April 30, 2014, by Graham Kendall

The HEFEI Statement on the Ten Characteristics of Contemporary Research Universities: Tectonic Shift or Beating of a Butterfly’s Wing?

This post was contributed by Sean Matthews

[This is the second in a sequence of blogs reporting from the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education (APAIE) conference in Seoul, which took place March 16-21, 2014. In the earlier piece we reported on the Nottingham panel, in this and subsequent posts we’ll look at some of the other panels and presentations that caught our eye in what was a very rich and full programme.]

It would be an interesting exercise to put a couple of dozen academics in a room and ask them to come up with a list of the ten things they believe to be characteristic of a contemporary research university. Perhaps it’s something our Vice-Provost for Research could arrange? For a start, it is quite telling that ‘research’ is being used in this context to distinguish some universities from others, rather like the ‘literary novel’ is a category now distinct from more ordinary ‘novels’. When, we might ask, and why, did it become necessary to assert that ‘research’ is part of the distinctive function of only some universities? How might a statement about the ten characteristics of merely ‘contemporary universities’ differ from such a statement? There might be some fundamental unanimity, nonetheless, about what characterizes such institutions, but there would surely also be significant divergence between, and even within, the different disciplines and faculties –  about what to prioritize, about what might be essential or inessential, about what is ‘in’, what is ‘out’. If, seeking some external help, we were to refer to the categories and criteria that drive the various university ranking systems, the defining characteristics of research universities would be extremely controversial (actually, that’s an exercise worth following up – at APAIE, one comment that stuck in my mind was a remark by Phil Honeywood, [National Executive Director of the International Education Association of Australia [IEAA] and former Minister for Tertiary Education, Training and Multicultural Affairs in the Victoria State Government], that the various university rankings agencies are to HE as the various credit agencies were to the Banks prior to the 2008 crash: unaccountable, compromised, complicit and counter-productive). It was all the more remarkable, therefore, to find not only that three very important, influential, international networks of research intensive universities have crafted a formal declaration of what those ten characteristics might be, but also that they have already garnered wide support, from around the globe, in the form of further ‘signatories’ to that original declaration, published in October 2013 – the HEFEI Statement of the Ten Characteristics of Research Universities.

Perhaps most remarkable of all was the fact that very few people at the APAIE 2014 conference seemed to know anything about this declaration, or its potential implications – and I would hazard that it isn’t something that many colleagues at Nottingham know about, either. Fortunately, an excellent panel convened by Sonny Lim (Special Assistant for International Collaboration at Rice University, formerly of Yale-NUS and Nanyang Technological University), offered an interesting critical introduction. The panel members were Kent Anderson (PVC International at the University of Adelaide –see his interesting presentation about ‘deepening internationalisation’ in the Australian context), Hongwei Xia (Director of Office of International Relations, Peking University), and Maria Callejon (Vice Rector for International Policy, Universitat de Barcelona, and formerly a minister in Spain’s Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Trade). Each of the speakers argued that the HEFEI statement marks a very important moment in the history of Higher Education, both because of what it suggests about the fundamental characteristics and commitments of research intensive institutions of higher learning, but also because of who is making the declaration – an unprecedented alignment of the AAU (Association of American Universities), LERU (League of European Research Universities), GO8 (Australia’s ‘Group of 8’ research universities) and the C9 League (the network of nine of China’s leading universities) – and why they have made it. It was also significant that each speaker emphasized different aspects of the Statement, arguing that in their local/national contexts the HEFEI initiative offered essential expression in relation to specific key issues (such as academic freedom, the importance of ‘blue sky’ research without immediate commercial impact, and the relation between teaching and research), and that the force of this being a joint affirmation with such wide assent strengthened the position of particular institutions in debates with stakeholders.

The panel drew attention to several key aspects of the Statement. First, it is strongly international and collaborative in outlook, insisting on the need for cross-border and intercultural networking and partnerships as a function of successful research strategy. As a part of this aspect of the declaration, there is recognition of the important differences and divergences between various national education systems and contexts, and a call for better efforts to coordinate and connect – and respect – these differences. Second, it emphasizes the need for universities to work together to renegotiate their relation to state government and strategy, pushing back against the more short-term, commercial and instrumental drivers of national policy. Third, there is an urgent call to reassert the necessary relation between research and teaching. Fourth, each of the panelists drew attention to the Statement’s clauses on Academic Freedom, arguing that the phrasing offered critical support to scholars and to institutions across widely different political, historical and social contexts. Similarly, the robust reiteration of the critical importance of institutional autonomy might permit individual institutions to resist, where necessary, adverse political or commercial influences. The panelists were agreed that it was the very fact of the range and variety of the initial signatories to the Statement that made it so significant a resource: such wide and unusual an alliance would allow institutions to lobby and strategize in their own contexts with the knowledge and confidence of the symbolic and practical support of the wider – and widening – group.

There were, of course, also reasons for concern. There is a danger that the Statement privileges a culturally and historically specific, hegemonic, western or ‘Humboldtian’ ideal of what a contemporary university should be and should look like, neglecting other traditions and modes of knowledge and learning and stages of development in tertiary education. There is a danger that the very articulation of ‘research’ as a distinct modifier of ‘university’ means that the increasing stratification of HE institutions into ‘elite’ and ‘other’ will be further exaggerated – in discussion, the experience of being ‘discouraged’ from collaboration with ‘lower ranked’ institutions (and therefore, by association, lower ranked scholars) was brought up. Does such an articulation between global networks also tend towards further concentration of ‘research power’ in a dwindling number of ‘super-consortia’? The rapidly changing world of HE and TNE itself – changes captured in the recent Megatrends report from the British Council HE research group – is acknowledged, but without a strong sense of the ways that current trends may dramatically alter the nature and form of universities and university degrees. Financial and economic imperatives are barely addressed in the document, in part because of the extreme variations of economic, political and developmental context across the networks, but as with all such idealistic declarations this may result in it being politely ignored as impractical or other-worldly. There were also questions about the absence from the document of statements about sustainability, or more generally about universities’ wider responsibilities beyond rather anodyne comments about ‘national wellbeing’ and impact on local communities.

It is not clear how, in practice, the Statement will influence institutional or political direction, especially if it remains so little known. The Russell Group is apparently likely to sign up, along with increasing numbers of other individual institutions. It is a ‘project’, in this sense, that depends to some degree upon the slow process of endorsement and alignment across the sector, and judgment as to its success depends upon the extent to which it achieves global recognition, but also how far it is seen not only to influence the internal workings of the signatory institutions (there were rumblings even at APAIE about the irony of the Statement being published at the same time as the dissident economist Xia Leliang was dismissed from Peking University), but also to strengthen the collective position of research universities (and the rest?) both locally and globally. Will the HEFEI Statement actually affect the way universities are run? Will it impact the direction of educational policy and development? Watch this space…

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