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STUDYING TOGETHER
- Education is the US’s biggest export, even in the downturn

Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary responses. The arrival of a new president in the White House and the global economic crisis have combined to create a season of seminars and other powwows on India in Washington’s huge think-tank circuit.

Even as the future course of Indo-US relations — which enjoyed a good run in the last nine years — is at the centre of these discussions in Washington, an Indian American in Texas is creating a model of what could be the most intense interaction between India and the United States of America in the period ahead when engagement in many areas could be limited by the economic downfall of the US.

Last month, the prime minister’s office, in recognition of the significance of Renu Khator’s initiatives, nominated her to the prime minister’s newly-created global advisory council, along with the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, the economist, Jagdish Bhagwati, the world citizen, Shashi Tharoor, West Bengal’s most activist Indian American, Swadesh Chatterjee, and the steel mogul, L.N. Mittal, among others. According to the PMO, the “council is based on the idea that the highly skilled overseas Indian community represents a vast untapped resource that can be harnessed as an input into national development processes in India”.

Khator is an unlikely candidate for the extraordinary role into which she has been cast in deepening Indo-US relations at this time of deep uncertainties. She is an academic: she is neither a politician holding State office nor a corporate leader. Normally, it is men and women from these walks of life who set the agenda and tone for relations between nations and peoples. Nor is Khator from Washington or New York, where such relations are usually fleshed out, or even from California, which has a special role in the US’s ties with India because of Silicon Valley.

She is the president of the University of Houston and chancellor of the University of Houston System that includes six academic institutions, a radio and a television station. Khator is the first person of Indian origin to head a comprehensive research university anywhere in the US. For most people outside the US, Texas conjures up machismo images. So there is much in the idea that an alumnus of Kanpur University in Uttar Pradesh has become the first woman chancellor of a network of academic institutions that includes the premier public metropolitan research and teaching body in Texas.

When an initiative that Khator and a team from the University of Houston are now putting together with India is implemented, hopefully by next year, students in India will be able to enrol for a five-year course that will consecutively earn them a Bachelor’s degree in science from an Indian university in three years, followed by a Master’s degree from the University of Houston in another two years.

The rationale for Khator’s unique proposal for a Indo-US joint BS-MS degree is the statistic from India’s Knowledge Commission that 1,60,000 Indian students are now enrolled in universities abroad. Nearly 95,000 of these students are in the US, according to the latest report of the Institute of International Education, which has conducted an annual survey of international students in America for 60 years, financed by the US state department.

Since Indo-US relations began an upward swing during this decade, Indians have become the largest foreign student population on American campuses, making up more than 15 per cent of the total. Last year alone, the figure of Indian students on American campuses rose by nearly 13 per cent.

Khator’s initiative will enable Indian students to overcome a major handicap they face when applying to study in the US. Many universities there insist that a three-year Bachelor’s degree is not enough to apply for a Master’s course in the US. The website of the US-India Educational Foundation advises prospective students that after graduating from an Indian university, “It is advisable for you to complete an additional year of studies to be a stronger applicant to a Master’s degree in the US.”

An Indo-US joint BS-MS degree from an Indian institution together with the University of Houston will save a lost year for students. In addition, it will eliminate the uncertainties associated with applying to study in America and then waiting to know about acceptance.

When Khator was in Chennai last month, to speak about “Building Bridges: Education and Diaspora Knowledge Network” at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, the IIT in Chennai expressed interest in collaborating with the University of Houston’s engineering programmes. Since her return from Chennai, her university’s Cullen College of Engineering has sent a three-member academic mission to India to meet administrations of five Indian engineering programmes and to work out the implementation of cooperative education schemes and research collaborations.

This columnist asked Khator how she would sustain her ambitious international outreach in the face of the current economic crisis that is hitting America hard. Her confident reply was that only a third of the University of Houston’s one-billion-dollar operating budget came from state resources. Income from endowment, private giving, tuition fees and auxiliaries provided the rest of the institution’s income. Last year, the university raised about $86 million in donations.

In fact, the university has just decided that it will take less money from its endowment next year in an effort to preserve the fund, although a loss of about $4.2 million has been reported from its operating budget. There will, however, be no cuts in student scholarships funded by the endowment.

Khator is of the view that when times are hard in America, people actually turn to universities more than in normal times for retraining and continuing education. Universities, in that case, may well thrive under adverse conditions and fulfil a greater need.

Khator says her philosophy in life is that “when life gives you lemons and everyone else is busy making lemonade, think about making margaritas!” It may be this philosophy that has prompted her to reach far out into India anticipating unprecedented challenges for educational institutions in a troubled America.

Be that as it may, the idea of an outreach to India is one that will find traction with policymakers in governments, both in states in the US and in Washington. Education is actually the US’s biggest export, its single biggest source of foreign income. At a time when US exports are expected to slump, along with attendant fears of a global trade war that may close foreign markets to American products, recruiting foreign students to US universities continues to be a prospective bright spot amidst the economic downturn.

Last week, in recognition of the university’s potential to stand strong in the midst of America’s gathering storm, the Texas governor, Rick Perry, announced a grant of $5.5 million to the University of Houston to create the world-class Institute of Biomedical Research that will also house the proposed Texas International Center for Cell Signaling and Nuclear Receptors. Biomedical collaboration is an area that IIT Chennai is keen on pursuing with Khator.

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has been an ardent champion of greater ties between institutions of higher learning in the US and in India. But nearly four years after his landmark visit to George W. Bush’s White House, barring a few exceptions, efforts to forge such links have largely been confined to visits to India by presidents of American universities and return trips by their Indian counterparts.

What brightens the prospect of Khator’s initiative yielding results is that she knows precisely what India is looking for and how to deliver on the country’s demands. If she succeeds, Indo-US academic collaboration may thrive at a time when most else in bilateral relations may have to be scaled down.

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