International Higher Education and the BRICS: Is There An Opportunity?

BRICS, the acronym fashioned by Jim O'Neill to signify a special set of 'emerging' economies that would drive global growth, had better days. There was a time, in the immediate aftermath of the Global Credit Crisis, when these economies - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, for the uninitiated - held strong and showed promise. However, as the commodity prices and global demand slumped, the economies started fluttering; political mismanagement and corruption caught up as well. While the Russian and Brazilian economies went into recession, and South Africa teetered on the brink of Sovereign Debt crisis, China seemed to be heading to a hard landing and Indian government of the time lost the will and initiative. By 2014, people were writing obituary of the BRICS idea. Even Mr O'Neill moved on to the 'Next 11', smaller, faster growing countries, which are less diverse and politically more amenable, eventually settling down for another smart acronym - MINT - for Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey.

Call it the O'Neill curse if you like, but Mexico, Turkey and Nigeria did not have great time since the acronym came in vogue. BRICS, however, became a formal grouping of nations, with annual summits and ambitious projects, such as a BRICS Bank. Despite the difficulties, the relatively large population and size of the economies made the BRICS countries too important to ignore, for global policy-making as well as for investment decisions. Some countries did better than others:  China kept growing and proved many doomsayers wrong, and India powered ahead with its young population and expanding domestic demand. At a time when the lack of global demand seems to be the key issue for the policy-makers to focus on, the strength of the BRICS demand - current or projected - keeps the grouping relevant and provides impetus for policy coordination.

The question now is if and how this could extend to Higher Education. The case in point is the argument that the BRICS countries could benefit from the 'nationalist' turn in the Developed economies, as Bruno Morche argues in his article in the University World News. BRICS countries, along with a few other South Asian and West African countries, supply most of the students studying internationally, and this 'demand contribution' is set to go up. Of the next 100 million people reaching college by 2020, 45 million of them are likely to be in China and India, and this trend will continue for at least a decade thereafter. So, it is indeed worthwhile to explore what role BRICS could play in the next expansion of Global Higher Ed.

As is pointed out in the article above, the BRICS-to-BRICS student flow remains limited and collaboration between BRICS universities have proved rather illusory. Language difference is cited as the main reason, though a number of internationally minded universities, in all the countries but definitely in India, use English as the language of instruction and research. The point about Nationalist Turn is indeed very valid, particularly here in Britain, where the Government has actively vilified International Students, treating all of them as potentially illegal migrant and making life very difficult for anyone who may want to come and study in the UK. This has certainly impacted the number of students coming to the UK, the second most popular destination after the United States, and the number of students from India, Nigeria and Pakistan has nearly halved; however, the overall number so far held up because of a healthy growth of numbers from China, more as a consequence of enormous expansion of the number of students there. The same is likely to happen in the United States, as the Trump Administration starts its own tinkering of the immigration system. 

When the British Government systematically started dismantling the International Higher Education ecosystem in this country in its illusive quest to reign in migrant numbers in 2011 (a project that eventually reached its nadir in the Brexit vote in June 2016), I counted on this to have a positive impact on the quality and diversity of Higher Education systems of China and India, for example. The common sense logic was that once the door on migrating for education was slammed close, more aspiring students would stay local and look for better education at home. My other assumption, which I bet my career on, was that this would mean a proliferation of online and other modes of education towards a British qualification. The argument that the Nationalist Turn would mean an expansion of BRICS-to-BRICS exchange and collaboration is based on somewhat similar view of the world.

However, as I learnt over the last few years, my straightforward assumptions were certainly too simplistic. I overlooked, for example, the crucial role that the domestic regulatory structures play. Often, the BRICS countries have an intrusive regulatory structure built around punitive measures, which discourage change and innovation. Also, these economies are often starved of expertise, as the more able researchers and teachers often move abroad. The 'nationalist turn' in Britain did not impact the quality of India's Higher Ed, as I had hoped, despite its huge expansion around the same time. Its immediate impact was in the growing influence of some of the regional hubs, such as Singapore and Malaysia, but also increasingly Dubai and Mauritius, which saw a growth in International student numbers (as well as Indian students choosing Canada more than before, and Australia, which lost ground after 2008, regaining some popularity).

Coming back to the issue of flow of students among the BRICS countries, one may think that a similar pattern will hold. The nationalist turn in developed countries would perhaps make the universities in the UK and USA less cosmopolitan, but this would not be directly offset by a BRICS to BRICS flow. Rather, the impact would be more complex and diverse, with regional hubs emerging - and China indeed is already a Regional Hub and India wants to be one. 

However, at the same time, BRICS to BRICS flow may represent an opportunity at an institutional strategy level. The International Higher Education, so far, has mostly been a 'metropolitan' affair, with a few countries attracting most of the globally mobile students, but this model is facing a severe disruption right now. While BRICS may not represent a relevant category in policy terms in this context - the countries are simply too diverse - as an accepted category in Global Economic terms, it may still be possible for individual institutions to build attractive programmes and partnerships around BRICS. Despite the diversity, there is some commonality across the BRICS nations - they are big, diverse, ambitious and populous nations - and they represent a certain category in global economic and political thinking, which students can engage in, with profit. So while I do not necessarily see a tremendous opportunity of BRICS Higher Education, I believe this makes abundant sense for institutions to look at this as an emergent opportunity.


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