16 September 2010
China's growing strength may yet be matched by Brazil, Russia and India, writes Richard Reynolds
Where are the "Brics"? Brazil, Russia and India have no institutions at all in the 2010-11 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
China — the "c" in the developing-nation acronym — has a significant presence in the tables, but there are doubts about how quickly it can send its universities into the very top tier of the global higher education elite.
The term "Bric", coined in 2001 by Goldman Sachs' head of global economic research and commodities, Jim O'Neill, has been used to highlight the shift of economic power from the West to those nations. The world has watched as these potential giants have begun to claim their positions as major global players. So why aren't they storming our tables?
Brazil, and indeed South America as a whole, has no institutions in the top 200. Despite producing almost 19 per cent of the world's research in tropical medicine and more than 12 per cent in parasitology, according to our rankings data partner Thomson Reuters, and excelling in other life-science fields, Brazil's total research output in other disciplines is relatively low.
However, with good investment prospects and strong relationships with the world's two reigning higher education superpowers, the US and the UK, Brazil could break into the top 200 before long.
Of all the institutions in the Bric countries without representation, Brazil's University of São Paulo is the best prospect to reach the top 200 in the near future.
While its sector is not developing at quite the pace of India's or China's, Brazil is still seeing a significantly faster rate of growth than the developed world. With its clear global strength in life sciences research, its future in global higher education looks very healthy.
Russia is perhaps the most notable absentee from the tables, given its history of groundbreaking, or perhaps earth-shaking, work in space sciences and nuclear physics.
While its booming oil industry and the relative stability of recent years have put this humbled superpower back on the top rung of international diplomacy, its research institutions have continued their decline from the glory days of sputnik.
A Global Research Report on Russia, published earlier this year by Thomson Reuters, says: "It is sure to come as a surprise to many analysts that Russia, often a byword for its focus on technology and science, now has a formal publication output that is on a scale with countries that have fewer resources as well as a shorter history of strong research investment."
Russia's limited volume of research publications indexed by Thomson Reuters, and those publications' limited influence as measured by citations, is reflected in the rankings, which employ both publication volume and citation counts among their 13 indicators.
The 2010-11 rankings rely less on reputational measures and more on evidence-based indicators than our old (2004-09) methodology. So traditional prestige or perceptions no longer hold as much weight in the final reckoning.
Science has long been at the heart of Russian academe, but many researchers fear for its health. In late 2009, a number of prominent Russian scientists based around the world signed an open letter to President Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister. It describes a bleak situation in Russian science: "The regression is continuing, and the scale and danger of the process have been underestimated. The level of finance for Russian science is in sharp contrast with comparable figures in developed countries. Scientists' mass departures abroad have remained a major problem for Russia."
Elena Getalo, of the Tomsk Polytechnic University, says that world rankings agencies have failed to take into account Russian concerns about methodological weaknesses and have not "hurried" to engage Russian universities. But, she adds: "It should be noted that [historically the] government did not encourage the development of international cooperation for political reasons. In 1991, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the financing of the educational system was cut drastically. [Research] institutions and universities especially suffered. The links with real economic sectors were destroyed."
In addition to national infrastructure problems, the older generation of Russian scientists tends to publish most of their research in Russian journals. These go relatively unnoticed outside the former Soviet Union and are not well represented in the Thomson Reuters databases used to compile the rankings.
India's story is in sharp contrast to that of Russia. Although its sector is short of world-class status, it undoubtedly possesses the potential to make rapid advances.
Government spending on research represented 0.9 per cent of gross domestic product in 2009; however, this figure is expected to rise to 1.2 per cent by 2012.
India still has a relatively low number of postgraduate researchers. The number of Indians holding postgraduate degrees increased from 2.4 per cent of the population (20.5 million) in 1991 to 4.5 per cent (48.7 million) in 2005. But this level still trails behind that of Western economies such as the US, where almost 10 per cent of the population have postgraduate degrees.
The central government of India has taken steps to address this situation with the creation of the Indian Institutes of Technology. They are designed to specialise in wealth-creating fields such as computing and engineering.
The big word in Indian higher education now is "trajectory". A slow increase in publications saw India's tally, as measured by Thomson Reuters' Web of Science database, reach about 20,000 a year in 2004. However, since then the pace has picked up with a 10 per cent annual increase, and by 2020, India's output is expected to surpass the total publications of all the G7 countries.
However, Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, sounds a note of caution.
"India's problem is that the traditional universities, such as the University of Mumbai, are too large — some with half a million on their campuses and in their affiliated undergraduate colleges — to permit effective management.
"Further, the universities have been underfunded for decades and there is no evaluation system for academic staff — people are simply promoted on the basis of seniority and sometimes hired based on connections, regional affiliations, caste groups and so on."
Tim Gore, director of the Centre for Indian Business at the University of Greenwich, observes: "Although Kapil Sibal, the human resource development minister, is determined to reunite research and teaching in universities and create a number of 'world-class' research-led institutions, this will take time to achieve.
"Nevertheless, there are clear signs that India's contribution to global knowledge creation is increasing fast. A recent study puts India as the fastest-growing research and development system in the world."
Gore adds: "The prospects for India's higher education sector are certainly more rosy than those of many of its Western analogues in the current challenging economic climate."
China is notable as the only Bric economy with a significant selection of universities in the world top 200.
With six institutions in the table, the country has largely maintained its standing in the tables in the face of a more rigorous evidence-based rankings methodology for 2010-11.
But Altbach warns that for all its potential, China may have hit something of a "glass ceiling". It needs further reform to truly arrive among the upper echelons of the world elite, he believes.
"There has been much investment in infrastructure in the top universities. In some ways, however, constructing buildings is the easy part," he says. "Now the problem is the academic culture and instilling a sustainable pattern of productivity, academic freedom and governance that will contribute to better performance."