22 Oct 2021 19:25 IST

UK universities keen to forge Indian partnerships

Cementing a multifaceted partnership in higher education is a key aspect of the ongoing bilateral trade deal.

Although international travel has been a relative rarity in the last 20 months, Indian students have been arriving in the UK in record numbers in recent weeks to start or continue their higher education. As recently as 2017, only 11,700 Indian students arrived in the UK. This year it was 62,700.

The rise is partly due to the UK’s Graduate Immigration Route, which offers two years post-study work rights to students from India, and partly due to the high-quality education on offer in the UK. Students make friends for life when coming to study and work, and even when they return to India there is a web of personal and professional relationships that last a lifetime and help spur the bilateral relationship. This “Living Bridge” of people is what binds the UK and India together.

However, Indians studying in the UK is just one aspect of the strong education partnership that exists between the two countries. The steadily growing ties between UK and Indian universities, and between UK universities and Indian businesses are some of the other key aspects of this multifaceted partnership. A partnership which still has enormous untapped potential.

Expanding capacity

Education, trade, and investment are central to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreed by Prime Ministers Modi and Johnson in May this year. The UK India Business Council recently consulted businesses and higher education institutions to capture their views on the FTA and the broader Partnership and, with FTA negotiations due to start in a matter of weeks and an education Working Group already at an advanced stage of discussions, there is a great deal of optimism.

As in many aspects of our lives, from the way we work, to the way we shop, and how we keep in touch with our families, the pandemic has radically changed our understanding of how education can be delivered. As institutions of learning around the world were forced to closed their doors, and students and teachers were confined to their homes, digital education platforms increasingly emerged as the most effective solution.

In India, the problem is further compounded by the sheer magnitude of the student population. Currently around 1,000 universities and 42,000 colleges educate 38.5 million students. But according to a projection by the British Council, this number is set to soar to a staggering 120 million before 2030. It is clear that urgent steps need to be taken to address this rapidly widening demand-supply gap.

There is obviously no easy solution to this challenge. But it is clear that UK universities and other education providers can play an important role by building capacity through partnerships with Indian institutions and by online education.

Complex NEP clauses

There are three areas of policy that are critical in enabling this expansion of capacity. First, the Mutual Recognition of Qualifications, including of the intensive and highly rigorous one-year master’s degrees offered in the UK. This qualification is recognised elsewhere, for example throughout Europe and the US, but not yet in India. Education is more than the time you put in, it is what you get out of a course that matters. Unfortunately, the current situation focusses on time spent rather than learning achieved, which puts students and prospective employers at a real disadvantage, and limits collaboration between UK and Indian institutions.

India’s National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 takes welcome steps to increase higher education capacity by allowing some foreign institutions to operate in India. However, only the top 100 ranked universities in the world can do so, and they are only allowed to partner with Indian universities that score a National Assessment and Accreditation Council ‘A’ grade or higher. Given India’s estimated 120 million students by 2030, we feel that a wider range of universities should be permitted to operate, partner, and offer degrees in India. This need not compromise quality. Indeed, it could enhance quality.

By focussing on a university’s overall ranking, the current policy excludes leading UK universities. For example, a UK university may be in the top 10 globally for, say, mechanical engineering, but not be in the top 100 globally so cannot bring its mechanical engineering course to India. Conversely, a top-ranking university may not excel when it comes to their mechanical engineering courses but could deliver this course in India.

Allowing all UK institutions to collaborate with Indian institutions that have the capacity for collaboration, irrespective of where the institutions are in overall rankings would open doors to more tailored collaborations, by helping universities to form partnerships based on departmental and programme strengths, rather than overall rankings.

Demand-supply gap

The third area of policy to consider is in online learning, including for degrees, where demand and supply has surged since the start of the pandemic, presenting new opportunities to deliver high quality degrees to a much larger student base in a much more flexible and affordable way. Such is the demand for university places in India that, in practical terms, a blend of bricks and mortar and digital engagement will need to be deployed. The UK is well-versed in high quality programmes, so this is an area ripe for collaboration between UK and Indian institutions.

Building mutually effective higher education collaboration will enable students to seamlessly transition between the UK and India, improve the skills-base, cement institutional partnerships, catalyse greater research collaboration, and increase bilateral trade and investment flows, ultimately resulting in more jobs and prosperity in both countries.

At the same time, there is an education capacity gap that will grow with India’s expected economic and population increases. UK universities are keen to help bridge that gap, bringing benefits to education, research, and innovation, and strengthening our special people-to-people connect. There is a lot to gain and, as we have learned from overcoming other challenges during the pandemic, with creativity and determination success can be achieved.





(The writer is Associate Director, UK India Business Council.)