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“The seeds are sown” – what’s next for UK India education partnerships?

On an overcast Wednesday morning in Western India, a coach pulls up between a skyscraper and a building site. Pro vice-chancellors and university directors step out of the vehicle one by one, school-trip style. 

The UK government took its largest ever HE delegation to India. Photo: The PIE News.

University leaders have come to see for themselves whether they want their brand to be a part of Modi’s big plans

They arrived in the state of Gujarat the previous evening, landing at a noticeably glossy airport. Narendra Modi, India’s current prime minister, served as chief minister here for 13 years and the region has seen considerable investment over the past two decades. 

The city they are visiting is two hours south of the town where he was born and is the shining star of the state’s infrastructure glow-up. 

Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, also known as GIFT City, is India’s first and only international finance hub. It was thought up by Modi himself as a way of rivalling the likes of Hong Kong and Singapore, primarily by following their template for success. Limited regulations and tax breaks will incentivise foreign companies to invest in India, so the theory goes. 

Top international universities have been invited to set up alongside the investment banks and management consultancies that are quickly populating the city’s soaring skyscrapers. University leaders have come to see for themselves whether they want their brand to be a part of Modi’s big plans. 

Boosting trade with India

Photo: British Council India

The group has been in the country for several days already as part of a trade mission organised by the UK’s Department for Business and Trade, Department for Education and the British Council, meeting their Indian counterparts and discussing opportunities for collaboration. 

GIFT City is just one option allowing international branch campuses to be set up in India, something that has only become possible recently under sweeping government reforms that position education as a tool to accelerate India’s development and economic success. 

For UK universities, deciding to establish education links here is a no-brainer. In 2022, India overtook China as the biggest sender of students to the UK and demand for international education is unrivalled in the world’s most populous country. 

“If you take the scale of India and you take the quality of the students and you take the desire of universities in India to partner with UK institutions, it’s just a fantastic opportunity,” said Andrew Atherton, vice president for international and engagement at the University of Southampton. 

An agreement between India and the UK to recognise one another’s qualifications, signed last year, is also expected to make offering transnational education in India that much easier.

“The direction of travel is the same”

“The direction of travel is the same as we both look to greater internationalisation of our sectors,” Sir Steve Smith, the UK government’s international education champion, told delegates on the first day of the mission. 

Institutional matchmaking

Photo: British Council India

From Russell Group institutions to private universities, the spectrum of Britain’s higher education system is represented among the group. With 27 universities present (and many more waitlisted applicants), this is the largest higher education delegation the government has taken abroad. But when it comes to size, the UK’s sector pales in comparison to India, which is home to over 1,000 universities of different shapes and sizes. 

Delegates have a chance to visit some of these during the week, from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, a public research-intensive university with a 545 acre campus (complete with its own crocodile, if the rumours are to be believed), to Ashoka university, a private liberal arts and science institute located on the outskirts of Delhi. 

During the first two days of the mission, representatives from both country’s universities mingle at the British Council’s offices in India’s capital, where just a week ago UK prime minister Rishi Sunak kicked around a football in the courtyard with Indian students before heading to the G20 summit

Academics exchange business cards and chat about partnerships over chai. Many are in the market for collaborating on dual and joint degrees, as well as growing research partnerships, but it quickly becomes clear that finding a suitable match could be the biggest challenge of the week for both sides. 

India’s elite public institutions and some of the private universities that are rapidly flying up the rankings are looking to establish collaborations of equal weight, while the UK’s younger universities and post-92s want partners who can match their ethos and international ambitions. 

“It’s really important to build those relationships now”

British universities aren’t just competing with one another for opportunities in India, but with the rest of the world. “There is a strong interest from Indian universities in partnerships with the UK, but certainly not only with the UK and so it’s really important to build those relationships now,” said Mark Crossey, assistant director for policy and global engagement at Universities UK International. 

Photo: British Council India

Alison Barrett, director India at the British Council, is optimistic about Britain’s reputation in India. “The quality of the UK higher education system is really well known,” she said, a point backed up by record student mobility numbers. 

One example of a seemingly good match is the University of Birmingham’s recent partnership with IIT Madras. The UK university – famously where Lord Bilimoria is chancellor – launched a joint master’s in artificial intelligence and data science with its Indian counterpart. This is the first such education partnership between any IIT and a Russell Group university. The first cohort of students began the 18-month program this summer.

They will spend six months in Madras before completing a short industrial placement. They can then spend five or twelve months in the UK and will conclude the program in either Birmingham or Chennai.

“We have moved very rapidly with discussions commencing in June 2022 and the program launched in May 2023,” said Dipankar Chakraborty, regional director for South Asia and the Middle East at the University of Birmingham. He added that the “commitment from senior leadership” at both institutions made a huge difference to the success of the partnership.

India’s internationalisation plans

While lower-ranked UK universities may find themselves overlooked by more elite institutions, there is still plenty of potential as all of the India’s universities look to internationalise – a relatively new concept for some. 

India’s National Education Policy, launched in 2020, calls on universities to develop student and faculty exchanges, set up research and teaching collaborations, and establish international offices to support foreign students. Indian academics are taking these instructions seriously. 

“Institutions are changing their outlook on international collaborations”

“What I got out of this week is really a sense of change in India,” said Caroline Baylon, pro vice-chancellor for international at the University of Reading. “It’s really striking how much institutions are changing their outlook on international collaborations.”

The next step will be translating the initial excitement on both sides into meaningful outcomes. Before the trip, universities were advised that one quality partnership is better than multiple surface-level ones. 

“I’m quite sure that everybody in this room has a drawer full of MOUs that have been signed and are still sitting in the drawer,” said Agnes Nairn, pro vice-chancellor for global engagement at the University of Bristol, speaking at a conference session organised by the British Council. 

Throughout the week, Indian institutions also expressed their desire to welcome more UK students to their campuses – something the British Council wants to help facilitate. Barrett herself is a testament to the benefits of these kinds of exchanges. “I came here myself in my twenties to learn Hindi… and you can see I never really left,” she said. 

The branch campus question

Photo: The PIE News

More widely, India’s ambition is to become a hub for foreign students. “We are trying to promote India as a destination for affordable, quality education,” said Pankaj Mittall, secretary general at the Association of Indian Universities. 

Foreign branch campuses are a key part of this: Indian policy-makers hope students from the continent will be attracted by the promise of a degree from a renowned university, without having to fork out the costs required to study in a more expensive part of the world. 

“I feel that this is the beginning”

In an air-conditioned office in Gujarat, the pro vice-chancellors question GIFT City’s regulators on the finer details of what setting up in India really means, from where students will live to what happens after the 10 year tax-free window is up. 

But those interested in setting up their own teaching space in India are not limited to these 886 acres. The Indian government is expected to release full guidelines on establishing branch campuses across the rest of the country soon. Without the tax incentives, however, questions remain about whether doing so will be financially viable for British universities, many of whom have little cash to spare. 

By the end of the trip, most of the delegates have run out of business cards but have gained, they say, a deep understanding of the prospects and challenges in India. In Mumbai, where the trip wraps up for those on the GIFT City route, they tuck in to a final biryani at the British Trade Commissioner for South Asia’s residence and meet guests representing Indian industry. They enthuse about how welcoming the country has been. 

“The seeds are sown,” said Debra Hinds, pro vice-chancellor international at Arden. “I feel that this is the beginning.” 

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