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OECD, Boston College explore role of research universities

In a groundbreaking partnership with Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, the OECD recently hosted an international working conference under the aegis of its new Innovation, Higher Education and Research for Development (IHERD) programme.

The conference examined the role of research universities in global knowledge networks, and was opened by Åsa Olsson, IHERD coordinator, and Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education, or CIHE.

Held on the Boston College campus and drawing on the expertise of some 40 guests from around the world, the seminar explored the future prospects of research institutions in developing and middle-income countries.

To do this, participants considered the role of research universities in the global knowledge economy; the international networking of higher education institutions through consortia; the rising mobility of researchers via international knowledge networks; policy-making regarding academic knowledge and output; and the global growth of institutional research.

Also discussed were the potential of partnerships, whether for research capacity building in developing countries or between universities on a North-South basis; the impact of rankings systems and methods on rising universities in middle-income countries; the role of learned societies in bridging research, policy-making and funding; and the nexus of research universities, technology transfer, and job creation.

Session leaders included academics and researchers of global standing, as well as the CEOs of learned societies and bilateral development partnerships, from Australia, Brazil, France, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, South Korea and the United States.

The conference also featured invited guests from universities and research centres (in Egypt, India, Israel, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Slovenia, South Africa and Taiwan), foundations (Qatar Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York), and the world of academic publishing (Taylor & Francis Group). Local guests joined the conference from Boston College, Harvard, MIT and the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

Crucial role of research universities

Drawing on two recent, related books, Philip Altbach led the way by restating the crucial role of research universities as stepping stones to the knowledge economy. Even modest research universities, he pointed out, are part of an active “global community of institutions”.

They are national nodes in a global knowledge network, which itself plays a central role in the hierarchy of knowledge – in fact underpinning its very armature (journals, libraries, professional organisations etc).

V Lynn Meek reiterated the centrality of the university to globalisation, pointing to its status as both a starting- and end-point of knowledge networking trends: the rising mobility of both research and researchers; the internationalisation of research networks; and re-conceptions of scientific mobility, from ‘brain drain’ to ‘brain circulation’.

Focusing on scientific mobility and international research networks, Meek examined the ways in which these operate, build capacity and stimulate research excellence.

Marc Tadaki posited that globalisation has reshuffled the actors, logics and relations between and beyond institutions of higher education and research. This calls for new strategies for both cooperation and competition, and challenges international consortia to adapt accordingly.

What, Tadaki asked, is the transformative potential of consortia as “deliberative spaces capable of reframing internationalisation agendas?”

Taking the case of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, a consortium of prestigious research universities in the Asia-Pacific region, participants considered the ways in which norms of internationalisation become established, and might thus be remade.

Dianne McCarthy and Gerard Postiglione presented best-case scenarios, where particular ‘enabling environments’ have made for notable success, in New Zealand and Hong Kong respectively.

In New Zealand, a 150-year history has helped the Royal Society of New Zealand fine-tune the role of learned societies as bridges between research, policy-making and funding, so much so that in this small island nation of four million people, more science is currently funded publicly than privately.

In Hong Kong, a 30-year repetition of knowledge networking, strategic management by the University Grants Committee, and calculated risk has propelled its research universities to global standing, and into a golden era in which they “anchor globalisation and drive innovation, the economy and civil society”.

Research production, metrics and networks

A heavy orientation to research presumes a concomitant orientation to metrics, assessment exercises and the like, and some of the downsides of the global ‘massification of quantification’ were also alluded to in the course of the conference.

Jung Cheol Shin examined whether publication and citation correlate with collaboration; whether collaboration patterns differ across higher education systems; and whether the tail sometimes wags the dog (Can counting methods drive or skew outcomes? That’s a ‘yes’).

Marcelo Knobel led an exploratory mission to the brave new world of scientometrics, and confirmed that the impact of a publication increases with the number of countries represented in its authorship.

He also took participants through the research collaboration landscape of Iberoamerica, and pointed out, among other things, some of the recent practices intended to improve the internationalisation of Brazilian science.

Nazli Choucri provided an overview of the knowledge economy in the Middle East and North Africa region, and the prospects for Arab higher education in the light of soaring Arabic-language internet usage (a 1,500% increase in the past decade) and the emergence of online ‘knowledge systems’ including Coursera and MITx.

Contextualising research excellence in Sub-Saharan Africa, Olugbemiro Jegede highlighted the continent’s current centres of excellence, and their anticipated role in the Pan-African University’s five-region network.

In another variation on the conference’s knowledge networking theme, Anshumali Padayachee and Charmaine Williamson presented the South Africa-Netherlands Research Programme on Alternatives in Development, an innovative bilateral partnership between South Africa and The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs in which doctoral research preparation modules are offered to qualified candidates from historically disadvantaged groups.

And in yet another, Igor Chirikov examined the research university as a knowledge network in its own right, and the attending rationale for greater attention to institutional research on the part of current and aspiring world-class universities.

Finally, Christian Brodhag considered the role of technology transfer in development. How is knowledge disseminated into society for development and social change purposes? How should key actors in the production and transfer of knowledge, starting with research universities, interact with society?

In closing the conference, Åsa Olsson, IHERD manger, reiterated her conviction that the event constituted "a useful contribution to the future effectiveness of research universities, in a period of significant change in higher education”.

We share her hope that this new OECD programme will contribute to a more informed future and a constructive policy agenda.

* By agreement with the UK-based Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE), a selection of papers from the IHERD-CIHE conference will be published in a dedicated, spring 2013 issue of Studies in Higher Education. SRHE is an international learned society aiming to improve the quality of higher education, and encourage debate and publication regarding the policies, organisation and management of higher education institutions.

* The OECD’s four-year Innovation, Higher Education and Research for Development (IHERD) programme was initiated with the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. Its overall objective is to increase strategic and coherent investments in innovation, higher education and research, which are crucial to global development.

* The Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) is a specialised research centre in Boston College’s Lynch School of Education in the United States.
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