March 3, 2024


The first university in the world was founded in Fez (Morocco) in 859 and was followed by the University of al-Azhar (Egypt). However, in the mistaken eyes of Westerners, it was not born until 1088 in Bologna (Italy). Centuries later, the campuses expanded at the same time as colonialism, always with a very Eurocentric vision; but that time of naveling is long behind us. The United States is the superpower and not only Southeast Asia and Australia support their economic progress in science, but India, Africa or South America knock on the door and do not want tutelage at their University. EL PAÍS has obtained the opinion of eight renowned academic figures on this new board in which Europe is trying to relocate itself. It was during the Reinventing Higher Education 2023 meeting, held in Cape Town (South Africa), that this newspaper was invited by IE University, organizer of the meeting with universities from the five continents.

The Shanghai ranking, created by the Chinese government in 2003 to map the quality of the world’s universities before granting scholarships abroad to their researchers, reflects the strong competition. The United States leads in the top positions, but in two decades it has gone from placing 58 institutions among the hundred best to 39 last year, while the British position eight (one less) and Japan deflates (from five to two). In parallel, Australia gains strength (from two to seven institutions), China, Singapore and South Korea emerge ―going from zero to nine, two and one universities, respectively― and other countries remain (Germany with five, the Netherlands and Sweden with three or Israel with two).

“How should Africa and what is called the global south interact with countries that have a colonial tradition? That is the elephant in the room (ignored truth)”, says Martin Paul, rector of the Ruhr University of Bochum (Germany). “There is a development aid model in which governments basically look out for their interests, it is postcolonialism. But a game changer is taking place; We have asked our partners in Africa what issues they are interested in and we work on that”, continues Paul. His prestigious university is characterized by hosting many refugees and seeking the full integration of immigrants. “We should not only accept students from those countries, but also send our own,” continues Paul, who was formerly rector of the University of Maastricht (the Netherlands).

Does it make sense that African university students study Kant and not their own philosophy? “We have to redefine ourselves. Most of the African universities were designed when we had colonial masters who wanted to have a very cheaply educated middle class. As of today, that doesn’t work. So we are trying to find out, first of all, what are our challenges”, explains Angela Owusu-Ansah, Chancellor of Ashesi University (Ghana). “In the global north they investigate how to get to space; but we are investigating how to use the plastics from the garbage as asphalt on the roads, which is cheaper”. Owusu-Ansah argues that Su-Saharan Africa “has to make sure that courses and programs are relevant and with different leadership” to achieve the change they want for their countries in 10 years. The first ranking of African universities will be published in June. The Ghanaian rector, enthusiastic, says that a hundred campuses will participate in the Times Higher Education list, out of a total of 1,400.

“The interesting thing is that the universities that have come to Cape Town from Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, Liberia… can skip all the bad things about the universities. There are some sacred cows that have to be sacrificed for the better, and that is difficult for those with centuries of tradition,” says Santiago Íñiguez, executive president of IE University. These campuses can be more agile in their operation and better adapt to changes than European ones, which are transforming at a snail’s pace.

The challenges facing science and technology are increasingly complex and with the alliances of European universities ―sponsored by the European Union that finances them― it is a matter of facing them from different points. In Germany they lead. “Now we are developing what we call the triple helix: a joint agenda of industry, the public sector and the university to address issues that are interesting to us and also to others, such as climate change or the energy transition”, explains Paul, who He stresses that local problems should not be neglected for this reason.

Sharan C. Singh, Vice Chancellor for Strategic Relations at Minerva University (United States), praises this business projection of Europe: “It is far ahead of the rest of the world in real, practical, significant and applied research. Rankings are just a game.” Sally Wheeler Obe, vice-rector for International Relations at the Australian National University, adds to the admiration: “We must also look at its green model and its social and financial sustainability. If you look at the latest Unesco data on country investment in research and innovation, European countries lag far behind the rest of the world, apart from the United States and China. Australia invests much less.

“If I had to say something negative about Europe, it is that it is too cautious to embrace things that are fundamental, such as interdisciplinarity and it is excessively regulated; that is why their students come out with deep technical knowledge, but without a broad vision”, defends Sharan C. Singh. “A good engineer also has to know how to communicate and have business sense in an interconnected world.” The vice-rector believes that “Europe is not going through an existential crisis”, but considers that “in the rest of the world, there is a hunger, an anxiety and an urgency that Europe seems not to have for being bold and disruptive and changing the model that exists in Europe”.

For Wheeler Obe, in Europe “the veil of tradition and the expectations of society” weighs more heavily in Europe after centuries of academic history and this is transferred to all areas, “because a disruption in the university also affects the society”. In his country, Australia, most of the campuses are less than 70 years old, he says, and are more open than the old continent to changes in the way they manage themselves, the way they teach or interact with companies.

The interconnection has to come from all sides. “No single institution can re-address the problems efficiently. In my opinion, the next step is for these European alliances to also look for like-minded partners outside of Europe”, continues the rector. from the Ruhr University of Bochum. The best prepared, closest and most eager partner to collaborate is the United Kingdom, which has been left out of these powerful consortia due to Brexit ―to which the academic world was radically opposed― and the Erasmus mobility programme. Nor does the Union want to give up some of the best universities on the continent -Oxford and Cambridge- and the teams with which it has co-investigated for decades.

Agnes Nairn, Vice Chancellor of the University of Bristol, does not hide her interest: “Obviously, the Northern Ireland agreement – which has just been resolved – was a barrier for the United Kingdom to continue in Horizon Europe (the EU’s research and innovation framework program, in force between 2021 and 2027) on which it depends much of our funding. So hopefully that will happen and hopefully we will also come back to Erasmus again. We don’t want to be left out.”

Isolation is a barrier to knowledge. The American University of Beirut, which concentrates almost all the research production in Lebanon, is aware of this. “We have agreements with more than a dozen American universities, several Canadian, Latin American, Australian… but we don’t have close ties with any Arab university other than the American University of Cairo,” acknowledges its rector, Fadlo Khuri, who is intended for amendment. “Maybe we haven’t approached them as equals to Arab universities. Maybe it is our fault and they have felt that Lebanon politically is now a challenge, ”he maintains. Your institution has always faced west and now turns to the east. “I visited China, where there are top-level universities, but right now there is a lot of turnover; and we are building relationships in Pakistan and India.” Khuri admits that they handle so many funds that it’s an excellent cover letter for finding partners. Among them will not be Iranian universities for political reasons, although he acknowledges that there are “outstanding” ones.

About 11,000 students attend their graduation ceremony at Central China Normal University in Wuhan.
About 11,000 students attend their graduation ceremony at Central China Normal University in Wuhan.STR (AFP)

The Spaniard Ignacio de la Vega, associate rector for Academic Affairs and Internationalization of the Tecnológico de Monterrey ―a reference in Mexico, of a private nature― gives an example that is close to him to compare university systems. “30 years ago Mexico was one of the countries with the highest GDP in the world. In many indicators between 11 and 12; while South Korea or Singapore were much further behind. And now you look at the indicators of prosperity, development or education of those two countries and they are ahead”. De la Vega, who has worked in Indonesia, asks himself a rhetorical question: What has happened? “Very easy. These Asian countries have invested permanently in talent, science and innovation, while other countries have not; and that has occurred gap (gap) extraordinary. It’s all a matter of talent. If you invest, you have good scientists, a favorable research ecosystem, more projects, more citations (in journals)…”.

De la Vega especially recognizes the effort that Singapore has put into: “It has, above all, consistency at all educational levels. In Latin America there are other conditions, you have to think about where you invest. In most of these countries, 70% of the population is below the poverty line, there have been other priorities and a certain political myopia, they have not seen that by investing in education comes prosperity, development, innovation…”.

Paul is optimistic about the future of Europe despite the great competition between countries: “It has a very horrible colonial history; but if you turn that around and say, ‘okay, we’ve learned from that and we’re open to learning from each other,’ then we can have a valuable contribution. We have some values ​​―freedom of expression, democratic principles, tolerance…― to offer the world”.

These European values ​​that Paul alludes to are gaining importance. Íñiguez, from IE, underlines a shift in the rankings of business schools that, in the short term, he believes will reach universities: “Suddenly, American schools have lost places in the table and that has favored European ones. That is a Copernican change, because in the business world, what is valued is employability. And the rankings now also give priority to sustainability, environmental issues, stimulating issues of diversity, inclusion, equality… in which Europe stands out”.

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