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‘India, India, Listen to My Plea’

“India, India, listen to my plea.”

There is a rare Beatles demo recorded by John Lennon after the Beatles trip to India in 1968 called “India, India.” It manages to encompass many of the post-imperial longings that the British have had for India. It would be entirely possible to see the visit by five British government ministers who are travelling to India today, including the prime minister, Business Secretary Vince Cable, and minister of state for universities and science, David Willetts, as a kind of reprise — although the fact that there are five rather than four ministers illustrates yet again the risks of inexact analogies!

This visit is part of a concerted push by the U.K. in India which aims to build a “second special relationship.” It’s goals are to highlight initiatives on trade, technology, green development –- and higher education. It’s a wise and worthwhile move, no doubt. But, at least on the higher-education front, it is not going to be easy. Only a very few universities around the world have been able to set up really significant relationships with India. This is not because India is unwilling to extend the hand of welcome (although until recently regulations have made it very difficult for overseas institutions to set up there). Rather, there are significant obstacles.

In this regard, the experience of my university, Warwick, is interesting. Warwick is one of the few British universities which has been able to build a long and lasting relationship with India, and it is certainly the university which enjoys the greatest depth of relationship. At the last count, we had some 471 Indian students studying on campus. As importantly, we had been able to set up significant research relationships with Indian companies, notably with Tata and Corus and TVS, which are mutually important.

But this has not happened overnight. It has taken some 30 years to achieve. And it has happened because of the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG). Set up in 1980 by Professor Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, WMG has been the backbone of Warwick’s connections with India. It has provided the vital links with India which the university has subsequently been able to build upon.

Some western Universities seem eager to follow what might be understood as a colonial model in India and simply open branch campuses. But there is another way, as the case of WMG shows. For example, most recently, WMG has used its partnership with IIT Kharagpur (the first ever of India’s prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology) to lend support to an Indian Government Initiative to expand its home grown higher-education provision by opening a number of new IITs, each under the guidance of an existing one.

Under this scheme a new IIT at Bhubaneshwar is to be set up with the support of IIT Kharagpur which is drawing on its partnership with WMG to help make that happen. Thus Professor M. Chakraborty, the new director of IIT Bhubaneshwar, has just spent a month at WMG working with its technology specialists to advise on IIT Bhubaneshwar’s multi-million pound plans to set up laboratories in materials and tomography. He has also worked with the WMG Director Professor Lord Bhattacharyya and other WMG staff to draw on WMG’s successful record of engaging with industry. A dozen WMG research staff and allied industrialists will now visit India in November to continue to build the overall partnership with Kharagpur and Bhubaneshwar.

So what are the lessons from Warwick? One is not to expect instant results. Building a relationship takes time and continuous effort. Another is to understand what India actually wants from a relationship. This includes reciprocity and real respect: being the subsidiary partner will never be good enough. The third is to build a network which gradually becomes the link itself. This last point is crucial and tends to be overlooked by those who necessarily equate progress with speed. India wants conscription as well as inscription, as Sumathi Ramaswamy puts it.

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