People work on their computers as old books kept at the British Library are displayed, in London. (AP)
Martin Davidson, chief executive, British Council, who was in the city recently, admits that the number of Indian students enrolling in universities in the UK is declining. He talks about the measures taken by the UK to change that perception, among other things.
What has been the role of the British Council in strengthening academic ties between India and Britain?
Education has been our primary focus in India, really. We started the India-UK Education Initiative about six years ago to facilitate research collaborations, student exchanges and scholarships. The UK Research Council has an office in Delhi and around 400 schools in Britain have links with schools in India. We have seen that India has a huge ambition and potential to grow in the higher education space, so we have been focussing a lot on leadership, policy exchanges, research and so on.
There is a level of uncertainty among Indian students studying in universities in the UK, particularly with the proposal of the visa bond earlier this year (which was subsequently revoked), and the post-study employment policy. How are these issues being addressed?
I agree. We have seen a decline in the number of Indian students in the UK over the last few years, and the general sense is that Indian students do not feel welcome in the UK. But we want to change that perception. Our prime minister, David Cameron, has already revoked the visa bond and in his recent visit to India, announced that Indian students are welcome to study and work for as long as they want. Yes, it is a worrying trend. There is a dip at the moment but we are sure things will improve. We have rolled out a few scholarships for Indian students - last year, we announced our Diamond Jubilee scholarships for Indian students – and we plan to introduce other such schemes to encourage Indian students to study in our universities.
Do you think the economic slowdown and the fall of the Indian rupee also contributed to the decline in the number of Indian students in the UK?
Yes, to some extent. Indian students make logical decisions based on cost, the university, culture and so on. The economic situation led to uncertainty and further influenced some students to re-consider their decision to study in the UK or anywhere else. We do continue to see Indian students joining our universities and staying back to work. We are, however, concerned about the slipping numbers and we hope to see more Indian students in the UK soon.
How important is it to culturally engage with India, and how has it brought the two countries closer?
We, at the British Council, believe that cultural exchange between India and the UK is crucial. Our association with India is 64 years old and with nine centres in the country, this is our largest operation anywhere in the world. A lot of it has also been because of a deep cultural interest from both sides – in the field of arts, music, theatre, to name a few. Based on research, we have found that cultural understanding has improved mutual trust between people of both countries. This has, in turn, fostered stronger business relationships. We are now encouraging British students to visit India, and we want them to be culturally fluent in the country. We are stressing on the need for British students to be multilingual and more understanding of different cultures. This will hold the key to building long-term relationships between the two countries.
Could you tell us more about British Council’s school focus and the work you have done in collaboration with Pratham Foundation in India?
There is a huge demand for good English teachers at the school level, given the rise in the number of local English medium schools in the country. We are working with trainers and state governments to upgrade the skills of English teachers. We have been working with Pratham Foundation (one of the largest primary education NGOs in India) in this context. We recently revealed the findings of a report based on a study on the impact of the English language (in collaboration with Pratham). From the report, we understand that multilingualism has long-term cognitive benefits for children, and although English is a key language, one must not overlook the significance of other languages. The study has helped us think of innovative strategies to tweak the pedagogy of English teaching in schools in India.