Mars, democracy & Malala: South Asian educational frontiers

22 January 2015

Following on from the first event in our South Asia Global Education Dialogue series - held today in London - the British Council's Ismail Bhadat tells us more about changes in the region and what these mean for international higher education. 

India launched its first satellite to Mars (on its first attempt and at a fraction of the cost of its western counterparts), Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have undergone relatively peaceful transitions of democratic government, Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel peace prize for championing girls education and has become an icon for female empowerment globally. South Asia is undergoing an epiphany unprecedented in its recent history.

The scale of the political, economic and social challenges still facing the region is immense, but it is equalled by the size of the opportunity. The research now must move on from identifying the demographic challenge and focus on how to do something about it. And it is not just South Asian leaders who must be bold. If South Asia flourishes, then the whole world benefits. However, if South Asia fails, the world will not be able to ignore it. Education leaders around the world have a responsibility to work together to enable South Asia’s development to continue.

There has to be a bold new approach. The 20th century attitude of the West: 'build it and they will come” is no longer fit for purpose. Education leaders in the West have to understand that simply trying to attract the best talent out of the region is not the best way to ‘assist’ South Asia’s development. Innovation in service provision, equity of access to opportunity, particularly to leadership roles for women and possessing market relevant skills, leading to employability, is now a prerequisite to make the connection between quality education, developing relevant skills and prosperous stable societies. Education providers now need to offer the full package and deliver good outcomes to individual learners and their wider local community and not necessarily 'sell' qualifications to customers.

The recent decline of South Asian students coming to the UK is of course bad news for the UK, but the sector needs to think beyond trying to come up with more scholarships, greater marketing ruses, or lobbying their government to change its immigration rhetoric and policies. The significant competition from other countries eager to host South Asia’s talent is a key factor that is damaging the UK’s attractiveness, but this is not the competition to be concerned about, long-term. The UK needs to go to the region, and take the competition on in India, in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, if it wants to have a chance at building a long-term, serious relationship. 

Large scale structural reform across South Asia is required in areas of quality, leadership, skills & employability and this is where the UK can make a difference, if the UK is prepared to ‘offer’ more than student mobility. Otherwise the UK will risk being left behind as competition from overseas hones in on the new educational frontier that is South Asia.  India, for example, has the world’s fourth-largest gross domestic product (GDP) however dedicates just 1% of its GDP to R&D. Imagine what could be achieved by just doubling this and the role that UK world class research intensive universities can play and benefit from in this endeavour.

The British Council’s series of South Asian Global Education Dialogues have succeeded over the last two years in bringing policy makers together from the UK and the region. Today’s event in London will make the case for the UK’s education leaders to collaborate and organise a complete and comprehensive UK offer forward for the region. The majority of South Asian governments hold a four to five year mandate to govern so there is a relatively stable policy environment for potential UK providers to enter.

Equally, South Asian leaders must recognise that the UK is more than a competitor for talent, but can be a strategic and trusted partner in development. Education doesn’t have borders. The UK’s expertise in fostering networks and enabling and connecting world-class researchers means that it can be seen as a platform, rather than just a host. If South Asia’s leaders wish to build on their countries recent successes and capitalize on the demographic dividend they will enjoy, they have to think globally, not nationally. None of us can allow the region to fail.