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Back to the class

The education sector offers Britain and India much scope for collaboration, writes David Willett.

india Updated: Jun 12, 2011 21:26 IST

Last year in Delhi, Prime Ministers David Cameron and Manmohan Singh had announced that both governments would help fund the UK India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI). Since then, we have carried out wide consultation in Britain and India leading to the recent launch of this major collaboration.

UKIERI is already a success. In its first five years, UKIERI created some 500 new partnerships between schools, colleges, universities and research institutions in our countries. UKIERI has covered a huge range of areas that range from strengthening postgraduate research in areas as diverse as sustainable construction materials, renewable energy to mobile healthcare and internationalising vocational training. As of this week, UKIERI is inviting proposals for collaborations in key areas of building a new generation of education leaders, innovation, skills development and student mobility.

During my visits to India, I have been fascinated to learn about Union human resource development minister Kapil Sibal’s ambition to build India’s “human infrastructure”. I was truly staggered when I first heard that to achieve a 30% gross enrolment rate in higher education, India would have to create 40 million new university places, and that the prime minister has set a target of 500 million people to be trained in vocational skills over the next 12 years.

Britain has a clear interest in India’s making this ambition a reality. As major investors in one another’s economies and growing trade partners, strong sustained growth in India will have a positive effect on Britain’s own growth. But our interest goes beyond GDP figures. Last year, Cameron set out his vision for a new relationship with India that goes “stronger, wider, deeper”. I can think of no other area of our collaboration that has such unlimited potential to go stronger, wider, and deeper than education.

Last year, Sibal had written in a publication that “the innovative ideas and good practices of the UK have great significance for India as we enter a new era of reforms in the education sector”. I, of course, agree with him. One innovating British institution is the Open University, which is actively developing plans to offer online teacher training in India. But I have also seen how much Britain can learn from India and its innovative approaches.

Which is one reason why I am determined that the new phase of UKIERI will include opportunities for more British students and researchers to spend time in India.

The British Council is working with several state governments on a train-the-trainers programme through ‘Project English: English for Progress’. It aims to reach 750,000 teachers across 29 states over five years. In vocational skills, the UK-India Skills Forum brings together business skills providers from our two countries.

Science is also part of my ministerial responsibility. Here too, some of the best researchers from our two countries are working together in programmes funded by Britain’s research councils and the Indian government in areas as diverse as food security, water, health and renewable energy. In March, we added cooperation in space to the list, with a new agreement between the UK Space Agency and the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro).

As well as the government-supported programmes, British educational institutions are making themselves accessible in India. It is possible to study for a British qualification in India itself through a growing number of partnerships between Indian and British institutions. Over 5,000 students are already studying this way in India. Indeed, the attractiveness of British institutions to overseas students is an important ingredient — and confirmation — of their quality. It is part of the reason that 19 of the top 100 universities in the world are British.

( David Willett is Britain’s minister of state for universities and science )

The views expressed by the author are personal