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BRICS university league starts to form, but needs true collaboration

Internationalisation – together with massification, globalisation and, one should also add, innovation – is key for understanding contemporary academia.

Science and scholarship, of course, were always international: one can recall Plato learning in India or the scholars of the early modern period somehow united across Europe in the international Republic of Letters. However, academia has never previously known the truly global circulation of minds (talent and resources) that we experience nowadays.

True enough, medieval scholars did travel a lot – but not as far as China or New Zealand. Even if the science was international, it was not really global.

Internationalisation has several faces, one of which is the circulation of minds to which I referred above, while another relates to the sheer impossibility for individual scientists to do proper research on their own.

Science requires more and more resources and has become more and more expensive. Thus, inevitably, some research projects are so expensive that they simply cannot be done in a single country. The Large Hadron Collider is the most obvious example here.

Being expensive, science must prove its usefulness to larger society. What seems to be an obsession with innovation is just the reaction of society to expensive and sometimes risky projects of fundamental science. In the absence of clear success criteria society cannot understand why it should pay the price for ‘hosting’ contemporary science.

Moreover, since massification of education inescapably leads to an inflation of its value, there must be clear criteria for distinguishing higher education of international quality from all other types of higher education.

The result of both processes is, of course, the concept of the world-class university, as well as the highly contentious but really useful practice of international academic rankings.

In this loop of internationalisation, massification and innovation, in this process of distinguishing world-class universities from all others, in this global circulation of minds, all of which constitutes a global educational market – a phrase which would certainly have seemed insane to Humboldt – there are winners and losers.

Obviously, all losers think that they deserve better; some of them, however, have enough human and material resources to try to capture a share of the market.

The ambitious BRICS

The BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – countries do lag behind the United States and some European countries in all major university rankings. But all of them think they can do much better.

Consider Russia, for example. Secondary education in this country is traditionally strong and is followed by equally strong higher education, especially in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The evidence is clear: it is enough just to point out the presence of Russian university graduates in major universities, research centres and large companies.

But where is Russia on the rankings charts? Arguably the country could have done much better.

BRICS countries are all different, but they all want better visibility and a bigger share of the global education market. Importantly, their booming economies provide them with the necessary resources.

So one cannot but wonder why the universities in these countries do not collaborate on a larger scale?

Globalisation, massification, internationalisation and innovation all enhance the value of networking.

Networks really do play an important role in today’s research and scholarship. Various foundations and programmes nowadays prefer to sponsor international consortia and not just research projects initiated within the framework of bilateral agreements. Education is also moving in this direction: various Erasmus Mundus and Tempus projects provide good evidence to substantiate this claim.

It is this need to be more visible internationally, to get a share of the international education market and, slightly less cynically, to be better integrated into global academia which seems to be responsible, partly at least, for the fact that many countries in emerging markets are developing various large university consortia and educational networks.

My own Ural Federal University in Ekaterinburg is, for example, a member of almost a dozen networks and consortia, including the Shanghai Collaboration Organisation (SCO) university network, the Commonwealth of Independent States university network, the University of the Arctic – even if Ekaterinburg is not really part of the Arctic region – the Association of Sino-Russian Technical Universities etc.

League tables

Arguably, BRICS are very different from the SCO, even if Russia and China are prominent members of both clubs, while India is an associate member of the SCO.

Brazil and South Africa certainly add to the diversity, which is further deepened by the fact that the BRICS are not really an organisation – unlike the SCO – but just a club of countries that share a vague ambition to become something more.

These countries, however, do share certain concerns about the international visibility of their education systems and are quite committed to working together to jointly advance their interests.

That is why about three months ago in Shanghai, several leading Russian and Chinese universities signed a document called the “Initiative Towards the Formation of a BRICS University League”, in which they agreed to work together on holding a founding conference for this new university network.

Some representatives of Indian, Brazilian and South African universities were present as well, but were not ready to sign the initiative at that stage.

The university signatories, the majority of whom – interestingly – already knew each other quite well from their participation in the SCO university network, expressed concern about their current positions in academic rankings and their general visibility in global academia.

The signatories think they will be able to enhance their performance through organising wide-scale collaboration between member universities.

The importance of this new network was, surprisingly enough, recognised even before it was really conceived. Two of the main international university ranking agencies – Times Higher Education and QS – decided to create specific BRICS-related charts.

THE is going to announce the first results of its BRICS and Emerging Economies Ranking on 5 December in Istanbul, Turkey, while QS will present its BRICS Ranking less than a fortnight later – on 17 December in Moscow, Russia.

The rankings, however, will be as artificial academically as the BRICS countries’ club currently is mostly political, if not based on true collaboration between universities in these countries.

The formation of a BRICS universities league provides us with some optimism. But these universities still have a very long way to go in global academia.

* Professor Maxim Khomyakov is vice-rector of Ural Federal University in Russia.
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