Brics still finding building blocks

January 1, 1990
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Phil Baty on the patchy performance of the big four developing nations in this year’s rankings

The World University Rankings top 200 is unquestionably a rich-world list, dominated by the economic powerhouses of the US, the UK and Western Europe, whose universities – at least until the economic crisis – have been generously supported.

But Times Higher Education’s “best of the rest” list, naming those institutions that fall between 200th and 400th place in the world, offer powerful insights into the position and prospects of developing nations – notably the “Bric” nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), which have prioritised the construction of world-class universities as the key to economic growth.

In all, representatives of 26 countries make the world top 200 – but a further 14 are included in the 200-400 group.

A key feature of the list is the performance of India. In February, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned: “Too many of our higher education institutions are simply not up to the mark. Too many of them have not kept abreast with changes that have taken place in the world around us.”

Singh added: “It is a sobering thought that not one Indian university figures in the top 200 universities of the world today.”

In May, THE and its rankings data provider Thomson Reuters were invited by India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development, its Planning Commission and the British Council to a “national policy dialogue” on rankings and research evaluation.

Speaking at the meeting, Ashok Thakur, secretary of the Department of Higher Education, said that in the past, when faced with criticism about India’s failure to feature in the world rankings, the domestic response had been too defensive, with politicians and university leaders complaining that the criteria employed by the league tables were irrelevant to India’s national priorities.

“We cannot hide behind that excuse,” he said. “We must play the same game the rest of the world is playing. We need not be shy about it.”

His colleague Shashi Tharoor, minister of state for human resource development, added: “Times Higher Education is widely seen as the principal yardstick we should look to.”

It seems that the message is filtering through. Although no Indian university makes this year’s top 200, five institutions from the country are included in the 200-400 tables – up from three last year.

This increased representation is partly a result of improved engagement with the THE rankings project. Three institutions are listed this year simply because they chose to submit their data to Thomson Reuters for the first time. The first new entry, Panjab University, makes it into the 226-250 band (India’s closest to the top 200). It is followed by four of the specialist Indian institutes of technology, which all appear in the 351-400 cohort: IIT Delhi and IIT Kanpur join IIT Kharagpur and IIT Roorkee, which both featured last year.

Pawan Agarwal, an adviser on higher education to the Planning Commission, says that amid the huge expansion of India’s academy, there is also a concerted drive to improve quality, which gives cause for optimism in term of the rankings.

“As higher education in India expands to meet rapidly growing demand, there is an overriding focus on quality,” he adds. “Accreditation has been made mandatory for all institutions, for which new agencies are being set up and the capacity of existing ones is being enhanced. A system of academic performance indicators has been institutionalised to build a strong performance culture among academics.”

He says that 21 institutions “with potential for excellence” have been earmarked and will have their public funding more than doubled. There is also a “special thrust” to improve the country’s science base, with more money for existing institutions plus the creation of five Indian institutes of science, education and research – well-funded institutions designed to replicate the success of the IITs in engineering and technology, but this time in basic science.

“Finally, a system of research evaluation is being put in place,” Agarwal says. “This would bring in selectivity in research funding for about 100 preselected research-intensives to create a competitive landscape for high-end research and promote effective collaboration.”

He concludes: “With all these measures, the country’s research performance, which has shown an upswing in recent years, is sure to improve. And it is only a matter of time before all this leads to more Indian universities showing up in the global rankings. Greater awareness and better visibility would perhaps drive more participation and engagement, and see further success for Indian universities at the global level.”

Far less visible in the rankings is the Russian Federation.

Like India, Russia has an explicit mission to boost its position in the rankings: indeed, a decree from President Vladimir Putin demands that five Russian institutions make the world top 100 list by 2020.

There is still some way to go.

This year, Russia has only one player in the top 400 list: its flagship, the Lomonosov Moscow State University, which has slipped from the 201-225 group into the 226-250 band. It should be noted that two more high-performing Russian institutions would comfortably make the world top 300 but are excluded from the overall rankings for being too narrowly focused.

However, the two find places in the subject-specific tables: the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology takes joint 63rd place (with Moscow State) in the physical sciences ranking, followed by the National Research Nuclear University (MEPhI) in 74th position.

Marina V. Larionova, head of the International Organisations Research Institute at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow, says that the presidential decree “defined enhancing universities’ competitiveness as one of the key higher education developmental objectives in the ever-changing competitive global environment. Entering the top 100 is mentioned as an indication of competitiveness.”

She adds: “This is yet more proof that however imperfect, rankings provide an indication of an institution’s place within the global context.”

To help Russian universities achieve Putin’s target, a number of initiatives are under way – backed by an investment of some Rb9 billion (£175 million) to cover the period 2013 to 2020.

“This year, the Ministry of Education and Science held a tender to support leading Russian universities in developing and implementing strategies to become leading world universities,” says Larionova, who is also head of international programmes at Russia’s National Training Federation.

Selection was based on a range of factors, including the ratio of PhD candidates to overall students, the number of full-time students supported by the federal budget, research expenditure, the proportion of foreign students and the number of research publications in leading journal databases.

In July, 15 institutions from 54 applications were selected for special support.

Larionova says: “The project will support action plans, which include: measures to attract researchers and management staff with experience of work in leading foreign and Russian universities and research organisations; academic mobility programmes; new PhD programmes; joint bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes; plus fundamental research and applied research carried out in partnership with leading high-tech organisations.”

She adds: “For the Russian government, support to help higher education engage globally is essential. The problem is that this strategy tends to concentrate resources on selected universities, raising the thorny issue of stratification in the country, exacerbating the divide between ‘flagship’ and ‘second-tier’ universities. There is a fundamental issue of equity at stake, a cause for concern for the academic community and society at large.”

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, performance remains patchy. The Czech Republic’s sole representative, Charles University in Prague, falls from the 301-350 to the 351-400 group; Estonia’s University of Tartu holds firm in the 351-400 bracket; while Poland’s University of Warsaw has moved from the 351-400 to the 301-350 cohort.

One of the big surprises of the 2013-14 World University Rankings is Brazil’s absence from the top 200 list. The University of São Paulo had been making strong progress, rising 20 places to joint 158th place in 2012-13, but this year it has plummeted into the 226-250 band as a result of lower research impact and reputation scores. Its São Paulo state counterpart, the State University of Campinas, has also lost ground, slipping from the 251-275 band into the 301-350 cohort.

However, despite these slip-ups, Luiz Cláudio Costa, president of Brazil’s National Institute for Educational Studies and Research and head of quality evaluation for the Brazilian Ministry of Education, says the country is moving quickly to improve its standing in the rankings.

He points to the results of Sinaes, a national system established in 2004 to evaluate all of Brazil’s higher institutions on an annual basis, as proof that standards are rising.

“The results show that the quality of Brazilian higher education has increased significantly in recent years,” he says.

Costa also argues that the Science without Borders programme – which is expected to provide 101,000 undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships for domestic students to study abroad over four years and to encourage traffic in the other direction – is allowing “Brazil to meet one of its shortcomings – the internationalisation of its higher education”.

He adds: “Moreover, it is noteworthy that Brazil is ranked as the 13th producer of new knowledge in the world, contributing to about 2.7 per cent of indexed scientific output. In addition, investment in science, technology and innovation in Brazil has increased considerably in the past decade. We aim to increase the resources allocated to the sector from 1.16 per cent of gross domestic product in 2010 to 1.8 per cent by 2014.”

Colombia is the only other South American country represented in the rankings, although the University of the Andes, its sole player, has risen impressively from the 351-400 cohort to the 251-275 group – one of the most improved performances in the tables – thanks largely to its gains in research income and impact.

As China has only two institutions in the world top 200 list, its longer-term prospects may be better assessed by looking at the 200-400 group, where it has eight representatives.

The two institutions closest to the top table are Fudan University and the University of Science and Technology of China, which both remain static in the 201-225 group. Renmin University of China moves to the 226-250 cohort from the 301-350 group last year, and Wuhan University of Technology joins the top 400, rising into the 301-350 band. Nanjing University (251-275) and Zhejiang University (301-350) hold their positions.

Elsewhere in China, there is less good news: Shanghai Jiao Tong University falls outside the top 300, declining from 276-300 to 301-350. Another to fall is Sun Yat-sen University, which slips into the 351-400 group.

So why has China not progressed further, given the huge resources at the disposal of its institutions and a state-backed drive to build world-class universities?

“It is not just about funding,” says Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. “It is about autonomy for academics; it is about effective governance that is much less bureaucratic and top-down than is the pattern in China; it is about full meritocracy; it is about a spirit of cooperation; it is about ending the common practice of academic inbreeding (ie, hiring one’s own graduates). The mix of these and other elements constitute the academic culture in China.”

He warns: “China has a way to go in terms of developing a vibrant and effective academic culture in its top research universities.”

Martin Carnoy, professor of education at Stanford University, has been studying the fortunes of the Bric countries’ higher education systems for University Expansion in a Changing Global Economy: Triumph of the BRICS?, a book he has co-authored.

“There is little doubt that the engineers, scientists, doctors and even economists graduating with BA degrees from the top 10 to 15 institutions in the Bric countries are competitive with those graduating from the top 20 US institutions, even if the former are not in the top 100 or 200 in the world rankings,” he says.

“The rankings are based mainly on publications in English language journals, not on the quality of the subject matter learned by the students nor on how good the students are in maths and science, or even in creative writing. That said, the quality of the PhDs earned in the Brics, even in the top institutions, is generally lower than in the US, because the quality is highly dependent on research facilities and the quality of research done by faculty.”

He stresses that when it comes to the Brics’ future strength in the knowledge economy, world-ranked institutions are just one part of a much bigger picture, with success in innovation not directly tied to success in the rankings.

“There may be a strong sense that it is the quality of graduate degrees that drives new knowledge creation and economic growth, but others believe that it is the cultural and financial environment that drives such creativity and harnesses it into new economic activity,” Carnoy says.

“Both Brazil and China are putting much more money into research and development than Russia and India, so even if the last two have some of the best trained and most creative engineers and scientists, there is little financial support to turn their creativity into new products and services.”

He points out that Finland and Israel, which do not have a single university in the THE top 100, are ranked first and fourth in the world (the US and Japan are second and third) in the Martin Prosperity Institute’s Global Creativity Index, which ranks countries according to innovation and technology.

“World-class universities are just one element in making a nation an innovation leader,” he argues.

Phil Baty is editor, Times Higher Education Rankings.


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