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BRIC Realities: The Need for Academic Culture
November 9, 2011 - 9:33pm

Recent research concerning higher education in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, China, India) reflects as many differences as there are in economic models and cultures But one similarity among these emerging economic powerhouses is the urgent need to improve academic culture. All four countries aspire to being recognized as home to world-class research-focused universities, but this class of institution requires a vibrant, merit-based academic culture. 

What do we mean? World-class universities need to guarantee certain conditions for academic work—including teaching, research, and service to the university and society—that ensure high levels of productivity and performance and this in turn, means circumstances to make these characteristics possible. Some elements of academic cultures are inherent in the ethos of the profession, while others depend on the organization of work determined by the university and often by external authorities.

Two of the four countries, China and Russia, offer academics low basic salaries—less than what is required for a middle-class lifestyle in the country. As a result, academics are forced to find other sources of income from within the universities or externally. Some teach extra classes at their home institutions or at other schools, often private, for-profit institutions. Others manage to obtain research grants to supplement their incomes. Some do consulting or pursue non-academic employment. In all cases, the need for extra remuneration detracts from their basic commitment to the university, research and their students. The other two countries, India and (to some extent) Brazil, offer sufficient salaries for most academics but with weak incentives to encourage a high level of performance.

What are the needs in each of the countries?

For Russia, still emerging from the rigidities and controls of the Soviet era, (many elements remain visible in today’s Russia) and from the dislocations of the immediate post-Soviet period, building an effective academic culture remains a significant challenge. Russia has no tenure system, thus depriving academics of a system that guarantees academic freedom and job security, but at the same time few are fired. In a way, this is the worst of possibilities as there are few incentives to take risks and excel.

The academic profession in China faces significant challenges. Low salaries, high levels of bureaucracy, and the lack of tenure are standard in most Chinese universities. Chinese universities that have benefited from the generous funding given to the elite institutions offer more academic freedom and better conditions for academic work generally and, as a result, are developing effective academic cultures. The gap between these elite institutions and the rest is producing an increasingly hierarchical higher education system where academic freedoms and opportunities vary widely.

Changes to academic culture at Brazil’s public universities are in many ways limited by the powerful influence of unions that have resisted incentives to change including differentiated pay based on performance.  Unions can also inhibit faculty engagement and collaboration with the private sector or other sources of external funding.  Like China, several well-financed public universities are building stronger academic cultures but these universities represent a small of the higher education system.

India provides decent salaries that permit a middle-class life-style for academics and reasonable job security but the entire system is beset by bureaucracy. Undergraduate colleges that account for the vast majority of the academic profession are highly regulated and provide little latitude for innovation. More hopeful are the conditions for academic work within university departments that provide graduate degrees where there is considerably more autonomy.

None of the four countries offers academic staff much mobility among institutions. Only a tiny elite at the top of the system might have the opportunity to see academic employment at another domestic or international university. And all institutions suffer from a significant degree of inbreeding — hiring academic staff who have earned advanced degrees and often their bachelors degree from that institution.

Academic culture as it is shaped by the terms and conditions of academic work is central to successful institutions and to an effective higher education system. The four BRICs are struggling, in different ways, to create effective cultures that will promote good teaching, top research, and an academic community that contributes its best to the university.  For the moment, “healthy” academic cultures are developing in only a few institutions in each of the BRIC countries.  We can only hope that this is a model to be imitated more broadly in the near future. 


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