BRICS need to capitalise on West’s turn to nationalism

In the past few decades we have witnessed the growing importance of so-called ‘emerging’ countries on the world stage. A large group of countries that were traditionally described as ‘developing’ became known as ‘emerging countries’ or ‘emerging economies’.

Among these emerging countries, a group gained particular prominence in the early 2000s. They became known as the BRICS – an acronym that was originally used to refer to Brazil, Russia, India and China with, in 2010, the inclusion of South Africa for political reasons.

The BRICS acronym first appeared in a paper published by Goldman Sachs signed by former chairman Jim O'Neill on 30 November 2001. The following three features are shared by Brazil, Russia, India and China and highlight their global importance: (1) the large size of their territories; (2) huge populations; and (3) the significant size of their economies and consequently their importance globally.

In addition to economy and politics, they are also globally important with regard to higher education. Brazil, Russia, India and China – alongside the United States – are the five largest higher education systems in the world in terms of number of students.

Throughout the 2000s, as a result of intense growth, China and India became the world’s largest higher education systems, with 34 million and 28 million students in 2013 respectively, followed by the United States with approximately 20 million, Brazil with 7.54 million and Russia with 7.52 million.

It is important to note that the Chinese higher education system currently has more students than all European countries combined. Also, China and India together account for 31.1% of global enrolment, which means that one in three students in higher education worldwide is in one of these two countries.

In order to improve co-operation in the higher education field, in 2013 the BRICS countries launched the BRICS University League project. The project has been one of the strategic pillars of BRICS co-operation. It outlines BRICS countries' collaboration in education, research and innovation through the BRICS Network University formed by leading research universities (such as Beijing Normal University in China and Saint Petersburg State University in Russia).

These countries aim to organise an annual conference of the BRICS Network University, encouraging more universities to be part of the BRICS University League in order to facilitate collaborative research and student mobility.

In practice, however, some challenges need to be overcome. Co-operation at a university level between these countries is in its very early stages and that is why, among other factors, some higher education experts are very sceptical about the real effectiveness of the project.

Language is still a huge barrier. BRICS countries use different languages at the university level. In Brazil the language used is Portuguese; in Russia it is Russian; India formally uses English, but Hindi and many other languages are used in daily life. South Africa uses English; China uses mainly Mandarin, but in the last few years, English programmes have expanded rapidly.

There are huge cultural differences between the countries. If those differences are a challenge to overcome in bilateral and multilateral relations, they are even bigger in education and scientific sectors.

Low intra-BRICS mobility

Furthermore, the current exchange of students among BRICS countries is very low. According to UNESCO, among all international Chinese students, less than 1% are in other BRICS countries. The United States alone, however, absorbs 36% of Chinese international students.

The percentage of Brazilians studying abroad who chose one of the BRICS countries to study in is even lower at less than 0.5%. The US is again the preference: 39.4% of international Brazilian students are studying in the US.

The figures are even more surprising when we look more closely at the absolute numbers. Brazil sent fewer than five students to India and only 38 to South Africa and 296 to Russia. Russia, which has a university population of approximately 50,000 students abroad, sent only 36 to Brazil, 32 to India and 30 to South Africa.

Low-quality higher education and lack of world-leading universities are still challenges for attracting students to the BRICS countries. Although China has had a solid presence in international higher education rankings, Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa are still struggling to reach leading positions.

The latest Times Higher Education BRICS and Emerging Economies University Rankings, released recently, was dominated by Chinese institutions. South Africa has two institutions in the top 10 and Russia has one, and the first Brazilian and Indian institutions appear only in 13th and 14th position respectively. It should be noted that this is the first time India has been represented in the top 15.

The ranking reflects the massive Chinese investment in internationalisation and world-class universities, and, on the other hand, the deficient performance of the other BRICS countries.

In addition, radically different economic conditions present another obstacle. Brazil and Russia are in recession; the gross domestic product or GDP growth forecast for 2016 will be -3.2% and -0.8% respectively. South Africa is projected to face a tiny growth of 0.4% while the Chinese and Indian economies are expected to continue growing significantly with a 6.7% and 7.5% growth respectively.

This economic mismatch shows us different realities for the next year and makes it difficult to see combined educational measures when different members of the group have such radically different economic and political short-term outlooks.


This year nationalist political events, such as the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union, Donald Trump’s election as US president and the Indian visa issues in the UK, seem to indicate a fall in some traditional leading countries’ appetite for international student exchange. This new scenario creates new opportunities for others.

Although there are many challenges and problems to overcome in their higher education systems, initiatives in emerging countries, such as the BRICS University League, have great potential and could be an important factor in changing the global flows of international students.

As well as being very important to the global economy and geopolitics in recent years, the BRICS, through their University League, appear to have recognised the key role played by higher education in our societies. The project may be strategic and higher education may be an easier way to bring these very culturally and politically distinct countries together.

The current political state of the world seems to be a valuable opportunity for the BRICS to expand their presence in the global higher education arena.

Bruno Morche is a higher education specialist and doctoral researcher in Brazil and holds an MA in comparative education from the UCL Institute of Education in the United Kingdom. Email: