INDIA: Canadian presidents stress partnerships

This month a delegation of 15 Canadian university presidents wrapped up a visit to India where great efforts were made to convince the hosts that they were not in their country simply to try and boost Canada's international student enrolment numbers.

The Canadians made sure the message, that this was a mutually beneficial relationship, was driven home with an announcement on the second day of scholarship initiatives for Indian students, including a $3.5 million (US$3.43 million) new fund. There were also several high-level meetings to talk about research collaborations, with several new partnership agreements announced.

Canada lags behind many other countries in recruiting Indian students to its universities. Of the 225,000 Indian students who study abroad, only 3,000 attend Canadian higher education institutions. With international students contributing to the Canadian economy C$6.5 billion a year, the Canadian government knows the value of increasing its efforts in India.

During the trip, which took a year to plan, the presidents met 20 Indian vice-chancellors, many of whom flew into New Delhi to meet them, and signed six memoranda of understanding (MoUs). The trip garnered healthy media attention in India, coming on the heels of a June MoU on collaboration in higher education signed by Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Manmohan Singh.

While six MoU might not sound many, Paul Davidson, President of the Association of Colleges and Universities of Canada (AUCC), told University World News the universities are expected to sign more after the trip and that this visit was about better understanding the university terrain in India.

Davidson accompanied the presidents to New Delhi, along with Canada's Minister of State (Science and Technology) Gary Goodyear and some of his senior civil servants.

Davidson said increasing international student enrolments was just one reason the Canadians had chosen to visit India. He also counted improving the 'Canada brand', identifying emerging faculty for research exchanges and bringing about more research collaborations among the trip's other goals.

With minimal numbers of Canadian students studying in India - and those mainly for development purposes - was there not the impression that Canada had more to gain from this trip?

"There was no fear from the Indian universities," said Davidson, who added India would have to double its current number of universities to satisfy domestic needs. "There are 575,000 students turned down every year."

University of British Columbia's Stephen Toope, one of the 15 presidents on the trip, said he knew, like many, that Canada had to make a bigger impression in India:

"I was frustrated that Canada had little traction in India and that Canadian universities were not sufficiently on the radar screen for great Indian students or as research partners," he told University World News, adding that after this trip he would like to see the government make further efforts in better marketing Canada to Indian students.

During the trip, UBC announced C$100,000 worth of Indian undergraduate scholarships for next year. Toope said his university was also trying to establish stronger research linkages with existing partners including the University of Delhi, the National Institute for Mental Health and IIT Delhi, which has had a 10-year partnership with the Vancouver university.

"But we are also looking for a more diverse set of relationships with other leading institutes, with government labs and with community-based organisations. The hope is to strengthen cultural and social science linkages as well as scientific and business-research connections."

Writing in a blog on the last day of his week in India, Queen's University President Daniel Woolf again stressed the point that the relationship with India "has to be one of partnership, reciprocity and respect.

"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'."

But for all the talk of partnerships, Philip G Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said Indian universities had little capability to fully cooperate with all their foreign suitors. He said many had staffing problems and little experience in foreign collaboration.

"MOUs are a dime a dozen. Most of them mean nothing if they still are experiencing these practical problems."

UBC's Toope said that during the trip he ran into smaller university groups, from Scotland, England, Australia and the US, on missions similar to the Canadians.

"I am sure that there are many others interested as well. India is a very important country filled with talent."