India: some reflections and lessons learned

As I write this I am in day 7 of my trip, and will be on a plane home less than 24 hours from now. It’s been a productive trip, not least with an MOU signed yesterday with O.P. Jindal Global University and our Law Faculty, several key contacts in government and industry made, a visit to one of India’s most academically respected public schools, and the announcement of our new India admission scholarships as part of a larger AUCC announcement of about 4 million dollars in collective funding from Canada’s universities.

However, I think some of the most useful things I take away from the trip are some lessons about India that it will be important for us to remember as we continue our engagement in the coming years.

The first of these is that India is not a place one comes in, visits once and leaves with a handful of deliverables. It takes years to get concrete results (which for Queen’s I would measure in terms of increased student enrollment from India, greater faculty and student mobility for our students and visiting Indian scholars), potential engagement with Indian industry (probably in connection with Canadian industry partners) and active collaboration among our researchers occurring under its own steam.  (My friend and colleague Indira Samarasekera, president of my former institution the University of Alberta, has told me it has taken minimally five years of continued engagement and investment of time and resources to put her school on the Indian map. )

The second is that the relationship has to be one of partnership, reciprocity and respect. While Canada and Queen’s has much to offer India as its economy and society change and mature, we should be aware that this is a relationship of equals who will each bring something different to the table. If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times in different forms from Indian civil servants, entrepreneurs and politicians: “we don’t want to be viewed simply as a cash cow for your institutions, and we need you to help us and not just yourselves—but as equal partners in the transactions”. A perception of other countries coming in and creaming off the top students without being prepared to put anything back into India has harmed those countries’ brands. (The positive side is that Canada thus far has no such stigma attached and is seen as a welcoming and inclusive environment, already with a large Indo-Canadian population). I also heard, repeatedly, that now is the time for Canada to become a major destination of choice and national partner. That 15 presidents (or vice-chancellors as they call our counterparts) would all come collectively has sent a positive signal that Canada is serious about the education MOU that Prime Ministers Singh and Harper signed last spring.

The scale of India’s educational challenge is enormous. Of all the facts and figures I have heard the one that sticks with me is this: in the world’s fastest growing population, currently 1.1 billion, over 50 % (600 million) are currently under the age of 25. Recent reforms have made education, previously a privilege for a few, a right of citizenship. The university system here, both public/state schools and private universities such as O.P. Jindal, cannot handle the enrolment on their own. So, bringing Indian students to Canada does help, not least because there is an unevenness in the quality of Indian universities, much wider than any gap that distinguishes Canadian ones. It is signified by the fact that in spite of the overall capacity shortfall, many institutions have unoccupied student places. The Indians would like foreign universities to set up campuses here, but the legislation to permit that has still not been passed after nearly 7 years. Things often do not move quickly here.

There are other issues that India will have to resolve, with or without our collaboration. For one, despite the massive annual growth in GDP (about 9%–triple current Canadian figures), universities are not, compared to Canadian or US schools performing at full potential in research, even the well-known Indian Institutes of Technology or of Science; much more research occurs in industry and in separate research institutes. This does not mean that universities all have outstanding teaching, either, since teaching is neither an attractive nor a well paid profession, and this is something that at the Higher Education Summit my colleagues and I attended we heard will have to change. A memorable quote from that summit, from the panel on the educational landscape at which I spoke, is that the Indian postsecondary system is ‘under-reformed and over-regulated’.

Yet with all that there are superb things happening at India’s universities, in the social sciences and humanities as much as in the hard sciences and Business–for instance at one of the leading graduate institutions, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). I dined earlier in the week with one of its emeritus faculty, a sometime collaborator of mine, Romila Thapar. Prof Thapar is a distinguished historian of ancient India who has name recognition across the country. India has produced major scientists, economists and industry leaders, many of them educated partly here, partly abroad (especially for their graduate degrees). And Queen’s has played an important role in helping India develop talent in the past. One of the most influential industry figures, F.C. Kohli, father of India’s IT/software industry, is a Queen’s graduate twice over, having graduated first in 1948 with a BSc and more recently having been awarded an honorary doctorate.

The challenge and opportunity for us is to make Canada—and in our particular case, Queen’s—a destination of choice for India’s brightest students and a partner in the emergence of this economic powerhouse. If we succeed, we will have helped India and also ourselves, and Queen’s will be able to play a greater role on the world stage, just as it has done for so long in Canada.

Photos: Tara Fraser, AUCC

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