Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the Closing Plenary of the U.S.-India Higher Education Summit, Georgetown University

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Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the Closing Plenary of the U.S.-India Higher Education Summit, Georgetown University

October 13, 2011

I am delighted to be here. The U.S.-India Higher Education Summit is supporting educational partnerships that all nations should aspire to empower.

I want to second Secretary Clinton’s vision and support for international partnerships, and our shared understanding that the United States and India mutually benefit from strengthening higher education.

I loved her story of the U.S. and Indian students at Stanford University who, working together, developed the Embrace Baby Warmer. That inexpensive, portable baby incubator is now saving the lives of pre-mature and low-weight babies in India.

I share Minister Sibal’s sense of urgency about expanding postsecondary education in today’s knowledge-based, global job market. He and Prime Minister Singh are challenging the educational status quo in India--just as we have done in the United States.

And I’m a big believer in international exchange programs. They are not just lofty-sounding programs with abstract benefits. In a global society, international exchange programs are economically vital and culturally invaluable. In fact, it was an international scholarship program that 52 years ago brought President Obama’s father to America to study at the University of Hawaii.

I hope your breakout sessions have, as Secretary Clinton urged, served as idea incubators for expanding and enriching the U.S.-India partnership. I understand some promising proposals were discussed, like innovative models for developing sustainable business-education partnerships, and expanding faculty-student exchanges and dual degree programs.

One reason this Summit is so timely is that the importance of international cooperation and collaboration in higher education cannot be taken for granted.

Unfortunately, in both the United States and India, there are some who treat international education partnerships as a zero sum game, where one country gains a competitive upper hand--instead of treating these partnerships as a win-win proposition for both nations.

Here in the U.S., skeptics of international collaboration warn that the large number of Indian engineering and science students and the proliferation of Indian-born entrepreneurs are threats to U.S. workers and American competitiveness.

Some Indian leaders similarly view America’s institutions of higher education as a source of brain drain.

And despite India’s serious shortage of colleges, universities, and vocational training institutes, a number of elected officials have promoted regulations that prevent or limit the development of India-based campuses of leading U.S. institutions of higher education.

I believe this skepticism about the benefits of competition and collaboration is both short-sighted and misguided.

In today’s knowledge economy, education is a public good unconstrained by national boundaries. Innovation, manufacturing, and research and development are now borderless--to the mutual benefit of all.

The U.S.-India partnership in higher education is a good example. It has a long and storied history. The India Fulbright program was established in 1950 in a bilateral treaty signed by Prime Minister Nehru. It has benefitted more than 17,000 American and Indian students--and nearly tripled in size since President Obama and Prime Minister Singh increased funding for the Fulbright-Nehru Partnership in 2009.

The Department of State’s public diplomacy program in India and our department’s program--which teaches Hindi, Punjabi, and Indian global studies--collectively have more than 12,000 alumni between them.

International exchange programs help develop leadership. One Fulbright alumnus who studied in the United States, S.M. Krishna, recently became India’s external affairs minister. He is credited with helping turn Bangalore into India’s most celebrated technology hub.

The truth is that the U.S. has gained enormously from Indian students who come to study here as well. Over the past two decades, roughly one million Indian postsecondary students have been educated in the U.S., including more than 100,000 students last year alone.

Most of these students were enrolled in graduate programs--and three in four studied in STEM fields. Indian students contribute an estimated $3.1 billion to the U.S. economy in educational and living expenses.

They contribute even more to U.S. competitiveness in science and technology. From 1995 to 2005, fully half of the science and technology start-ups in Silicon Valley had foreign born CEOs or lead technologists. Indian immigrants found a quarter of those startups—more than immigrants from the next four nations combined, Britain, China, Taiwan, and Japan.

It’s a fundamental misreading of the knowledge economy to interpret the tremendous contribution of Indian students and entrepreneurs to America as India’s loss or brain drain. ‘Brain gain’ better captures this higher education partnership.

I say that not just because many Indian-born graduate students educated in the U.S. are now returning to India, but because the work of Indian-born U.S. entrepreneurs reaps benefits in India as well.

The high-tech revolution that Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla helped start doesn’t stop at the U.S shoreline. And the investments that he has made in funding second-generation biofuels have the potential to reduce both India’s dependence on fossil fuels and its carbon footprint for generations to come.

As President Obama pointed out when he spoke to the Indian Parliament last year, cooperation between Indian and American scientists sparked the Green Revolution. Today, U.S. advances in weather forecasting systems are helping Indian farmers to save water, increase productivity, and limit losses from the monsoon season.

Indian born U.S. entrepreneurs like Silicon Valley’s Kanwal Rekhi are investing directly in India’s technology sector and India’s postsecondary institutions. Rekhi, for example, helped establish IIT Bombay’s new School of Information Technology.

It’s true that Apple successfully pioneered the tablet computer. But just last week, India’s education ministry announced that it is set to produce an Internet-ready tablet device for students that will cost only $50. How revolutionary could that prove?

In closing, I want to note that America and India stand to learn a lot from each other.

Too many Americans today have become complacent about our educational performance. And it wasn’t always that way.

When America was buffeted by a massive wave of immigration a century ago, parents started a grass-roots movement to create free public schools in their communities. The book Middletown, a classic sociological study of life in Indiana, reported that education then “evoke[d] the fervor of a religion, a means of salvation, among a large section of the population.”

Today, it’s India where education evokes that hunger and fervor. Today, it’s India where tens of thousands of young adults every year leave their families and communities behind. They climb on a jet plane, many for the first time. And they fly thousands of miles across the globe to a strange city and campus and culture to pursue higher education.

Today, it’s India that can teach America about how to drive rapid economic growth--and the role that education is playing as the game-changer that propels prosperity. India is reminding us anew that education is the great equalizer--the one force that can help overcome differences in background, culture, and privilege.

So, America can learn from India about how to reinvigorate our hunger for higher education. But India can benefit from America’s long experience in building a system of higher education.

In many respects, the American system of higher education is still the best in the world. Our blend of top-ranked research universities, liberal arts colleges, comprehensive state universities, and a robust community-college system provides unparalleled access to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

All of this took time to build. And our higher education system was nurtured and shaped by far-sighted leaders and government action.

In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, creating our nation’s land grant colleges.

In the twentieth century, America adopted the tradition of research universities from Germany. But those universities thrived in the U.S. in large part because the government invested heavily in research in medicine, science, energy, and technology, and awarded research grants through a competitive peer-review process free of political interference.

America’s rapid expansion of higher education after 1945 stems from the GI Bill, which provided free tuition to war veterans. President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill during World War II, in the midst of the battle of Normandy. And in the fragile aftermath of that deadly war, President Truman helped foster the creation of our community college system.

As you can see, we all have a lot to learn from each other, to our joint benefit.

I hope you will come away from this Summit with a renewed commitment to the U.S.-India partnership in higher education. And I hope you will come away with a renewed faith that this treasured partnership is a win-win proposition for both of our nations.

Imagining the future as a contest among states vying to get larger pieces of a finite economic pie for themselves is a recipe for protectionism and global strife in the information age. Expanding educational attainment everywhere is the best way to grow the pie for all. Let this Summit advance that cause.