Q&A: Fred Hilmer, President, University of New South Wales

26 Sep


‘Want to partner Indian varsities, not compete against them’
Piyali Mandal & Nivedita Mookerji / New Delhi September 26, 2011, 0:25 IST


University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia, is exploring partnership opportunities with top Indian educational institutions and businesses. While it does not intend to open an India campus or offer tailored corporate degrees, it is looking at research avenues in collaboration with centres of academic excellence in the country. On his recent visit to India to meet leading institutions and government representatives, UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor, Fred Hilmer, spoke to Piyali Mandal & Nivedita Mookerji about student safety on Australian campuses, competition from other countries in the race for being a popular overseas education destination and visa reforms, among other things. Edited excerpts:


Do you think the recent incidents of attacks on Indian students in Australia have had an adverse impact on the latter as an education destination?
The media reports were quite damaging. They were based on relatively few incidents. The negative sentiment is unfortunate. When you are here, Australia is invisible. You see it as one place. However, in reality, it is a very big and diverse country. At our campus, we have had no issues regarding students’ safety. A word-of-mouth from the people who have been at our campus is very important. You know, these things happen and you have to live with them. We will have to continue telling our story.




Has there been any backlash? Has the number of students gone down since the incidents?
The number was certainly higher earlier. Earlier, India was number four in terms of students’ enrollment. It has now slipped to the fifth spot.



What initiatives have you taken to instill confidence in people vis-à-vis education in Australia?
We are talking to educational institutions, agents and the government here. I hope they will get a better sense of things and realise that Australia is a good place to study. We are working with different government organisations regarding the flow of students back and forth. We have had a number of conversations. During this visit, I am meeting the secretary of higher education and representatives from the University Grants Commission.


We have worked very closely with the Australian government on the student visa programme. The new recommendations will support high quality students. A favourable student visa programme is a critical part of the Australian policy. There is nothing stronger than the students studying in Australia going back to their country and vice versa.


What is the proportion of Indian students studying in your university on full fee? Do you propose to increase the number of scholarships?
Usually, most students from India are on full fee. Yes, we are looking at increasing the number of scholarships. We would moderately increase these for research programmes.


The US and the UK remain among the most favoured destinations for Indian students. Where does Australia stand in comparison? In addition, do you see any threat from Asian countries like Singapore?
Australia fell back a little after the bad publicity. I think we are seeing strong interest again. Every country has its own problems. I just came back from the UK, which is very troubled. In the US, funding for a number of universities is being cut. Australia has a relatively strong position. Our government is increasing funding for education. Moreover, when you pass out of college, you can get a job in the country. The Australian economy is good; they (students) will not find it difficult to get a job.


As far as Singapore is concerned, we do not see it as a threat. Asian students like the experience of studying in Australia. It gives them a truly international experience.


What kind of collaborations are you looking at in India?
We are an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)-style university. So, the bulk of our collaborations would be in science and technology. We have a collaboration with the Prasad Rao Eye Institute. We are meeting officials from the Indian Institute of Science and expect some collaboration there. We are also working on a Masters of Public Health programme in collaboration with the Christian Medical University, Vellore. We had a number of discussions with Kapil Sibal, the education minister. We are also in talks with the IITs and IIMs. We are at an initial stage of discussion with IIM-Ahmedabad, for partnership around our flagship MBA programme.


Is there any timeline for these initiatives?
We plan to start such programmes in the next two-three years.


You talked about educational institutes. What about the corporate sector? Are you planning to collaborate with them as well?
We will hold discussions with corporate India in November. Our team is setting up a series of meetings with top-end corporate and industry leaders here. We are looking at building internship models. Under these, our students will have access to the corporate across India. However, we will not do any tailored corporate degree. It is very unlikely. We might conduct such courses in partnership with Indian educational institutes, but not with a corporate entity.


You are so bullish on the Indian education sector. Are you planning to open a campus in India?
We believe in the partnership model. Universities, by nature, are local and we do better when we work with other universities like partners. It is mutually beneficial. Education is not a business. It is not a business market. The sector is generally very heavily regulated. We want to collaborate with universities and not compete against them to get more students.


You have seen the corporate world closely during your association with Fairfax and Pacific Powers, among others. What is your take on the Australian business engagement in India?
These are still early days. India and Australia had been a bit off each other’s radar for some time. There is enormous opportunity in the information technology and energy sector, among others. The build-up will come from the history of engagement in education.


You were one of the architects of competition reforms in Australia, which later became the role model for the Competition Commission of India. Your thoughts on that? 
If you look at the benefits of pursuing these (competitive reforms) aggressively and holistically, they are very significant. In the late 80s and early 90s, Australia had lower economic growth than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Then, if you look at growth in the early 90s and through the early part of this century — the period we did all the competitive regulation — we grew above them consistently and had inflation below the OECD rate. So, the virtue is dual, that of good growth and low inflation.


You have to have a long-term view. Even as we started the process of reforms in the late 80s, we were able to bring in a lot of the laws only in the early 90s and it took some years. But, if you look back, if you have a 15-20 years’ view, this is probably one of the most significant areas of economic reforms we have undertaken.


What lesson should India draw from all this? 
The lesson for India is to be patient and stay on course.


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