India's strategy of using education as a diplomatic tool faces a key test during French President Francois Hollande's visit this week, amid differences threatening an ambitious collaborative project both governments have cited to demonstrate close ties.
India is hoping France will finally ink a formal memorandum of understanding (MoU) to jointly handhold the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Jodhpur, five years after the two governments first announced the project. Though a consortium of French universities has already started research work with the IIT, the two countries are yet to sign a broader agreement covering promised assistance from France, because of differences in perceptions over how the project could help India and France.
Failure to reach an agreement on the MoU during Hollande's visit, starting Thursday, could force India to rethink its use of collaborative education projects as a tool of diplomacy, senior government sources have told HT.
"We need to re-evaluate whether this strategy is working," a senior official closely involved in the discussions with France said. "It's not just about France, our strategy as a whole is facing problems."
In 2007, India and Japan had announced plans to jointly sire IIT Hyderabad. But as with France and IIT Jodhpur, the collaboration with Japan over IIT Hyderabad has had a rocky journey. Japanese academic institutions and companies have begun exchange programmes with Indian students, but the two countries are yet to sign an agreement for a Rs. 1509 crore loan Japan promised the IIT. India has also asked Japan for an additional Rs. 100 crore grant for IIT Hyderabad, officials said.
The tie-ups with France and Japan are among the most high profile instances of what Indian officials call "education diplomacy" - this country's use of its growing demand for quality education to gain diplomatic leverage in a changing world.
The collaboration over IIT Jodhpur was a key element of the joint statement issued by India and France when then French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited New Delhi in December 2010.
Three years earlier, in August 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his then Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe announced that the two countries would jointly set up IIT Hyderabad, the location picked by Japan after it first considered Bihar, the birthplace of Buddhism, Japan's most widely practised religion. The two countries set up a working group to draft a blueprint for the project. The team submitted a report in
October 2008, when PM Singh visited Tokyo.
Students have long been New Delhi's favoured tool of education diplomacy. The sharp rise in the number of Indian students studying in the US has mirrored the growing strength in ties between the two countries over the past two decades. The UK, France, Germany, Spain, Australia and Canada have in recent years also stepped up efforts to lure Indian students.
India's attraction as a destination for students from many developing countries seeking quality higher education has helped it diplomatically build ties with many African and Asian countries. In countries like Ethiopia, generations of Indian teachers have helped strengthen diplomatic and people-to-people relations.
But when India launched 8 new IITs in 2008, it opted for a strategy from an earlier generation. In the 1950s, newly independent India had built its first set of IITs with help from foreign governments. IIT Bombay came up in 1958 with financial and technical assistance from the Soviet Union and UNESCO. In 1959, IIT Kanpur was launched with American help and IIT Madras with Germany's support.
Half a century later, when India decided to turn back to that strategy in starting the new breed of IITs, some educationists and economists had questioned the strategy. As a fast-growing economy, India no longer needed funds or technical expertise from developed countries struggling economically themselves, critics argued.
"If the collaboration with France doesn't yield the results we had hoped for, we may be forced to conclude that we were wrong in our strategy," an official said.