Collaboration with counterparts abroad is laying foundations for future enterprise
The Government looks set to create a research fund to encourage collaboration between academics in the UK and India under a £10 million deal due to be signed next month by Tony Blair and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, spent last week in India meeting his opposite number, senior academics and funding officials as part of negotiations to forge closer links between universities and researchers in the two countries.
The deal looks set to include student exchanges and moves to encourage more Indian students to study in the UK and more British students to spend time at Indian institutions.
Although 17,000 Indian students a year study in the UK, only 100 British students study in India.
"It is never going to be a large number of UK students studying in India, but I think there is scope for a lot more than at present," Mr Rammell told The Times Higher.
But the minister stressed that fast-track visas or visa charge concessions were not likely to feature as part of the deal.
The agreement looks likely to include a new funding stream to encourage research collaboration between the two countries. Academics or departments could bid for money with their overseas counterparts, Mr Rammell said. He stressed that the detail - including the amount of funding available - had yet to be decided.
Mr Rammell said: "There is a sense that over a generation there has been a slow erosion in the educational exchanges between the UK and India and that the gap has been filled by some of our competitors - the US, Canada, France and Germany, among others.
"What we hope to agree in September is meant to reverse that decline so that we become a more major player educationally in India."
Mr Rammell added: "There is genuine potential for UK-Indian academic and research partnerships. Many of the older Indian academics have been educated in the UK, and they already see the real benefits of collaboration. We want to encourage contact at a younger level.
"The Government is going to commit about £10 million, and we are looking for private-sector contributions beyond that. When you look at what is happening with India - that this could be the third biggest economy in 50 years - this is a country and an economy we need to engage with."
Jonathan Whitehead, of the Association of University Teachers, welcomed the negotiations: "We will need to look at the details of the proposed scheme, but this sounds like precisely the kind of international collaboration that will benefit both countries.
"One of the great strengths of UK higher education is its international focus, and encouraging the exchange of people and ideas is bound to strengthen higher education both here and in India."
A spokesman for Universities UK said: "We were aware of early discussions about this initiative, and Universities UK would certainly welcome moves to bring the UK and Indian higher education sectors into closer collaboration.
"India is a key country for UK higher education, and we welcome anything that helps to strengthen links between UK and Indian institutions."