A tale of two countries – how global collaboration can make a difference

From its offices in the Saket District Centre of the sprawling Indian capital of New Delhi, the Deakin South Asia team is a ‘mini-Deakin,’ working closely with colleagues in Australia to administer a growing program of in-country and joint PhD initiatives that are making a difference to the education and career opportunities of women across the region.

“Our focus is about being in India, with India and engaging with India,” said Ravneet Pawha, Associate Vice President (Global) and Executive Director-South Asia.

“We have always been about creating partnerships that are sustainable and mutually beneficial to Deakin and to India and ensuring that we provide quality service to partners and to students.”

Achieving those goals relies on collaboration and relationship building – with Australian colleagues across faculties and campuses, with Indian industry, business and educational institutions and with government bodies in both countries.

Ms Pawha and her 40-strong team, 60 per cent of whom are women, spend long hours nutting out the details of memorandums of understanding, guiding students through the process of becoming a part of Deakin, and ensuring that visiting Australian faculty members are made to feel welcome as they meet with their Indian counterparts.

Their efforts have resulted in collaborations between Deakin and some of India’s leading universities, research institutions and corporations, including Fortune 500 petrochemical company Indian Oil, the not-for-profit Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and numerous public and private health organisations such as the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation and the Public Health Foundation of India.

Building a presence in India has sometimes been a challenge, given that India has traditionally looked to the US and UK for international education, rather than Australia. However, there is strong synergy between the research needs of the two countries, in areas such as smart agriculture, reliable renewable energy solutions and the growing health burden of diabetes and heart disease in both countries.

This has led to increasing numbers of Indian post-graduate students seeking to complete a Deakin PhD under the Deakin India Research Initiative (DIRI).

Created to bridge the innovation gap between academia and industry, DIRI bases higher degree by research candidates at Indian research institutions, with day-to-day supervision provided by local researchers. Deakin academics serve as principal supervisors for the students’ research, and the students also visit Deakin in Australia for six months.

The program is highly praised by students, supervisors from both countries and directors of the organisations involved, as opening up new pathways for innovative research and creating opportunities to work on joint projects with global impact, not only for the students, but also for the supervisors involved.

It has also proved particularly beneficial for Indian women who may otherwise have been unable to continue with higher education.

“Some of our PhD students are mothers with established careers,” Ms Pawha explained. “The joint PhD and in-country PhD programs allow them to further their education and contribute to research that benefits their own community without having to give up their employment and uproot their families to study overseas for years.

“For example, we have female students working with health organisations here to collect data about factors influencing the rate of diseases like diabetes that are relevant to the Indian context. If they had to go abroad to do their research, their work wouldn’t necessarily translate into outcomes that could benefit their own communities.

“At Deakin, they get the best of both worlds – they have the ability to interact with colleagues in Australia on a regular basis and experience global exposure and different cultures. This gives them the opportunity to widen their networks and learn what women in other parts of the world are doing while enhancing their career prospects in their own country.”

As in much of the world, the education administration sector in India is dominated by women and the large percentage of women working in the South Asia office reflects this.

“I think international education is very much about the service orientation of the sector, and running the sector efficiently has traditionally been a strength of women,” Ms Pawha said.

“With such a large number of our employees being women, there is a strong sense of connection and bonding. It also makes a difference when it comes to external communication and interactions with students and parents – there is a sensitivity and ‘dealing with care’ approach.”

Ms Pawha is herself a postgraduate in international education, and many of her team members have undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in business, commerce, science and the arts.

“All of them see working for Deakin South Asia as a career progression,” Ms Pawha said. “They see it as a place where they can make a difference, they’re learning, and they’re associated with an institution that is seen as a benchmark for the industry.”

Ms Pawha has been part of Deakin’s work in India since the very beginning, when the University launched its first joint venture in the country, offering management programs through distance learning with the Australian Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers.

When Deakin became the first international university to set up an office in India two years later, she took on the task of managing it.

More than two decades later, Deakin South Asia’s team of dedicated professionals has overcome the challenges of distance and cultural differences to develop an enviable international reputation and a presence in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Mauritius and the Maldives.

In that time, Ms Pawha has worked with a number of Vice-Chancellors to shape the vision of the South Asia office.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with two of Deakin’s leading women, Professor Sally Walker and Professor Jane Den Hollander,” she said. “Professor Walker was highly supportive and provided so much guidance and input into the Deakin India story. Professor den Hollander is a mentor; I have learnt so much from her on this journey.

“We’ve grown with a lot of hard work and invaluable support and enthusiasm from Deakin’s leadership and faculties. Now, we’re at the point where we make a real difference.”