-end. ... You get the same human resource [in India] at much less cost than [say] in Australia. And, [a foreign educational player] can use the human resource [in India] in global enterprises.”

In Mr. Sibal's view, the foreign educational players might look for a qualitatively-new branding in India. Providing for some kind of a two-way street, the bill is also “no impediment to free tie-ups” between India's own branded institutions of management and technology, on one side, and the relevant foreign entities, on the other.

While Australia and New Zealand were the focal points of Mr. Sibal's latest effort at educational diplomacy, Singapore was no less on his radar at this time. And, the U.S. has already figured in New Delhi's copy-book. In Singapore, his public presentation on India's new thinking in the higher education sector came in for appreciation from Senior Minister of State for Trade & Industry and Education S. Iswaran and chairman of Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Vijay Iyengar. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Sibal observed that Singapore could perhaps partner India in one of its projects of innovation universities.

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