A mutual recognition agreement between Australia and India could prove critical for students in both countries, as Australia struggles to plug IT skills gaps and India fights to counter quality issues that have left nearly half of graduates unemployable.

Taskforce members from Indian and Australian educational institutions will work with stakeholders to identify areas where Indian qualifications – whether acquired through online learning, blended learning, joint degrees or offshore campuses – can be recognised as equivalent to those provided by Australian institutions.

“Education remains key to the bilateral relationship between Australia and India,” said Stuart Robert, Acting Minister for Education and Youth, in announcing the taskforce.

“This collaboration will serve both countries by expanding cooperation in education, and optimising mobility outcomes for Australian and Indian students and graduates…. [and] underpin trade in professional services between Australia and India.”

Designed to support the Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030 – a guiding document, released late last year, designed to revive Australia’s pandemic-hit international education market – the recognition of overseas qualifications is crucial to enabling degree-qualified professionals to move more easily between the countries.

This mobility, in turn, is critical for boosting the supply of trained graduates to employers finding that Australia’s universities alone simply cannot supply enough trained engineers, computer scientists, and other professionals to meet surging demand.

Sectors such as cyber security, quantum computing, computer science, and others have all struggled to deal with the tech talent mismatch, particularly since Australia’s pandemic-era border closures sent blocked access to talented overseas individuals and sent thousands of students home.

With borders open again and recommendations for liberalisation of visa requirements to entice a broader range of overseas skills, mutual recognition could improve access to India’s massive base of students and recent graduates.

It could also be a game-changer for students at Indian universities, where post-graduation job prospects are dim: just 46.8 per cent of engineering (B.E./B.Tech) graduates were rated employable in the country’s latest India Skills Report, which reported even lower outcomes for other degrees.

Employability for Indian graduates has actually declined since 2015, when only 54 per cent of graduates were rated employable.

No longer a no-brainer

India’s low employability numbers highlight chronic problems with the quality of India’s tertiary sector, which a recent DFAT analysis concluded “cannot meet the demand for education on its own” due to the “patchy” quality that stems from a lack of educational oversight and curriculum standards.

“Getting education right is critical for India to maximise the potential of its demographic dividend by ensuring its millions of young people are equipped to enter the workforce and able to adjust to rapid technological change,” the analysis concluded.

“Australia should look to increase the number of high calibre Indian students at its universities and deepen two-way research links while continuing to welcome Indian students who seek an Australian education primarily for a migration outcome.”

While Australian universities’ quality control has kept their degrees desirable for students and valuable for employers, pandemic border closures have seen many Indian students deciding to study in Canada, the UK, and US – costing Australia’s economy $4 billion every six months, according to Mitchell Institute modelling conducted late last year.

The new mutual-recognition taskforce will aim to help recover Australia’s primacy amongst Indian students and graduates, with ongoing free-trade negotiations canvassing the possibility of allowing Indian students to extend their Australian visas for three to five years.

Yet restoring Australian universities’ reputations may take time, with a recent Lowy Institute analysis identifying significant negative sentiment towards Australian education among English-speaking Indians – who comprise around 1 in 5 international students in Australia.

This change in sentiment could hit Australia’s IT industry particularly hard given that Indian students comprise 35 per cent of all international IT students – more than any other country – while the number studying engineering-related courses is second only to China.

A recently released Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) discussion paper floated ideas for increasing the diversity of students at Australian universities, noting the risks of an international student body in which the top 5 source markets – China, India, Nepal, Vietnam, and Malaysia – account for 72 per cent of international enrolments.

This imbalance “was a key area of concern for the sector due to its implications for student experience and business resilience,” DESE concluded, “and one which required further engagement to identify the best way forward.”