Rectors gather to establish BRICS Network University
The network university is devoted to the creation of masters and PhD programmes, according to Professor Maxim Khomyakov, vice-president for international affairs and director of the BRICS studies centre at Ural Federal University, Ekaterinburg, who is leading the project on the Russian side.
Six thematic groups are being set up in the network, matching six agreed priority areas, and these also will be meeting in Ekaterinburg for the first time.
“The thematic groups will gather and decide on the content of the masters and PhD programmes and they are supposed to start academic and student exchanges in 2017,” he told University World News.
The six areas are computer science and information science, energy, BRICS studies, economics, ecology and climate change and water resources and pollution treatment.
Each university participating in a priority area will have one member in the thematic group.
BRICS studies covers areas such as politics, international relations, cultures and languages. One university will deal with say Asian studies, another with Latin American studies and another with Slavic or Russian studies, Khomyakov said.
The network is made up of six layers of management and governance including national coordinating committees and an international governing board, responsible for the whole network, with each country having three members, including representatives of the ministries of education and the university commission.
“In Russia we already have experience of network universities,” Khomyakov said, in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation for Central Asia, Russia, China and CIS – Commonwealth of Independent States – countries.
“It starts as a network. However, we envisage a special certificate to be given to the alumni, the certificate of the network. So, for example, we will have academic exchanges between the University of Pretoria and Ural Federal University and students who come here and study for a semester then would get a Ural Federal University diploma plus a certificate of the network.
“So in a way we are trying to institutionalise it. We would not give a diploma of the network university because there is no accrediting agency. But the international certificate is recognised at least by the ministers of the countries involved.”
He said although it will begin just as a network, the aim is to make it more institutionalised over time.
The network was set up, he said, because there was a perception among participating countries that education development was lagging behind other BRICS projects.
“There is no ongoing collaboration between the universities of BRICS countries. Some countries collaborate – Russia and China, on quite an extensive basis, but if we talk about South Africa and Russia or Brazil and India, or Brazil and China or Brazil and Russia, there is no such developed collaboration.
“But there is a political will to explore additional opportunities for collaboration beyond economics and politics.
“So we thought we would try to develop an all BRICS project, something like Erasmus Mundus on a smaller scale and more institutionalised.”
Some higher education experts are sceptical about the project. Dr Nico Jooste, senior director of international education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, told University World News that the forming of the network is a “very Russian driven process”.
He said that from chairing a session of all the BRICS universities at the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education Conference, he felt there were clear indications that the initiative “is a Russian brain child”.
“They are until June the chair of BRICS and are driving this as part of their 5-100 project. It is purely rankings and status driven,” he said.
Khomyakov concedes there were raised eyebrows when the project began – a meeting of ministers of the countries involved was held in March last year and since then ministries of education and experts have met several times, once in St Petersburg and twice in Moscow – but says South Africa has since become very active and so has Brazil.
“There was a perception among academics that we should probably be collaborating more extensively. It is a way of bringing students and academics together to collaborate.
“This is a project devoted to education [of students] mostly, because in research there are some connected but very independent projects in different priority areas and they are organised very differently. This project is about graduate education, not research, except where it is connected with student research or student innovation.”
Integrated educational space
He said the hope is that students from the BRICS countries will increasingly choose these countries to study in or to go to for exchange periods. “So we hope to create more integrated educational space.”
By focusing on priority areas, the network hopes to create alumni with new competences in areas that are valued by those countries. “After all, if we have a collaboration on energy between Russia and China, or Brazil, or South Africa, we have to have specialists in energy who know their markets and how to do things there.”
How the network university will be funded has not been settled yet and will be another topic of conversation at Ekaterinburg, although it is understood that each country will contribute.
“We have a programme of bringing students to Russia and special quota will be given to universities of the network to send students to Russia for exchange periods. We expect other countries will do the same, and that each country will have a quota for students from universities participating in the network. In this way the host country would pay.”
There are also some existing programmes that can be used as sources of funding, such as Brazil’s Science Without Borders and Russia’s Global Education Programme, both of which allow students to study abroad, albeit for degrees rather than exchange periods.
Khomyakov conceded that Russia had put rankings down as one of the topics to be the focus of round-table discussions at Ekaterinburg but played it down, saying it was only going to be discussed at side meetings.
He is keen on BRICS universities promoting themselves as such at international conferences to “enhance visibility and contribute to academic reputation”, although these would not be activities of the BRICS network university itself.
He believes the network university will complement the efforts of Russia’s 5-100 project – which hopes to get five universities into the global top 100 of a major ranking. That project has its own association of global universities and is seeking a reorientation of rankings towards rankings by subject because this might make more sense for Russian universities – some historically don’t do medicine for instance.
But internationalisation is also high on the agenda of the 5-100 group. “That is why most of the universities in the 5-100 group are very interested in this network as well. But we had to choose only 12 of them and not all are from the 5-100 project, although the core group are.
“So in a way these two initiatives are connected and there is an expectation from the 5-100 club that the BRICS network will help us to promote Russian education abroad and to internationalise further.”
So is this a Russian dominated initiative? “China is very much interested, although it has its own initiative, the BRICS University League, which is an association of BRICS universities led by Beijing Normal University and Fudan University, Shanghai. But we think these initiatives are complementary and China is quite supportive.
“There was initial scepticism in South Africa but they are now very active. India was slow but is now very active as chair of BRICS.
“I don’t think any country is left behind,” Khomyakov said.