UK and India commit to world-class partnerships

Prime minister's delegation agrees joint research projects and greater cooperation. Paul Jump reports

August 5, 2010

There is "enormous scope" for cooperation between UK and Indian higher education provided it is done on the basis of "mutual respect and equality".

That was the message from David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who visited India last week as part of a large UK delegation led by Prime Minister David Cameron.

He was accompanied by a number of senior academic figures including Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor designate of the University of Cambridge, Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, and Steve Smith, president of Universities UK.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Willetts said the trip had been productive. He met India's education, health and science ministers and said the "key that unlocked the whole relationship" had been a commitment to mutually beneficial partnerships and a recognition that India already had many high-calibre institutions and academics.

"The Indians don't respond to what they regard as fly-by-night operators who just want to extract value from India," he added.

Mr Willetts said Indian ministers had spoken about expanding their higher education sector on an "extraordinary scale", with 40 million extra university places by 2020 and 1,000 new universities.

This will include 14 world-class, research-intensive "innovation universities", each of which, Mr Willetts agreed, will be partnered by a leading UK university.

He said several UK universities had expressed an interest and he hoped to have a complete list of potential partners by November, when he is due to return to India.

He said other interested universities should write to UUK and copy their letter to him.

The Wellcome Trust, whose director, Sir Mark Walport, was part of the delegation, announced a £45 million investment in Indian research into affordable healthcare products.

And Mr Willetts reached an agreement for British and Indian research councils to spend up to £17 million each on three joint research projects into fuel cells, bridging the urban-rural divide and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

He said The Open University was keen to help India improve distance learning and teacher training. Other priorities included boosting student exchanges by promoting the mutual recognition of qualifications.

A bill passing through the Indian Parliament will permit foreign universities to establish campuses in the country. Mr Willetts acknowledged that not every British university could afford to do so, "but they might be up for reaching agreement about jointly delivered courses".

He admitted that the UK's proposed immigration cap was raised "a lot" during the trip, but he emphasised that it was intended only to affect students attending "bogus" colleges in the UK. He did not rule out an exemption from the cap for recognised universities.

Meanwhile, David Greenaway, vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, which has two Asian campuses, has been appointed to the government's Asia Task Force, which advises on boosting trade with the region.

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