Towards Sustainable BRICS Collaboration in Education




MANY experts in higher education today continually comment on the contemporary academic revolution. These comments usually concern four main processes, which have jointly determined radical changes in today’s university environment. These processes are: massification, commercialization, globalization, and internationalization.


A Huge Educational Gap


The majority of universities in the Global South lose the race for a share of the educational market, regardless of their active participation. Those who abstain lose from the very start; those who participate find it impossible to compete with established centers of academic power, and end up losing anyway. Established reputations are never challenged, just reinforced, and this established reputation is reflected in the main global academic rankings.


Students wait for a Chinese spelling bee at the Confucius Institute of the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia.


The growing gap between the Global North and Global South forces universities in emerging economies to seek more effective strategies. The task is, however, twofold: to keep in mind problems characteristic of emerging economies; and gain their share of the global educational market through active participation in the worldwide excellence race. These tasks result in two strategies, which do not complement, but quite often contradict each other. One is implemented in various excellence projects, which aim at transforming the system of higher education according to external standards and enhancing the competitiveness of these universities by uplifting their global rankings. The other is connected with the search for an alternative to transnational educational capitalism, attempting to build horizontal ties among higher educational institutions in the Global South.


Many countries, in their attempt to catch up with established centers of academic power, implement the so-called “excellence projects” oriented at the transformation of their higher education to create world-class universities. Since, according to a well-known expert in the field, Ellen Hazelkorn, “a world-class university is a US $1-1.5 billion-a-year operation,” these countries choose to invest heavily in institutions of higher education. That is why, among the BRICS countries, since 1999, China has been spending about US $6 billion on programs devoted to the creation of world-class universities. Russia invested US $8.785 billion in its well-known 5/100 project from 2012 to 2017, which supports enhancing the “international competitiveness” of the 21 best Russian institutions of higher learning. The list of other important excellence programs worldwide include projects in Japan (US $1.1 billion), Taiwan (US $2 billion), France (US $5 billion), Malaysia, and Spain.


In spite of yielding some interesting results, however, the performance of universities in the BRICS countries in world rankings is still not impressive. Even the most successful country in this respect, China, with all its large investments, has only seven universities in the top 200 Times Higher Education (THE) rankings and eight universities in top 200 QS World University Rankings. Other BRICS countries are represented in the top 200 by only one or two universities. In contrast, the U.K. is represented by 32 universities in the THE top 200 and by 30 institutions in the QS top 200. This fact nicely illustrates the gap, which emerging economies are trying desperately to bridge with their excellence projects.


The BRICS Cooperation in Education


Arguably, a necessary move for BRICS is to address its most pressing problems through an alternative mechanism of South-South collaboration. There are several important features of this collaboration.


First, this is to be an equal and horizontal collaboration with the aim to address common challenges. Second, this is a collaboration to bring about joint development of the parties involved. As such, this collaboration seems to imply a new understanding of development. This new concept of development has been announced (even if not yet fully worked out) by the Center for BRICS Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. The concept implies a “non-zero sum game,” a win-win development based upon the principles of equality, autonomy, and sustainability. Based on this, BRICS is by no means pitted against the prevailing neo-liberal world order, but is an attempt to provide an alternative vision of world development devoid of the remnants of imperialism and colonialism.


Although BRICS is based upon pragmatic rather than normative consensus, if it is to develop and provide a real alternative vision of shaping the world, it is bound to have something to tell the world, not only in terms of sheer pragmatism, but also in terms of values. Any value framework, however, does require common educational and research areas, as well as rich cultural interactions between countries. If the BRICS project is to be taken seriously, it has to eventually cover all these aspects.


The BRICS collaboration, then, is best understood in terms of the plural modernities idea, rather than the modernization theory. Modernity is understood now as a plurality of “experiences and interpretations” (Peter Wagner) of the modern condition rather than a rigid set of institutions. Obviously, this concept also fits the idea of a multi-polar world (as different from both bi-polar and uni-polar structures of international relations).


This understanding of BRICS cooperation requires common actions in education and research. These actions should be based upon a new type of horizontal collaboration between higher education institutions in BRICS countries. Arguably, one of the most successful attempts at this is the BRICS Network University (NU). The network consists of 55 universities from all five BRICS countries, jointly implementing master’s and doctoral programmes in priority areas, including the BRICS studies, economics, water resources, IT, ecology, and energy. Signed by the ministers of education of the BRICS countries, the NU involves complex horizontal coordination mechanisms, reflecting the principles inherent in the new concept of development. In other words, all efforts have been made to ensure equality and autonomy of the participants in what should eventually become a sustainable university collaboration of the BRICS countries.


Thus, the BRICS NU does not imply the existence of a permanent secretariat or rector’s office. The president is appointed annually by the BRICS chair country, while all strategic decisions are taken collectively by the International Governing Board. Following the rules of other BRICS bodies, all decisions are taken on a consensus basis and do not utilize a voting mechanism. The complexity of the system sometimes makes the decision-making process long and difficult. There is, however, a shared understanding that only such a system really corresponds to the principles of equality and autonomy of the BRICS collaboration.


Thus, BRICS countries, in their attempt to better integrate into the world of academia, should concentrate on a horizontal network collaboration of universities, of which the BRICS Network University is a shining example.  


Maxim Khomyakov is vice-president for international affairs, and director of the BRICS Studies Center at Ural Federal University, Ekaterinburg, Russia.