Comment: Open to the world?

As the new British Prime Minister makes her first official visit as premier to India accompanied by business leaders and university presidents, the Vice-Chancellors of the University of Sheffield and De Montfort University, Leicester reflect on what the UK really needs to say - and hear - in India.

May’s India visit: Will UK fulfil its stated aim of being open to the world?

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield and Professor Dominic Shellard, Vice-Chancellor of De Montfort University, Leicester. Published in Hindustan Times, 5 November 2016

In 1703, the largest scientific fellowship in the world welcomed as its president a remarkable man. Isaac Newton - who famously formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation - was a giant of a thinker. Although he said that he had seemed to himself "like a boy playing on the sea shore... whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me", to the world he was a global figure at the forefront of human enquiry.

Three hundred years later, this international body has a new president - Sir Venki Ramakrishnan. An eminent chemist and Nobel Laureate, he is the first Indian scientist to be elected to this unique position in global scientific scholarship.

All of which tells us something profound about the nature of knowledge and scholarship, science and innovation.

When Theresa May travels next week to Delhi to make her first prime-ministerial visit to India and to open the UK India Tech Summit she will do so at a time of persistent questions about the outlook and intent of the UK in a post-EU referendum world. Will the UK fulfil its stated aim of being open to the world? Or will it draw inward to a narrower nationalism?

It is not just Britain asking these questions of course. Mrs May will be in Delhi as the USA elects its next president, and it now looks at least possible that Donald Trump's rhetoric of walls and America First could sway America's equivalent of the Brexit voter. The world holds its breath to see what will happen next.

In the face of all this, Theresa May has an opportunity not only to make the case for new and stronger global trade partnerships but to lift her eyes and see the potential of the deep relationships which already exist.

She needs only look at her own university experience for a clue. In 1976 at Oxford, the young Theresa May was famously introduced to her future husband by another future premier - Benazir Bhutto. Neither young woman knew then what the future held, but they undertook their education in an environment of global scholarship - one in which both teachers and students were drawn from across the world and united by talent.

Indeed, British universities are only truly British in the sense of their location. In every other way that matters they are genuinely international and all the better for it. And what students discover is that their fellow students from well over 100 nations not only share in an education, they are part of their education. For when students bring to one another their unique cultures and questions, all are enriched and the world develops a vitally-needed cohort of capable bright young minds who are well able to work in teams with colleagues from around the world.

If she is thinking about how partnerships really begin and what they mean for all our futures, the Prime Minister will begin here. And then she will think about the in-depth research collaborations which exist in everything from medical discoveries to renewable energy, cyber security to art and design. Work with government and industry which enriches both nations and helps to develop answers and products which have relevance across the world.

But Mrs May must not only come to India to speak and trade. She must come with humility, open to learn.

[Theresa May will need to] think about the in-depth research collaborations which exist in everything from medical discoveries to renewable energy, cyber security to art and design. Work with government and industry which enriches both nations and helps to develop answers and products which have relevance across the world

Professor Sir Keith Burnett and Professor Dominic Shellard

In a perfect world she would acknowledge that mistakes have been made along the way. Efforts to secure quality in the UK have sometimes come across as rejection of talent or even xenophobia. We need to challenge this in every way possible. Brilliant Indian minds can flourish in the UK and British students and scholars have so much to learn in India. Like Newton, we need to realise that none of us has a monopoly on understanding "the great ocean of truth".

Which is why we will be joining together with colleagues from the Foreign Office, British Council and Universities UK to remind India and indeed ourselves that the proper stance of education is to see beyond borders to knowledge and potential.

The earth seen from space is a unique jewel which would surely have astonished Isaac Newton. How he would have loved to share the insights of three centuries of discovery which followed his own times, or to talk to his Indian counterpart who might have explained the wonders of genetics, the astonishing insights of the international team at CERN.

We, though, have seen such images. We know that the perspective from Hubble can sit alongside the deep friendships and partnerships which are our own experience of education, so deeply enriched by the bonds of learning we share with India.

It is our fervent hope that this is what the British Prime Minister sees for herself in Delhi, and that the visit can mark a new period not only of trade but of deep connection and respect in the face of what we all have yet to discover.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield and President of the UK Science Council. He is also a member of the prime minister's Council of Science and Technology and of the Council of the Royal Society.

Professor Dominic Shellard is Vice-Chancellor of De Montfort University in Leicester and was a 2014 recipient of the Mahatma Gandhi Seva Medal.