Higher education—a bridge to Japan

As India embarks on the long-overdue higher education reform—which includes promoting research culture in universities—it should diversify the partners with whom it seeks deeper engagement.

India’s traditional partners in higher education and innovation activities have traditionally been the United States and some Commonwealth and European countries. While this partnership should continue to develop, it is essential to also accelerate engagement with other major economic powers such as Japan, South Korea and Brazil.

Consider Japan. Japan’s efforts to expand international linkages of its universities provide a favourable backdrop for India to intensify its own partnerships with Japan.

There are two broad factors which necessitate such diversification. First, there has been increasing globalisation of research, development and innovation activities. A recent survey by the United States’ National Science Foundation found that American manufacturers conduct about a fifth of their total R&D in other countries.

In several key sectors—such as motor vehicles, textiles, apparel, and electrical equipment—the off-shoring share exceeds 30 percent. While relevant data are not available, it is a reasonable presumption that such trends are also occurring in other major economic powers such as Japan, South Korea, and Germany.
India’s high quality technology and management institutions should set up centres in selected countries, particularly Japan. For instance, the reported plans of Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur to set up such centres in Penang, Malaysia, and in the United States, are therefore in the right direction.

Second, the current global economic crisis has diminished medium-term growth and employment prospects of the United States, the European Union and Britain.

The proportion of India’s working-age population is rising, which suggests a regeneration of livelihoods, with emphasis on an increasingly educated workforce with high aspirations. India must therefore explore all avenues for generating such employment opportunities. Countries like Japan and South Korea, on the other hand, are ageing, and will soon face a decline in their total population—thus presenting an attractive opportunity.

India should increase its leverage on other countries with a strong global presence of technology-intensive companies and excellent university systems with close industry linkages.

In this context, efforts to engage universities and research institutions in Japan, as well as the R&D of labs of Japanese corporations, will prove beneficial. Japan has increasingly emerged as among India’s most important economic and strategic partners. It is also the largest bilateral provider of economic and technical assistance.

Japan is globally recognised as a leader in many areas such as automotive engineering, life sciences, electronics, railways, solid waste management, and renewable energy. Its proven competitiveness is based on excellent universities, who have traditionally been engaged in close collaboration with industry, but whose international engagements have so far been limited.

This, however, is changing. Universities are introducing more courses in English, and actively seeking foreign students who could form part of Japan’s talent pool.

Japan’s strength is its close linkages between its universities, research institutions, and industries—something that has been an area of major weakness in India. The separation of teaching, research, and graduate and undergraduate education has not permitted the realisation of synergies when full-fledged universities combine teaching and research. Commercially oriented and socially useful research collaboration between industry and universities and research has therefore been limited. This has hampered India’s efforts to progress towards a knowledge economy. Deeper engagement with Japan could help address this deficiency.

The Japanese government has set up several scholarship programs to attract foreign students and to facilitate exchange of faculty and researchers. But Indian higher education and research institutions, despite Indian students’ desire to pursue higher education abroad, have not given requisite priority to exploring opportunities with their counterparts in Japan.

A formidable barrier is the need to learn Japanese. But this is not as daunting as some would believe—particularly given the deep cultural links between India and Japan.

Indians are generally adept at languages, with most growing up familiar with at least two to three Indian languages. The use of English has also become more widespread. Several states, such as Gujarat, have begun to promote English as a language essential for global commerce and science.

While these are steps in the right direction, the importance of non-English languages on the Internet, and in commerce and science, is expected to grow as an increasingly multi-polar world emerges. Functional knowledge of other major languages, including Japanese, has now become more essential.

Acquiring basic proficiency in Japanese takes about one year. This is a relatively minor investment of time, given the widening career options, business opportunities for firms, and enhanced scientific and technological options that will follow as a result. The accessibility of Japanese-language training needs to be expanded considerable in different parts of the country.

There are indications that Indian professionals, particularly in the IT industry and in engineering, are exploring prospects with Japanese companies. Tata Consultancy services (TCS) in setting up its second branch in Japan in the Kansai region explained that many Japanese companies are increasingly using English language software. Moreover, as they globalise further, extensive global experience of TCS is valued by Japanese companies, providing TCS with significant business opportunities. This suggests that separation between Japanese and English languages training is becoming less rigid.

Indians desiring to widen their higher education options are also enrolling in tertiary institutions in Japan. But the trend needs to be significantly accelerated. There is considerable merit in Japanese organisations, such as JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency), Development Bank of Japan (DBJ), and Nippon Foundation taking initiatives to help accelerate this trend.

Indian operations of Japanese companies are beginning to rival those from South Korea, both countries have businesses which have significance global presence, requiring non-Japanese manpower. As a result, promising career prospects for Indians familiar with Japanese business culture and language can be expected.

To accelerate the trend, Indian universities should consider collaborations with Japanese universities as they seek out global partners. Institutions such as St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, which are planning to internationalise their curriculum, student assessment criteria, and management practices, will also greatly benefit by collaborating with their Japanese counterparts, particularly in science and technology. They could also consider establishing “Japan Centres” to facilitate such collaboration. These however should be substantive and not set up as public relations or as bureaucratic exercises. Indian foundations also need to consider engaging their counterparts in Japan to deepen communication and take joint initiatives.
States like Gujarat that organise annual global investors’ meetings will particularly benefit by inviting Japanese universities and research institutions. These could be utilised to link similar institutions in Gujarat with their counterparts from Japan; to facilitate establishment of research labs of Japanese corporations in India.

Japanese universities, faculty and students also need to demonstrate greater urgency to internationalise their linkages with non-traditional partners such as India.

Deeper connections in higher education and innovations will provide greater substance to a strategic India-Japan partnership, and enhance economic space and strategic leverage for both countries. India should also consider entering into a tantalisation agreement with Japan, which would recognise the social security arrangements of each country. Similarly, an agreement to facilitate Indian workers to fill specific needs in Japan could also be considered.

At a broader level, India should articulate its commitment to engaging in strategic partnership with Japan. India and Japan must capitalise on the opportunities they offer each other in terms of both achieving their domestic goals and expanding their global roles.