“Tactics: actions or strategies carefully planned to achieve a specific end.” So reads the dictionary definition of a word that Times Higher Education is appropriating as the name of a new group of countries with the potential to be the higher education stars of the future.
In our case, TACTICS is an acronym rather than a description of a carefully calibrated strategy in every instance. Our countries are Thailand, Argentina, Chile, Turkey, Iran, Colombia and Serbia, a group we’ve selected after crunching the data with colleagues at the Centre for Global Higher Education at University College London.
Our approach is discussed in detail in the cover story this week, but the elements we have used include GDP per head, higher education participation rates, research publications, field-weighted citation impact, and at least some presence in the THE World University Rankings.
The result is a select group of countries that, examined purely in terms of higher education, have among the best conditions to blossom in the years to come.
Whether these fertile conditions do indeed bear fruit remains to be seen. Like any such group, the TACTICS are far from homogeneous, with each country having a different cocktail of strengths and weaknesses.
Take, for example, Turkey and Iran. Both perform well on gross tertiary enrolment, and growth in participation over a period of time. Both have a rich intellectual history too.
Yet each faces huge political challenges. Iran is rated as having the most corrupt public sector of any in our group by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and academic appointments are seen as being linked to ideology as much as merit.
This matters, not least because an analysis of the data across all the TACTICS (plus selected other countries) indicates a strong correlation between performance in the corruption index and a country’s field-weighted citation impact – higher corruption levels correlate with lower quality research.
In Turkey, a purge of academic institutions has been under way since the attempted coup earlier this year, with all university faculty deans being forced to resign. Organisations that help academics considered to be at risk report a flood of applications from scholars seeking help to escape to safety.
Issues such as these won’t be reflected in the numbers, but they are of crucial importance to the future development of these countries’ higher education systems, and particularly their ambitions on the global stage.
Threats to democracy and political instability are clearly factors that could derail a country’s progress, regardless of the demographics or trajectory of its university system.
The extent to which universities and democracy are knitted together was discussed in a research paper published earlier this year by academics at the London School of Economics.
The analysis of 15,000 universities in 78 countries found a significant positive correlation between the number of universities in a country and its levels of democracy (measured using polity scores). This was judged to be more than just the effect of a university education on the individual graduates, spilling over into “some form of direct diffusion from universities into their surrounding region”.
So if, broadly speaking, universities need democracy to thrive (acknowledging that this is not an infallible rule), then democracy also needs universities to thrive.
For those in the US and UK, where democracy has delivered a hefty body blow to universities in recent months, this may be cold comfort, but it’s worth remembering as they dust themselves down for the battles ahead.