Building blocs

January 1, 1990

In the global academic market there is strength in numbers, observes Maxim Khomyakov

I often recall David Lodge’s image of our small world as a single campus when I hear talks on internationalisation: it is not just the good old global Republic of Letters, which already existed in the 17th century, nor simply a global unity of knowledge and science. It is exactly a global campus, with students, teachers, scholars and scientists moving from one place to another. It is also, of course, a business, comparable to any other great international market, such as for oil, arms or steel.

It is not surprising, then, that the global campus has certain centres of power that attract most of the resources and that globally circulating minds are free to choose the centres in which they can comfortably live and work. It is quite understandable that contemporary academia is based upon a simple maxim: do whatever you can to create as many effective international collaborations as possible. After all, articles written with international colleagues are cited much more frequently and academic reputation depends very much upon established collaborations.

Arguably, networks play an increasingly important part in these processes. Various foundations and programmes (including the European Commission’s Horizon 2020) nowadays prefer to sponsor international consortia, not just research projects initiated in the framework of bilateral agreements, for example. So it is only natural that countries excluded from the main educational market that are ambitious enough to try to get their share of it are keen to form new associations.

Take, for example, Russian universities. Their graduates are visible in major science and technology departments all over the world, but the institutions lag behind many rivals in the developed (and even the developing) world in all the major global academic rankings.

The reasons for this are numerous. They include: foreign students’ inability to cope with advanced mathematics in Russian universities (as I have often been informed by prominent deans of maths faculties); the reluctance of Russian professors to publish in English; the conservatism of Russian academia; and the biases of international methods for establishing institutional primacy.

It is the need to raise their international profile, to seize their share of the global educational market and (slightly less cynically) to be better integrated into global academia that seems responsible for the eagerness of many emerging economies to develop international university consortia and educational networks.

The Ural Federal University is, for example, a member of almost a dozen networks and consortia, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Commonwealth of Independent States network, the University of the Arctic network (even though it is not really situated in the region) and the Association of Sino-Russian Technical Universities.

One might suggest that the SCO personifies the struggle between Russia and China for access to central Asian educational markets, or that it is little more than a tool for providing free places in Russia for students from the region. All this is true, but still, the SCO today is the only network outside the European Union that is based on the complete set of all possible intergovernmental agreements and university contracts: curricula are compared and agreed upon; disciplines of common interest are identified; partner universities are chosen. This year, Kazakhstan began to allocate places to students from SCO partner universities, and China took a more active position by organising a number of network events.

But while Russia and China are prominent SCO members and India is an associate, there is a growing sense of common ground among all the larger emerging economies, the so-called “BRICS” nations: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Rather than a formal organisation, BRICS is just a general club of countries with vague desires to become something more. But its members do share concerns about the international profile of their education systems and are committed to working together to advance their interests.

That is why in Shanghai in July, several leading Russian and Chinese universities signed an agreement to create a BRICS university league and organise a founding conference for the network. Representatives of Indian, Brazilian and South African institutions were present, too, but were not ready to sign up at that stage.

The signatories expressed concerns about their position in the global rankings and think they will be able to enhance their performance through wide-scale collaboration between member universities. Of course, they have a long way to go. One can only hope that this road will lead them to a bigger share of our small academic world’s global campus.

Maxim Khomyakov is vice-rector (international affairs) of Ural Federal University, Russia.

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