U.S.-India Educational Partnership Possibilities

By Dr. Patrick McNamara

The U.S.-India relationship will be essential to the Biden-Harris Administration’s foreign policy. Educational partnerships can play an increasingly important role in that relationship. The new administration can strengthen U.S.-India higher education cooperation by funding research in areas of mutual interest, encouraging reciprocity in student and researcher mobility, and invigorating entrepreurship. 
There were over 200,000 Indians in American universities in 2019-20. Covid-19 and America’s tightening immigration policy reversed some of these gains, but student interest is likely still high.  But student mobility is only one area to build upon. Others include joint research in areas of strategic importance and entrepreneurship education for job creation. The National Education Policy, 2020 will drive much of the conversation from India’s side, but the issues of educational partnerships go far beyond just what is outlined there. There are three reasons why the U.S.-India relationship will become even stronger under President Biden: personal interests, strategic importance, and economic potential. 
Personal interests do not always get attention when talking about foreign policy. The personal connection between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi did get some attention. Who can forget the September 2019 “Howdy Modi” rally in Texas or February 2020 “Namaste Trump” rally in Gujarat? But that was more show than substance. Now, in Vice President Kamala Harris, we have a true, if complicated, daughter of India. Her mother emigrated to the United States from Tamil Nadu to pursue higher education and then work in research. Modi has called her victory “pathbreaking, and a matter of immense pride, not just for your chittis,” using the Tamil term for aunties. When Harris makes her first trip to India, it will be celebrated as a homecoming. Leveraging that personal good will – and the Harris’ stories of her mother benefiting from U.S. education – should further the potential for strengthened ties in education. 
The strategic issue that gets the most attention is India’s role in hedging the rise of China. And while that is a crucial dynamic in a dangerous neighborhood, especially given China’s increasing military activities on the border with India and in the South China Sea, there are many other strategic issues that will confront both, the Biden administration and the Indian government. These include nuclear diplomacy, counter-terrorism, internationlsecurity, climate change, and water conflict, to name just a few. The 2+2 strategic dialogues will continue under Biden and should be expanded to include a more robust working group on education. Military leaders will expand the sort of naval exercise we saw this past November in the Indian Ocean. There should also be more collaborative planning involving the Indian government’s Strategic Forces Command and the U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska which could involve university partners. 
Economic development is one of the key impacts of education. Not only is education a driver of higher human resource capacity, but there are often entrepreneurial initiatives that create jobs. The community college model, prevalent in the United States in which quick skills development is done for industries where workforce is needed and jobs await, can be more widely adapted to the Indian context. Covid-19 has forced many institutions to rethink online education. That could be a boon to educating India’s huge population, but will require better infrastructure and more attention to technology access disparities between rural poor and urban rich, which is also a barrier faced in U.S. education. 
There are at least three key policies the Biden administration should focus on to further educational partnerships:
  1. Funding for joint research on areas of mutual interest. While there are obvious topics on that list, such as satellite technology, artificial intelligence, and financial technology. The ones that might have even more impact include water management, solar and alternative energy innovation, and high-yield agriculture. 
  2. Encouragement of student and researcher mobility between the two countries. This has traditionally been directed toward Indians coming to the United States and sometimes staying as academics, professionals, and entrepreneurs. However, there is an increase in “brain-gain” migration of Indians and others going from the United States to India. Brain gain migration should be enhanced through visa policies, including ease of receiving Indian visas for U.S. citizens, expanding the H-1B program for tech jobs which are traditionally filled by Indians, and funding support from both sides to increase the Fulbright-Nehru exchange program. 
  3. Entrepreneurship for job creation is a final push that the Biden administration should prioritize. Good jobs are important to combat violent extremism. Specific educational programs that motivate and fund entrepreneurs – both in India and the United States, plus linking those efforts – will benefit the people of both countries. 
Many India observers in the United States are enthusiastic about the potential for the Biden-Harris administration to build upon the successes of the past, right some of the wrongs in perception and policy, and forge a common path ahead for the people of the two largest democracies. 
Patrick McNamara, Ph.D. has worked locally and internationally with universities, corporations, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and foundations for over three decades. Presently, Dr. McNamara is the director of international studies at University of Nebraska at Omaha. He also leads the U.S. Department of State’s project Partnership 2020: U.S.-India Higher Education Cooperation in which CSIS plays a key advisory role.