Expert Zone

In India with Theresa May

Today, the smog across Delhi is just a little bit lighter. Prime Minister Theresa May arrived yesterday on her first international trade mission to hear, and read, a devastating wave of frustration and hurt about how India views our tight visa controls on students. The comments from government officials to leaders of major corporations range from incomprehension to dismay. "They want our trade but not our children."

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As I wait for the prime minister’s talk I sigh. How deeply we have insulted this great nation. Did we have any idea what we were doing? A great democratic nation we ruled in our sometimes inglorious past. A country that challenged our imperial view of trade to shape its own destiny. A nation that now has little need of us. Surely a little humility and warmth is in order.

And then the Tata sign on the conference poster raises my spirits. The row over visas is not, thank god, the whole story. I think of the Sheffield University apprentices with the Tata name on their shirts. I think of the time I saw a Jaguar Land Rover project being set up in our new reconfigurable factory on a high-tech research campus.

We already have links together that are part of what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called “the global knowledge economy”. And the latest deal my university’s advanced manufacturing research centre signed with Indian company Bharat Forge to make rotor shafts, turbine discs and flywheel machining for one of their companies in Germany and components for Hindustan Aerospace Ltd will help.

Our researchers and teachers are not high-handed. I think of years of shared research by academics in Sheffield working with the eye hospital in Hyderabad. I think of the breakthroughs in care that benefit the elderly and needy in both nations.

This matters. I feel a deep need to be a friend and partner with the wonderful Sheffield graduates I meet here in India - and I know my fellow Vice-Chancellors feel just the same. We don’t just want Indian students for ourselves. I am spending time later this morning talking about how to work with a partner university in India.

But I keep on coming back to the elephant in the room. And elephants are a not inconsequential image in India. Its most beautiful temples are rich in carvings of elephants and the elephant god Ganesha is revered by many Hindus.

But our elephant is a force we are not even admitting exists. How can we say ‘free trade’ and not be willing to teach their children even as they help make our universities economically viable? What has led us to this madness?

This self-harm risks wrecking a great British place of exchange and riches which already exists and which has deep traditions of trust. We have a way of giving real insights and true connections to another country. We already join together on tech and innovation. We need to build on that, not risk it and call for its existence. And the irony is that if we reject the greatest gift - that of understanding and trust - we also risk trade.

As I reflect on these things, a British businessman who truly gets this swings into view. Lord Bilimoria - founder of Cobra Beer and friend of the UK's first female prime minister - is both gracious and brave in his honest assessment of what must be done. I thank him for his splendid willingness to speak openly about these issues and the crucial importance to the UK of international students.

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But as the speeches begin, my heart sinks. Theresa May goes big on free trade but fails to mention international students. Prime Minister Modi responds and adds, painfully, that the future must include mobility for talented young people. It is a lost opportunity.

So what must I do? I’ll keep working with Indian partners and tell them how determined we are to be part of this nation’s future. I’ll work with our graduates in this great nation and make the case for Indian students to be a precious part of our university, as they always have been. I’ll keep going, knowing that there is no technological or research connection without human connection and bringing together talent.

(Sir Keith Burnett, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, reflects on Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech on her first trade mission to India.)