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Skills get top priority

UK Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts talks to Ayesha Banerjee about encouraging the flow of British students to India, the launch of UKIERI-II, working out ways to ensure the success of India’s ambitious innovative universities plan, and delivering skills training

education Updated: Nov 18, 2010 10:48 IST

You return to India shortly after your June visit this year. How successful has this trip been?
It has been a very successful visit. I greatly appreciated the friendship and hospitality of Kapil Sibal. We have had some really good discussions about how our two countries can work together both in higher education and scientific research and skills. There are clearly extraordinary ambitious plans of education in India and we are very keen to work on that. I am very keen that British students and researchers should be encouraged to visit India. What I am aware of is that there are 40,000 Indian students coming to Britian every year, and official statistics reveal that 500 of our students are coming to India. Our students could really gain from an understanding of India if they come here.

There are a host of areas in which we can work together – from your new innovation universities to encouraging more British students to get the benefit of an Indian education.

I came with Prime Minister David Cameron in July, which was the first major international visit by him and he wanted it to be in India because he attaches great importance to our relationship. Within three months I am back again to follow up on what was planned. One thing that came across very clearly when I met Kapil Sibal in July was that skills were his priority. When I came in July I brought a delegation that was largely university-based, but then I realised that he was ambitious for 500 million more Indians to get skills training. So, this second delegation I’ve got is much more balanced and includes scientists, researchers, universities and very importantly people from the skills sector, chief executives of our educational colleges, people who are responsible for vocational education in Britiain. We are very keen to work with you in delivering vocational skills training.

What do you think are India’s core strengths in education that can enrich British students’ experiences?
A lot of employers say that British students are too monocultural. They need to have an understanding of a different country, a different society. I cannot think of a better country for our students to visit to get a better picture on things than India, considering our historic ties and your great strengths in science and innovations and your dynamic businesses. What I am keen on is a framework within which one can study for a doctorate that might include a spell in a British university and a spell perhaps in an Indian university or research institute, ending with a doctorate accredited both in Britain and India.

This can work also for postgraduate and graduate studies. Then there is also the business experience of British students getting work placements in India. There is already a great flow of Indian students coming to get these types of opportunities in Britain. So, there will be much more of a two-way play with an increased flow of British students coming out to India as well.

Do tell us more about UKIERI-II, which you launched recently with Minister Kapil Sibal?
We had a launch together of UKIERI-II (UK-India Education and Research Initiative). UKIERI-I has been completed. We had a very useful assessment of what has been done. I think UKIERI-II is better and stronger than UKIERI-I because it has much more input, because education has now become a national priority for India. One area of cooperation involves the innovation universities. Kapil Sibal has asked us to work on links between British universities and the 14 innovation universities he wants to set up. He wants them to be organised around themes. We have to see how Britain can help with that.

This morning, I had a conversation with the vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee, which is one of our most successful research-led universities in Scotland, and he says they are in the process of reorganising the University around two or three key themes like sustainable development and life sciences. So, as one of Britain’s leading life sciences universities gets reorganised we can perhaps find a way in which we can link up with one of the innovation universities that has a similar theme.

The second area of cooperation is mobility of students that we have touched upon, of British students coming to India and Indian students going to Britain and a framework for the mutual recognition of qualification.

The third area is that of leadership training for which 800 new universities are being planned in India. But we have to look at ways in which Britain can help.

You have said you support innovation in education delivery and are committed to working with new techniques – could you please elaborate on this?
We do have in Britain some strengths in distance learning, at least through the Open University. I think the IT revolution is finally reaching universities now and in Britain we’re trying to spread access to learning online through the Open University and other vehicles, as well. In case of India, we have got incredibly ambitious goals of forging ties with the institutes that plan to give skills training to millions of Indians. You can only achieve figures of that sort if you have much greater use of online learning and we are keen to try that and compare ideas on how you can do that online. IT is one of India’s greatest strengths and I want some of our universities to help with online teacher training in India. I think there are some regulatory issues but let’s hope we can get past these .

Where can the two countries cooperate when it comes to research?
There is a very strong and growing research link between our two countries. I can give you two examples. One example is medical research and good areas of cooperation are type-II diabetes. My understanding is that people of Indian ethnic origin are in particular risk of developing type-II diabetes and of course we have many people of Indian ethnic origin in Britain, so we have a shared agenda in treating the ailment. There is a research programme on in one of our universities in type-II diabetes. The second example in social sciences is bridging the urban-rural divide. We do have this problem in Britain, though not at the same scale as in India. To people in rural communities where access to services is much harder, we have to see to what extent we can deliver services online, and where can we work out such research positions together.

Which institutes in the UK can offer special skills training in India?
There are a number of colleges – Birkbeck for one. The university that was keenest to come here and has encountered some regulatory obstacles is the Open University. I think the hope is that they can help in teacher training in India.

What is being done to protect the interests of Indian students in the UK?
We have a shared interest in this. In Britain we welcome Indian students of high quality to our universities. What we are worried about is the abuse of the system. Some unscrupulous agents charge high prices for access to a British institution, which is not a mainstream university where the education input is low and where they pay high prices for something which is not educationally world-class. While being unfair to the Indian students it is also damaging for the reputation of British education. We are tying up our controls to end this exploitation of young Indians and to protect flows to our legitimate mainstream universities where Indian students make a big contribution to our student life.

What about the reforms being brought about in the British education system?
We are bringing in some reforms. One is that, instead of teaching grants, students are lent the money to pay their charges. They don’t have to find the money upfront and then we pay out of their earnings when they are graduates. The regimes of overseas students are different and that will be largely unaffected. I hope our reforms will strengthen Britain’s universities. We have also been able to protect even in very tough times our research and science budgets so that we’ll continue to have world-class research and scientific research going on in Britain’s world-class universities. As I said, I want to encourage flows both ways. Indian academics have a very high reputation and we have some interesting evidence that research which is conducted by people from more than one country scores more highly, is more likely to be cited in academic journals than research based in one country. So, research that has British and Indian sources will be very valuable.

What’s planned for your visit to India this time?
I am going to Bangalore where I will be visiting the Indian Space Research Organisation. It could be another good example example of joint cooperation. India has launch capacity which we don’t. We don’t have a launch vehicle and you do. Britain is very strong in satellite technology. We make the world’s best small satellites and the plan is to see if we can get some an Anglo-Indian satellite launched from Indian space vehicles.