University leaders journey into ‘unimagined’ terrain

University vice-chancellors from emerging economies are venturing cautiously into the possible collaborations offered by new, ‘unimagined’ international entities such as BRICS, the association of five emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

In a panel discussion held at the Times Higher Education BRICS and Emerging Economies Universities Summit at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, recently on the theme “Reimagining the world-class university”, a group of vice-chancellors came together to consider the question “Can BRICS build greater higher education links with Africa?”

“BRICS itself is still an unimagined category,” said Adebayo Olukoshi, African regional director of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. “It still needs to define its identity and world outlook before we can measure its potential for education benefits.”

Olukoshi said BRICS was an example of the “emergence of an alternative to the post-1945 global order… there have been geo-political shifts; a remix of centres of influence, both economically and politically.”

Brazil – an unknown factor

How that would play out and what the role of BRICS would be had yet to be seen, said Olukoshi, adding that Brazil was an unknown factor in the field of higher education for much of Africa, whereas there had been a long relationship with India both on the political, cultural and immigration fronts.

However, the fact that Brazil’s population included the “largest number of black people outside Africa” held the potential for future connections.

Collaboration between BRICS countries should move beyond the narrow focus of economics, Olukoshi said, citing the example of Ethiopia where China and India had made significant economic inputs, which had “not translated into cultural exchanges or other impacts”.

Marta Losada, president of Antonio Nariño University, Colombia, said while there existed a “great opportunity for knowledge”, there had to be a close scrutiny of the “why?” of collaboration. “We have to look at the motivations; we can’t have passive participation.”

More than economics

Losada acknowledged the main reasons for collaborations were likely to be economic in order to increase competitiveness and the quality of the workforce. “But how much should the higher education sector be just a subsidiary to such concerns?”

Raj Kumar, founding vice-chancellor of OP Jindal Global University in Delhi, India, said higher education links within BRICS should be about creating a sense of relationship and responsibility in educating the next generation of young people. “It will fail if we don’t build relationships, and it must not be just about economics.”

“The foundational values must be based on more than economic benefits,” Kumar said. “The BRICS countries have a shared history and shared struggles. How do university leaders and academics enter that space?”

Humanities and social sciences

According to Kumar, higher education collaborations should include the humanities and the social sciences, not just engineering and medicine. “There is a need for history, sociology and anthropology as well as medicine and engineering,” he said.

“There is more to the development of a society than what is meant in economic terms. We need to reimagine a collaborative framework that understands the need for humanities education across BRICS and other emerging economies and to create platforms to understand each other and work together.”

A longstanding partnership in the field of higher education between Russia and African countries, including in such disciplines as engineering, natural sciences, medicine and the humanities, already exists, according to Mikhail Strikhanov, rector of the National Research Nuclear University MEPhl in Moscow, Russia. He added that universities from 19 African countries are currently involved in cooperation with Russian universities, including institutions from South Africa, Egypt, Angola and Mozambique.

Nuclear energy links

Strikhanov said there were strong links with South Africa regarding atomic energy, especially since the two countries had signed a memorandum of understanding in cooperation in training and skills development in South Africa at the 2015 BRICS summit.

MEPhl was already involved with the training and retraining of specialists in the field of nuclear energy and six South African universities were members of the team creating the Virtual Lab of Nuclear Fission.

Strikhanov said these relationships could be further developed with joint programmes, including on-line courses, student exchange programmes and cooperation in training of joint industrial projects.

But the overall sense of the discussion was that universities need to tread with care. “We must not forget the power relations in play,” said Olukoshi in a closing statement. “There is a need for a philosophy and values framework that will inform relationships. They must be reciprocal, equable, and jointly sustainable, and involve the co-construction of knowledge.”