A new British Council report suggests great opportunities for India and the UK from forging a stronger relationship. Closer cultural and educational ties can help to unlock that partnership. But the evidence suggests the UK will need to continue to up its game if it is to take advantage of India's rise.

India Rising

India is undergoing a transition that could have significant consequences for the UK. It is already the third largest economy in the world (when measured at purchasing power parity exchange rates) and is expected to become the second largest in the coming decades. Forecasts show that by 2050, India’s working age population could be larger than that of the US and China combined, and its economy thirty times larger than today

India will soon be one of the biggest influences on the world

As its economy is transformed, its political, military and cultural power is also likely to increase, elevating India to a 21st Century superpower. As Jim O’Neill has written, India will soon be ‘one of the biggest influences on the world’. It is looking for new partners in the global race. This represents a great opportunity for the UK.

An opportunity for the UK

In recent years there has already been a concerted effort to strengthen the UK’s bilateral relationship with India. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Network Shift programme has led to the opening of three additional Deputy High Commissions and new Trade Offices across the country.

Profound ties of culture, history and language already give the UK a potentially strong foundation upon which to further deepen its relationship with India. Although the legacy of the colonial era is complex, the priorities, sympathies and values of the two nations today are increasingly aligned. Young people in both countries say they appreciate the culture of the other. And there are many areas where the UK can benefit from such stronger relations as India continues to rise as a world power. 

The reverse is also true: in particular the UK has much to offer India in education, research, civil society and the creative sector. The massive growth of India’s English-speaking middles classes offers a critical window of opportunity for the UK to become partner of choice for trade, diplomacy, culture and education before India’s next generation turns its attentions elsewhere. Much more could still be done to build on existing connections, including the large Indian-heritage diaspora in the UK. 

It is therefore vital that the UK understands contemporary India, its priorities and how the two countries are best placed to work together. Strong bilateral relationships depend on a foundation of mutual knowledge, understanding, and trust. Cultural awareness supports economic and diplomatic ties. 

Understanding India better

Young people in the UK have worryingly low understanding of India

But while there are many examples of strong connections between the two countries, they are not as close as they could be. Young people in the UK have worryingly low understanding of India. In a survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the British Council, 74% of young educated Indians said they knew ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ about the UK, while just 21% of their UK contemporaries said the same about India. If India and the UK are to work together towards a stronger relationship, the perceptions of young people in both countries will be vital, and there will need to be a significant change in attitudes in the UK. Meanwhile, the number of Indian young people choosing the UK as a study destination has fallen sharply. Indeed, in recent years the number of Indian students studying in the UK declined by 49%.

It will be through education, personal experience and cultural understanding that future relationships will be built. As well as presenting significant economic opportunities in themselves for both countries, educational and cultural collaborations offer vital mechanisms for improving that mutual understanding between peoples and future leaders. These in turn can underpin wider economic and strategic engagement and lead to mutual benefits in terms of prosperity, security and influence. A long-term, joined-up vision, underpinned by culture and education, will be fundamental to securing the UK-India relationship.

The new report has the following high-level recommendations:

The UK government and leading institutions (including commercial, educational and cultural organisations) should set out a 2050 vision for the UK-India relationship, and make a long term commitment to realising it. The larger institutions and organisations should do all that they can to support smaller ones in engaging with India.

The UK should understand and support India’s priorities to ensure it remains relevant, including engaging with the Indian Government’s ambitions for urbanization, digitisation and skills. The main actors should identify key areas for collaboration where the UK has unique a world class offer – e.g. education, science, and creative industries – and set out plans to scale up in these areas.

A UK-India Young Leaders/Next Generation Forum should be launched for young people between the ages of 15 – 35, who will potentially be leaders by 2050. These people should be identified, trained and mentored, and brought together to exchange knowledge and ideas.

Companies and institutions in the UK should seek further opportunities to collaborate more with each other in their engagement with India, both within and across sectors. This will bring together of different skills and expertise and create opportunities to work at scale.

If these steps are taken there is every chance that the connections between India and the UK could create one of the most important and positive relationships of the 21st Century.