Research universities to establish global network

Four of the world’s major research university groups are to form an international network as a parallel organisation to the Global Research Council of Science and Engineering Funding Agencies, established last year by agency representatives from nearly 50 countries.

The Association of American Universities (AAU), the League of European Research Universities (LERU), the China 9 League of leading universities and the Australian Group of Eight (Go8) research-intensive universities plan to join forces to tackle what the groups see as the challenges facing research institutions around the world.

The presidents of the four groups and their executive directors are likely to hold their first meeting later this year, possibly in October, when they are expected to discuss and release a set of principles regarding the global role of research-intensive universities.

The network organisers also plan to provide research university input to the global research council, which was launched last May during a multinational summit promoted and hosted by the US National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia.

The idea of a collaborative association between the four groups of research universities was first discussed among their presidents and executive directors last May at the 10th anniversary celebrations of the LERU in Barcelona.

Further talks were held during a meeting in Shanghai in October, organised by the China 9 League with which the Go8 has had close ties for the past five years.

The executive directors of the AAU, LERU, China 9 and the Go8 are now developing plans for the network.

Go8 Executive Director Michael Gallagher told University World News that the initial focus would be on three issues: a joint statement from the four groups on the roles and importance of contemporary research universities; benchmarking data so universities in each of the groups could be compared in terms of their capacity and performance; and the relationship of the network with the global research council, which at present had no “provider universities” input.

“We are exploring how far we can get with these three issues and then perhaps start talking about other things such as MOOCs [massive open online courses],” Gallagher said. “Research universities in many countries are facing a narrow instrumentalism by the state as well as funding pressures and more intrusiveness over what is considered to be worthwhile in research.”

He and LERU’s Secretary General Professor Kurt Deketelaere are using the US Academic Analytics benchmarking database to develop ways of comparing universities in the four groups.

The Analytics database includes information on 270,000 academics associated with more than 9,000 PhD programmes and 10,000 departments at more than 385 universities in the US and abroad. The data are structured so they can be used for comparisons at a discipline-by-discipline level as well as overall university performance.

Deketelaere told University World News that he and Gallagher were investigating what part of the Analytics data set could be adapted to form a core comparative database to examine each university in the network. The aim was to compare the member universities with one another rather than relying on the commercially produced league tables.

“We are discussing collaboration with Academic Analytics [AA], which has developed instruments that could be beneficial for us as universities to compare ourselves. But the challenge for AA would be in working with continental European universities, where there is this diversity of languages. That makes it difficult to adapt all Analytics instruments for publications in different languages,” he said.

“We have challenged them by saying 'we would like to work with you if you can solve the language problems, collect all the publications in different languages and put the details in your system'.

“Academic Analytics has the advantage of being a commercial firm that is headed by academics, so they really know the types of questions that need to be asked and they know how the academic system functions.”

Referring to the global council of funding agencies, Deketelaere said the fundamental question for research universities was what “the global rules of this game" and "who was going to establish the rules”. He said the research-intensive universities wanted to have a say in determining those rules.

“Obviously we have a great deal of sympathy for the research funding agencies because they provide us with significant amounts of money. But, on the other hand, they have a bad habit of speaking only for themselves and often they refer to ‘their researchers’, the ones they fund, whereas those researchers are in universities.

“So although our sympathy is with the agencies, we want to avoid them speaking for us when I think we are clever enough to speak for ourselves.”

Deketelaere said the fact that the agencies now had a global council meant research-intensive universities had to be sure they had a voice in the global debate. With the university groups joining forces, they could help one another in tackling common problems and also learn from one another.

Who they are

The Association of American Universities is an invitation-only association of 62 top public and private research universities in the US and Canada that employ some 680,000 staff. Federal grants total more than US$20 billion, with a further US$5 billion provided by the institutions. They enrol more than 1.1 million undergraduates and 550,000 graduate students.

The League of European Research Universities is an association of 21 leading research-intensive universities founded in 2002. It includes the universities of Barcelona, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Heidelberg, Milan, Oxford, Paris-Sud and Zurich. In total, the universities employ 55,000 academic and 55,000 professional staff and enrol more than 550,000 students. Their collective annual research budget exceeds €5 billion (US$6.5 billion).

The C9 League of Chinese Universities formed themselves in October 2009 as China’s equivalent to the US Ivy League. This followed a decision in May that year by the Chinese government to select the nine universities for additional funding for an initial period of three years. They include Fudan, Nanjing, Peking, Shanghai Jiao Tong and Tsinghua universities. Collectively, the nine absorb about 10% of China’s R&D expenditures and generate more than 20% of the nation’s output of journal articles.

The Australian Group of Eight is a coalition of eight research-intensive universities that began in 1994 as an informal network of vice-chancellors and was then formally incorporated in 1999. With a total of 24,000 academics, 24,000 professional staff and a student enrolment exceeding 250,000, the group collectively has an annual research income of more than US$2.2 billion and plays a significant role in the educational and political life of the nation.