Fam­ily mat­ters: do Com­mon­wealth col­lab­o­ra­tions hold the key to the UK’s postBrexit re­search fu­ture?

Should the UK fail to retain its EU part­ner­ships postBrexit, could the Com­mon­wealth be­come a vi­able source of re­search net­works? At the very least, Brexit presents an op­por­tu­nity to strengthen old bonds through greater in­tra-Com­mon­wealth col­lab­o­ra­tion, wr

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

One of the mantras of those who sup­port the UK’s with­drawal from the Euro­pean Union has been that the coun­try has a ready-made al­ter­na­tive global net­work to tap into for trade, col­lab­o­ra­tion and other ben­e­fits: the Com­mon­wealth.

But, with a lit­tle over a year to go un­til “Brexit Day”, could this un­de­ni­ably di­verse col­lec­tion of 52 na­tions re­ally of­fer an al­ter­na­tive to the huge pool of tal­ent and re­sources right on the coun­try’s doorstep when it comes to higher ed­u­ca­tion and re­search? Or is the Com­mon­wealth ac­tu­ally more use­ful for build­ing the ca­pac­ity of emerg­ing na­tions?

Such ques­tions are likely to form part of the back­ground to dis­cus­sions at the lat­est Con­fer­ence of Com­mon­wealth Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ters, tak­ing place in Fiji this month, ahead of the Com­mon­wealth Heads of Gov­ern­ment Meet­ing – the first since the Brexit vote – in Lon­don in April.

To mark these events, Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion has an­a­lysed the data on higher ed­u­ca­tion in the Com­mon­wealth to as­sess the cur­rent stand­ing of the na­tions’ uni­ver­si­ties, how they are col­lab­o­rat­ing and whether their com­mon ties of lan­guage and cul­ture pro­vide a ba­sis for even greater links in the 21st cen­tury.

Although they make up only a small pro­por­tion of all higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions in mem­ber na­tions, the Com­mon­wealth uni­ver­si­ties in the THE World Univer­sity Rank­ings make up nearly a quar­ter of the 1,000-strong list. And while more than half of all Com­mon­wealth in­sti­tu­tions in the rank­ing are from the UK (93), Aus­tralia (35) or Canada (26), the data still pro­vide a good start­ing point for as­sess­ing key char­ac­ter­is­tics of Com­mon­wealth uni­ver­si­ties.

Com­par­ing their scores across the five main “pil­lars” that con­sti­tute the rank­ing – teach­ing, re­search, ci­ta­tion im­pact, in­dus­try in­come and in­ter­na­tional out­look – with the rest of

the world gives some in­trigu­ing ini­tial re­sults.

Com­mon­wealth uni­ver­si­ties have a slightly bet­ter over­all points score than the rest of the world and also en­joy a lead in terms of ci­ta­tion im­pact, a proxy for re­search qual­ity. How­ever, their lead on in­ter­na­tional out­look is much more sig­nif­i­cant, and they outscore the US, the rest of the EU and the ma­jor emerg­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem of China (see graph 1).

For Joanna New­man, sec­re­tary gen­eral of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ties, such in­di­ca­tors re­flect deep ties that the na­tions’ uni­ver­si­ties have shared for decades, en­abling the flow of stu­dents, staff and ideas. These in­clude ob­vi­ous com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics such as the use of English, but also fac­tors such as sim­i­lar ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems that pro­duce mu­tu­ally recog­nis­able qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

“It ab­so­lutely re­flects the unique na­ture of the Com­mon­wealth’s long his­tory of col­lab­o­ra­tion and… shared val­ues, net­works, re­la­tion­ships, law, lan­guage and qual­i­fi­ca­tions,” says New­man. “There are decades’ worth of aca­demics who have trav­elled to re­ceive their ed­u­ca­tion from one Com­mon­wealth coun­try or an­other. It is much eas­ier to travel across the Com­mon­wealth be­cause you’re speak­ing the same lan­guage and your de­grees are recog­nised.”

New­man points out that the links are fur­ther en­hanced by grad­u­ates re­turn­ing home, main­tain­ing ties with their univer­sity and de­vel­op­ing them as they fur­ther their ca­reers. This can fos­ter im­por­tant links across many dif­fer­ent sec­tors, in­clud­ing pol­i­tics and in­dus­try. But it has par­tic­u­larly clear ben­e­fits for academia and re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to data taken from El­se­vier’s Sco­pus data­base of pub­lished re­search – which al­lows an anal­y­sis of sta­tis­tics un­der­ly­ing more in­sti­tu­tions than those in the rank­ings – the share of schol­ar­ship pro­duced in the Com­mon­wealth that in­cludes in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion is very sim­i­lar to the share pro­duced in the EU (here the UK is in­cluded in both groups), and has also been grow­ing at a sim­i­lar rate. How­ever, in terms of pure re­search vol­ume, the Com­mon­wealth is a fair way be­hind the EU: be­tween 2012 and 2016 the for­mer pro­duced about 2.9 mil­lion pieces of re­search com­pared with the EU’s 4.3 mil­lion (the US on its own also had a higher out­put of 3.2 mil­lion) – see graph 2.

Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, the list of the na­tions in the group pro­duc­ing the most re­search be­tween 2012 and 2016 is headed by the UK, but India grew its out­put over the pe­riod by al­most 37 per cent, leav­ing clear water be­tween it and the na­tions in third and fourth place for vol­ume, Canada and Aus­tralia (see graph 3).

But what is col­lab­o­ra­tion like within the Com­mon­wealth, and are links within the bloc as im­por­tant to its mem­bers as, say, con­nec­tions with lead­ing world re­search pow­ers out­side it?

On in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion, India is a long way be­hind not just the de­vel­oped Com­mon­wealth na­tions but also emerg­ing re­search na­tions with large vol­umes of schol­ar­ship, such as Malaysia, South Africa and Nige­ria. For in­stance, in 2016, al­most 48 per cent of re­search with a South African au­thor had at least one over­seas co-au­thor. In India, the fig­ure was 16 per cent (see graph 4).

Dig­ging deeper into the data re­veals some very in­ter­est­ing pat­terns. Ex­cept for India, emerg­ing Com­mon­wealth coun­tries in the top 10 for out­put tend to col­lab­o­rate with more Com­mon­wealth coun­tries than the de­vel­oped Com­mon­wealth na­tions do. For in­stance, four out of the top 10 col­lab­o­ra­tors with South Africa and Malaysia are from the Com­mon­wealth and, for Nige­ria, this fig­ure is six. The UK and Canada have just two col­lab­o­ra­tors from the Com­mon­wealth in their top 10s, and Aus­tralia has three (nat­u­rally, all three of these coun­tries fig­ure highly among each other’s col­lab­o­ra­tors. The ex­tra coun­try with which Aus­tralia of­ten col­lab­o­rates is New Zealand).

For Malaysian aca­demics, Aus­tralian and UK re­searchers are the top over­seas col­lab­o­ra­tive part­ners, but for all other Com­mon­wealth na­tions that pro­duced more than 30,000 pub­li­ca­tions be­tween 2012 and 2016, the top col­lab­o­ra­tor is the US (see graph 5, over­leaf).

Of the es­tab­lished re­search na­tions, Aus­tralia has the strong­est links with its Com­mon­wealth part­ners. Its col­lab­o­ra­tions with the

There is no mileage in the UK cut­ting its im­por­tant re­search links to its near neigh­bours, and any strength­en­ing of the Com­mon­wealth should take place at the same time as main­tain­ing links with the EU

UK ac­count for the largest num­ber of papers co-pro­duced by Com­mon­wealth na­tions (see graph 6, over­leaf). Canada’s col­lab­o­ra­tive out­put is, un­sur­pris­ingly, dom­i­nated by its near neigh­bour, the US (ac­count­ing for 21 per cent of all its cross-bor­der re­search), while the UK’s ties to both Europe and the US are very clear.

For Si­mon Mar­gin­son, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Global Higher Ed­u­ca­tion at the UCL In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion, there is “no doubt that the Com­mon­wealth is an um­brella that fos­ters re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion, and has pos­i­tive de­vel­op­men­tal im­pli­ca­tions for emerg­ing coun­tries”.

How­ever, while links to other Com­mon­wealth na­tions such as the UK, Aus­tralia, Sin­ga­pore and India are a “boon” of mem­ber­ship for emerg­ing na­tions such as Malaysia and Nige­ria, they also carry dan­gers, es­pe­cially if their reliance on such con­nec­tions “leads to a nar­row set of global links in the long run. Re­search is a global sys­tem and it’s im­por­tant to keep lines out to all the es­tab­lished play­ers… new stars… and other emerg­ing sys­tems”.

And while some in the UK might point to the Com­mon­wealth as a ready-made source of re­search net­works to re­place ex­ist­ing links with Euro­pean in­sti­tu­tions, should the UK fail to ne­go­ti­ate the con­tin­u­ing ac­cess to the EU’s re­search pro­grammes that it wants post-Brexit, Mar­gin­son thinks that tak­ing this at­ti­tude would be “un­wise… not only be­cause the scale [of the Com­mon­wealth] is smaller [but also be­cause] the UK gains more in terms of qual­ity and world com­pet­i­tive­ness by net­work­ing with peers or near peers in Europe than with emerg­ing coun­tries”.

New­man also em­pha­sises that there is no mileage in the UK cut­ting its im­por­tant re­search links to its near neigh­bours, and that any strength­en­ing of the Com­mon­wealth should take place at the same time as main­tain­ing links with the EU.

But she agrees that Brexit has pre­sented an

op­por­tu­nity for greater in­tra-Com­mon­wealth col­lab­o­ra­tion, not least be­cause the UK “will be warmer to­wards col­lab­o­rat­ing [in] and fund­ing pro­grammes. It is clearly in the UK’s in­ter­est to col­lab­o­rate and strengthen higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems in emerg­ing coun­tries that will have pow­er­ful re­search in­sti­tu­tions in the fu­ture”. She adds that the geo­graphic spread of the Com­mon­wealth has made it the “most di­verse bloc of coun­tries across the world”, some­thing that, in terms of re­search power, could en­able it to “be as pow­er­ful as the EU, or even more pow­er­ful, in years to come”.

One way that the UK has al­ready been us­ing its in­flu­ence to help emerg­ing coun­tries de­velop their re­search ca­pac­ity is through the Global Chal­lenges Re­search Fund, the five-year £1.5 bil­lion pro­gramme that uses money ear­marked for in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment to fund re­search projects with the de­vel­op­ing world. One of its stated aims is to help “strengthen ca­pac­ity for re­search and in­no­va­tion” in de­vel­op­ing na­tions and, although it is not con­fined to Com­mon­wealth coun­tries, much of the money will in­evitably help na­tions within the net­work be­cause of es­tab­lished aca­demic links.

How­ever, many ques­tion whether the fund is a good way to in­crease re­search ca­pac­ity in the de­vel­op­ing world, given that all the fund­ing is di­rected by the UK. Ben Prasadam-Halls, di­rec­tor of pro­grammes at the ACU, says that while the fund is a “great pro­gramme” it may have the po­ten­tial to “crowd out” col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the de­vel­op­ing na­tions them­selves. And Mar­gin­son points out that “col­lab­o­ra­tion de­vel­ops best when the agency of all part­ners is grow­ing, in shared schemes in which all coun­tries have nom­i­nal equiv­a­lence, like the Euro­pean re­search pro­grammes, rather than de­pen­dency re­la­tion­ships set­ting the scene”.

The Lon­don School of Hy­giene and Trop­i­cal Medicine is an in­sti­tu­tion with more ex­pe­ri­ence than most of fos­ter­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween na­tions in the de­vel­op­ing world. It has also just taken on an even more hands-on role by as­sum­ing man­age­ment of Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil re­search units in the Gam­bia (which has just re­joined the Com­mon­wealth) and

Col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween uni­ver­si­ties in the Com­mon­wealth is very im­por­tant be­cause it en­ables re­searchers to tri­an­gu­late their find­ings with those of their col­leagues, mak­ing the re­search richer and more com­pre­hen­sive

Uganda. Anne Mills, deputy di­rec­tor of the school, says that one ob­sta­cle is the some­times clash­ing “agen­das” that of­ten lie be­hind West­ern na­tions’ fund­ing pro­grammes to boost de­vel­op­ing world re­search.

“This can lead to a po­si­tion that is very frag­mented and [where] ca­pac­ity is…made rather more dif­fi­cult to sus­tain by all these com­pet­ing flows of fund­ing into the coun­try,” she says.

Mills points to at­tempts by fun­ders such as the Well­come Trust to shift to­wards a model whereby money is man­aged within Africa rather than through a “top down” ap­proach. How­ever, she adds that although the Global Chal­lenges Re­search Fund presents a “huge chal­lenge of al­lo­ca­tion and co­or­di­na­tion”, this was “recog­nised” on the UK side. “We’ll just have to see how suc­cess­ful the co­or­di­na­tion mech­a­nisms are go­ing to be,” she adds.

Ac­cord­ing to the ACU, a key is­sue that will be ex­plored in Fiji is how to strengthen re­search links be­tween some of the uni­ver­si­ties in emerg­ing coun­tries that have been af­fected most acutely by cli­mate change and by nat­u­ral dis­as­ters such as the hur­ri­canes that wrought de­struc­tion in the Car­ib­bean last year.

Alex Wright, se­nior pol­icy of­fi­cer at the ACU, who is help­ing with its work for Fiji,

says that such a re­search net­work would fo­cus “on the adap­ta­tion and ap­pli­ca­tion of re­search” and how “uni­ver­si­ties can play a tan­gi­ble role in help­ing com­mu­ni­ties and economies pre­pare and re­spond to cli­mate events”. This is a “good ex­am­ple of how the Com­mon­wealth can build re­ally con­crete col­lab­o­ra­tions” be­tween smaller, emerg­ing re­search na­tions that also have a “unique take on a global is­sue”, he adds.

But what do in­sti­tu­tions in these smaller and emerg­ing Com­mon­wealth coun­tries see as the best ways to help them in­crease re­search ca­pac­ity and mu­tual links? Barn­abas Nawangwe, vice-chan­cel­lor of Uganda’s Mak­erere Univer­sity, one of the most suc­cess­ful re­search in­sti­tu­tions in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa, says that the Com­mon­wealth is well placed to help grow re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion in sev­eral ways. These in­clude travel grants to en­able re­searchers to move be­tween Com­mon­wealth coun­tries, funds for “multi-coun­try re­search projects on is­sues of com­mon con­cern” and con­fer­ences on spe­cific themes.

He em­pha­sises that col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween uni­ver­si­ties in the Com­mon­wealth is “very im­por­tant” be­cause it en­ables re­searchers to use the “unique” fea­tures of the dif­fer­ent coun­tries to “their find­ings with those of their col­leagues, mak­ing the re­search richer and more com­pre­hen­sive”.

Dhan­jay Jhurry, vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Mau­ri­tius, who sits on the ACU’s gov­ern­ing coun­cil, also sug­gests that “the de­vel­op­ment of re­search con­sor­tia” linked to spe­cific is­sues is a good step for­ward in terms of in­creas­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Com­mon­wealth in­sti­tu­tions. “There is also a need for en­hanced tech­nol­ogy trans­fer in the less de­vel­oped world, which the Com­mon­wealth could help de­velop”, he adds, per­haps through aid­ing the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of re­search find­ings.

Jhurry ac­knowl­edges that the move­ment of stu­dents and aca­demic staff is al­ready fa­cil­i­tated by ACU pro­grammes, in­clud­ing the Com­mon­wealth Schol­ar­ship and Fel­low­ship Plan, es­tab­lished by Com­mon­wealth ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ters at their first con­fer­ence in 1959 to sup­port grad­u­ate stu­dents. But he adds that what may be needed now is a Com­mon­wealth “mech­a­nism” for fund­ing re­search part­ner­ships, sug­gest­ing that “the EU model could be em­u­lated”.

But the prospects of a pan-Com­mon­wealth re­search fund­ing scheme seem re­mote. One bone of con­tention would be the dis­tri­bu­tion of a fund­ing pot to which the UK, Canada and Aus­tralia would pre­sum­ably be ex­pected to con­tribute the most.

Mar­gin­son points out that the much greater re­search prow­ess of the UK means that although there would be “gains to be made” for the coun­try “through stronger links with par­tic­u­lar re­search pro­grammes in par­tic­u­lar Com­mon­wealth na­tions, there’s limited scope for the kind of col­lab­o­ra­tion that drives im­proved per­for­mance on a macro-scale”.

On the pos­i­tive side, though, he adds that build­ing ad­di­tional Com­mon­wealth links would not take long “be­cause of cul­tural com­mon ground and shared bi­ogra­phies. Many Com­mon­wealth re­searchers have been ed­u­cated in UK uni­ver­si­ties or spent sig­nif­i­cant time in them”.

And, for New­man, there is cer­tainly “an op­por­tu­nity…to cre­ate new re­search funds be­tween [Com­mon­wealth] coun­tries that have sig­nif­i­cant re­search fund­ing of their own...and there is a clear in­ter­est in do­ing so, I think, for most of those coun­tries”.

She hints that the UK will have a chance to cre­ate the mo­men­tum on such ini­tia­tives once it takes over the two-year chair­man­ship of the Com­mon­wealth at the Lon­don con­fer­ence. And if the UK does fail to se­cure con­tin­u­ing ac­cess to EU frame­work pro­grammes, an al­ter­na­tive scheme in­volv­ing the likes of Canada, Aus­tralia and New Zealand may be­come very ap­peal­ing – even if it could never amount to a full re­place­ment.

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