Western universities clamour for Indian collaborations

Despite shifting power dynamic, centuries-old perceptions of Western superiority persist, scholars say

November 29, 2022
ranthambore national park, rajasthan, India - August 10, 2018 - wild royal bengal tiger in open during monsoon season and wildlife lovers or tourist or traveler are click images on safari vehicle
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In a historic role reversal, Indian universities have found themselves with the upper hand as European and North American universities vie for collaborations with the country’s burgeoning higher education system, a conference has heard.

For decades, the dynamic between Indian institutions and their partners in the developed world has been clear. Those in the West had the money and set the agenda.

But as India’s higher education system has grown – with the nation set to become the world’s most populous in 2023 – its institutions find themselves in a very different position, the British Council’s Going Global conference heard.

“The boot is on the other foot,” said Aditya Malkani, regional director for membership in the Asia-Pacific at the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

“Today, it’s the leading Indian universities who are in the position to choose who they partner with in some of these Global North countries,” he told the Singapore event.

The current scenario marks a stark contrast from when Mr Malkani started in higher education some 20 years ago. Back then, there was a sense that Western universities were unsure or doubtful of the benefits of partnership with their Indian colleagues.

“While there was a respect in those conversations…there was also strong feeling of…‘What can we really get from you?’” he said.

Recently, there has been a “complete shift” in approach. Now, Mr Malkani gets far more requests from Western universities asking to link up with Indian institutions than vice versa.

But even as universities navigate a shifting power dynamic, centuries-old perceptions of Western superiority persist, academics said. A couple of them recounted their own experiences of being looked down on, or of witnessing such behaviour.

Asha de Vos, a marine biologist and founder of Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation and research organisation, Oceanswell, said that despite her success in the field, colleagues in the West were sceptical about her ability to take the helm on a large initiative.

“People still didn’t think that I could build a globally recognised project because of where I came from,” she said.

It still happens that Western researchers engage in “parachute science” – when they briefly join a project with colleagues in the developing world and take credit for their work, something that Dr De Vos said has happened to her.

Lucy Mazdon, dean of humanities and social sciences at Oxford Brookes University, recalled the surprised reaction of a colleague visiting China when they saw the cutting-edge facilities there.

“The very fact that they’d come with that assumption” reflected a “sense of superiority” she had seen many times, she said.

But with the balance between the Global North and South shifting, academics hoped that colonial attitudes could be changed.

Already, the changing situation has “forced a rethinking” of certain scholars’ assumptions, said Professor Mazdon.

Suranjan Das, vice-chancellor of India’s Jadavpur University, agreed. “This shift has opened up a new entry point which could lead to further decolonisation,” he said.

But he cautioned that economic power alone does not, in itself, bring about a change in attitudes or an openness to embrace “non-dominant” philosophies and knowledge systems. “What’s really important is to address the culture of inclusion,” he said.


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