Flying high with the PM

Malcolm Grant was among higher education heads who were last week party to Gordon Brown's talks in China and India to strengthen economic links. He offers an insider's account of the visit.

January 24, 2008

Thursday 17 January

It's Gordon Brown's first visit to China and India as Prime Minister. A group of about 25 senior business leaders has been handpicked to join him. Among them - for the first time ever, we're told - is a clutch of vice-chancellors. Proof apparent of the high importance attached by all three countries to education - or maybe we're just going to be carrying his bags.

Also in the PM's travelling caravan - which turns out to be a chartered BA747 - is a large team of civil servants and policy advisers and a very much more relaxed press contingent. There's also the one person we thought we would never see on a BA flight, Sir Richard Branson, who charms all he meets, including the flight crew.

Things start about as badly as you could imagine. The VIP suite turns out to be occupied by the Qatari Royal Family, whose flight has been delayed, so the captains of industry (and us vice-chancellors) are held standing in a transfer bus for 40 minutes. British phlegm cuts in and there is no drop in high spirits; rather, there is all the atmosphere of a skiing holiday.

We eventually undergo some quite eccentric security screening and clamber aboard an hour or so late. However, within ten minutes Heathrow suffers its most serious incident in 30 years with the crash-landing of the BA flight from Beijing. Fire tenders and ambulances race along the taxiways and we can see the extruded escape chutes on each side of the plane. We are told there is insufficient emergency vehicle cover for us to be able to take off and we fear a long delay. The PM strolls through the cabin and chats informally to all. But within 20 minutes we are on our way - some priority seems to have been granted. We taxi past the damaged plane, but have no sense of the scale of what has happened.

Friday 18 January

It's a dawn arrival into Beijing and it's freezing cold. We can see armed guards standing to attention at 100-metre intervals along the taxiway, frozen like Antony Gormley sculptures. The front door opens and the PM descends the steps to a guard of honour as we are disgorged from the middle door of the plane into waiting buses. Then it's a high-speed convoy into central Beijing to our hotel. Some truly comic heroic behaviour follows. We have exactly 20 minutes to find our rooms, shower, change, shave and regroup in the lobby before being sped to the Great Hall of the People. The PM and Premier Wen Jiabao undertake the usual formalities of national anthems and inspecting guards, then it is off to a conference with speakers that include Sir Richard, who gives a brilliant outline of what led him to start an airline. Then there's a blurred succession of more meetings, networking, drinks receptions and banquets - all of which quickly becomes a recurrent pattern.

Saturday 19 January

An early morning flight to Shanghai, to be received with much less formality. Not as cold as Beijing, but it rains throughout our visit. The place is truly astonishing. Much remains of the 19th and early 20th-century city, especially along the river, but intensive new development prevails everywhere. After a lunch with the Mayor, it's off to a round-table seminar on entrepreneurialism.

We discuss the enormous contribution of universities and compare UK and China experiences. Many of the Chinese entrepreneurs present have been to university in the UK, and they convey a sense of excitement. They think there is a limited period of opportunity in China because of the informality of present structures, and fear that within ten years it will have been destroyed by inappropriate regulation. The PM participates fully, working the room and speaking about the engines of innovation in the UK economy and the vital role of universities.

Sunday 20 January

An early-morning flight again, this time to New Delhi. Our aerial view of southwest China demonstrates the extensive infrastructure that has been developed in recent years, with highways, railways and airports all linking dense urban developments. As on all our flights, there's a carnival air. People chatting in the aisles; government ministers mixing with all and the PM holding informal press briefings at the back of the plane. As the aircraft descends into Delhi, there is a vast pall of black smog over the city.

Another high-speed convoy offers a false impression of local traffic conditions ... The highlight of the afternoon is a televised round-table debate on entrepreneurialism at the Delhi India Institute of Technology, engaging the UK vice-chancellors and the CEOs with leaders of major Indian companies, the PM and the Indian Minister of Commerce.

Sir Richard is the hero for the young audience. He didn't go to university, and he says people are too old and conservative by the time they graduate to ever be proper entrepreneurs. He eventually recants, to some extent under pressure - even non-graduate entrepreneurs need to recruit skilled graduates to their teams after all. Both the PM and Sir Digby Jones, the Minister for Trade, speak passionately about the importance of basic research undertaken in universities.

Monday 21 January

The day starts with an unexpectedly stonking speech by the PM at breakfast, setting out his agenda for a new world order - carefully researched and written, and skilfully presented for wider consumption. Then on to discussions with the Education Ministry to think how UK universities may be able to collaborate in their plans for growth. Further round-table meetings, then to a joint meeting with the respective prime ministers, with universities one of the major themes. Final banquet - then back to the 747 for London. Exhausted.

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