Matyáš has no shortage of experience of working with students from other countries. After spending two and a half years in Cambridge, a semester at Harvard and another semester on Carnegie Mellon University, one of his tasks at the MU Faculty of Informatics over the years has been to coordinate a project that has brought dozens of Indian students to Brno to acquire specialised knowledge in security technologies.
“It started sometime in 2011, when the Indian ambassador paid me a personal visit – I was actually about to go on my holidays and had to postpone my departure by a couple of hours,” says Václav Matyáš with a smile as he remembers the beginnings of the cooperation between Masaryk University and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), an Indian government agency.
It was no coincidence that the ambassador specifically wanted to meet Matyáš, as he and his colleagues had long been achieving excellent research results and had an outstanding track record. A few years ago, they helped to discover a vulnerability in the chips used in ID cards in Slovakia, Estonia, Spain and other countries, which consequently meant that these countries’ security systems had to be adapted. It also helped that the Czech Republic and India have had a history of good international relations.
The DRDO is a massive research organisation with over 40,000 employees, which works on everything from planes and army vehicle and weapon design to cybersecurity. The project involved dozens of DRDO employees; most had already earned another master’s degree elsewhere before arriving in Brno. Each year, about fifteen employees would complete a one-year exchange stay in Brno before returning to India, where they would then continue to work on their master’s thesis.
As Matyáš says, it always took them a while to adjust, as the content of their study programme was different from their everyday routine in India. However, the advantages of the exchange quickly became clear. “The Indian students completely changed the dynamics of the classes – they are more assertive and come from a much more competitive environment and we got a lot of input from them,” says Matyáš.
All of a sudden, the students in his class were asking him many more questions and trying to understand the less obvious context. “My colleagues and I realised that we had to start viewing things from a different perspective, which generated new ideas that I could also use in my other classes.”
The Indian students did not have any individual programme; they enrolled in the Security of Information Technologies programme, which was then offered by the faculty (currently offered study programme is called Computer Systems, Communication and Security). This meant that they would attend classes with their Czech counterparts and other international students. However, the curriculum was extended to include additional courses.
The security experts also had a very busy schedule as they only had one year in Brno before they had to return to their jobs in India. This meant that they all had to pass around 50 ECTS credits worth of courses each semester, which came with a heavy workload.
While in Brno, they would also start working on their master’s theses, which they would finish after returning to India. As they worked in security, selecting a topic for their theses was always a sensitive matter. “It was always a balancing act based on what they were allowed to tell us about their work and what was confidential. If we just started asking them about their work as soon as they arrived, it would have been no good, but as we spent more time together, we learned to trust one another,” says Matyáš.
As India is so geographically and culturally distant from the Czech Republic, the students were assigned Czech classmates to help make their everyday life easier. “Sometimes you just need to ask what a certain teacher usually asks about at an exam and which study materials are most helpful,” says Matyáš with understanding. However, the Indian students could also rely on the support of the MU Centre for International Cooperation, which takes care of all newcomers and organises a welcome week for exchange students immediately after their arrival in Brno.
The project ran for seven years with around 70 Indian experts arriving in Brno. As Matyáš says, the negotiations between the two countries were not always easy, but he would do it all again. As he says, he can appreciate the benefits: “Each group gave us new insights and made us improve, even though some of us had been teaching for a long time.” He is currently working on another phase of cooperation.