A new breed of community college is set to transform the post-16 education landscape in India, with the help of the UK, by offering general education alongside high-skill vocational courses for the first time.
By 2022, India will need to train an estimated 500 million skilled workers to service its rapidly growing economy, the country's government has estimated. But there is no national framework for vocational education and training, and the existing system has little capacity. In a bid to rectify the situation, the country is now looking to Western nations for ideas.
India is particularly keen to learn from the practices of the UK further education (FE) sector, especially in areas such as curriculum development, staff training and how to develop links with industry. But it also wants to emulate the country's community college model, in which high-skill technical courses are taught alongside more traditional trade and craft skills.
"In the UK, colleges run general skills-based programmes that are customised to meet the needs of their local communities," said Dr Swati Mujumdar, director of the Symbiosis Centre for Distance Learning, one of India's largest FE institutions. "They run all kinds of courses, not just technical ones, and that is something we can learn from. There is also a natural mobility of students from one level to another and even between sectors, and certification that is accepted by industry."
Earlier this month, a delegation led by UK skills minister Matthew Hancock visited India to agree details of the first collaboration of its kind between the two countries. Twenty-five colleges picked by the Indian government will be partnered with UK institutions that will develop plans for how to radically overhaul the education that the Indian colleges offer. An open competition run by the Association of Colleges (AoC) will determine which UK colleges participate.
Dame Asha Khemka, principal of Vision West Nottinghamshire College and chair of AoC India, said there was a "hunger" for skills development in India that she wanted to contribute to and learn from.
"In the UK, we have a track record of doing vocational education well, with a good infrastructure, resources and links with employers," said Dame Asha, who moved to the UK from India at the age of 25. "These are still very much lacking in India.
"If we can convince Indian parents that their children will get quality training and education and have a good job at the end of it, then their perceptions will start to shift."
Richard Heald, chief executive of the UK India Business Council, said that the college system in the UK was "unique" but could be adapted to improve Indian education.
In return, the UK college sector wants to learn from India's growing use of digital technology in learning, particularly regarding the benefits of tablet devices and mobile phones.
Mobile phone use in India has exploded in recent years, and teachers in some rural areas are increasingly using them to teach remotely. The Indian government has been promoting the use of low-cost tablet computers to give students and teachers access to educational resources online that schools could otherwise not afford.
John Mountford, international director of the AoC, said that many UK colleges were keen to get involved: "If our job is to help our students be successful in a global landscape, then the perspective of countries like India is vital."
A spokesman for the UK government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said the department had already learned a "huge amount" about the use of technology in Indian education over the past year.
Mr Hancock added: "We have a lot to offer and a lot to learn. We have a well-established system and [India is] building a system that shares a lot of those features. We can also learn from India about the use of digital technology such as remote teaching and use of tablets and mobile phones."