India campus ‘not educational colonialism’, says Australian v-c

As Deakin plans first overseas outpost on Indian soil, it says the learnings will flow both ways

March 10, 2023
Artists perform the Indian tribal martial dance l to celebrate World Tourism Week to illustrate India campus ‘not educational colonialism’, says Australian v-c
Source: Getty

The head of the first overseas university to establish a branch campus in India does not intend to impose “educational colonialism” on the subcontinent – but Deakin University vice-chancellor Iain Martin says there is “learning for India” in his new operation, which will start offering master’s courses in cybersecurity and business analytics next year.

Professor Martin said the new campus would be “a catalyst” in a country renowned for producing much of the world’s computing and engineering workforce. He said India’s lack of an “industry-facing” employability focus – now second nature to universities in Australia and his native UK – was a “gap” in its higher education system.

“One of the deciders [in setting up here] was [whether we] could bring industry partners with us, both to advise [us] and to provide internships and support for the programmes. This is a different way of looking at it that perhaps isn’t the norm in India.”

Professor Martin said that while Deakin had been operating in the subcontinent for 30 years, the “speedy” decision to set up a campus had been fuelled by the country’s “palpable” desire to transform its higher education system as it emerged from the pandemic.

“We went from thinking, ‘Maybe this is something we have to consider within a five-year time frame’, to ‘We need to seriously look at this now.’”

He said other foreign institutions would be under pressure to do likewise, given the “sheer scale of people looking for educational opportunities. There’s 250 million people [aged] between 18 and 25. Clearly no one international university can come anywhere near making a sizeable dent in that. The speed of change…through the national education policy has surprised us all.”

The campus will operate from leased premises in Gujarat’s Gift City, opening by July 2024 to coincide with India’s new academic year. Student numbers will be “relatively modest” at first, with about 60 on each of the two courses, scaling up as the campus adds programmes in science, business and law, built environment and engineering.

He said academic standards would be the same as at Deakin’s home campuses, and staff would be members of the equivalent faculties in Australia. While 80 per cent of the teaching staff would be based in India, they would visit Australia every 12 to 18 months.

“That’s not just for them to see what’s happening in Australia; it’s also for the flip side of what can we bring back to the Deakin programme from being in India. We’ve got a lot of experience with Indian students coming to Australia to study, but this is very different. That interface with industry is going to look a little bit different here. Some of the skill sets that might be required will be different. I think we will learn a great deal.”

Branch campuses sometimes attract criticism as ill-advised money-making ventures, launched for the wrong reasons and with unrealistic expectations of financial return. Professor Martin said that while universities with “purely financial” objectives risked being “profoundly disappointed”, he was confident Deakin’s model was self-sustaining.

“Hopefully there’ll be a modest return so that we can continue to invest, but it’s not a money-making endeavour. Overseas operations…require a lot of investment – not just money but time, passion, effort.

“India is the most remarkable society, but it is complicated. You need an organisation that understands the culture, the relationships, what works, what doesn’t – that it always does sort of work, but perhaps not quite in the way you thought it might. I certainly wouldn’t say we’ve entered into this lightly. We haven’t.”

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