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The goal of Project 5-100 is to maximize the competitive position of a group of leading Russian universities in the global research and education market.

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Managing academic excellence initiatives: a real intellectual challenge

July 4, 2016

Experts from 11 countries gathered at ITMO University for a conference on academic excellence initiatives organized by Project 5-100 where they discussed management models, role of the government, performance assessment and distribution of funds between universities. The objective of the conference, as put by Alexander Povalko, Deputy Minister of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, in his opening address, is to provide an exhaustive public exploration of the current trends in such projects.

"What is an academic excellence initiative? Usually, it's a move by the government to extend more than regular funding to several universities. By providing these funds, you enable faster development of these institutions," said Jamil Salmi, ex-Coordinator of the World Bank Tertiary Education Program and an international education expert, in the plenary session. He emphasized the problems associated with managing academic excellence programs.

Isaac Frumin, Head of the Institute of Education (Higher School of Economics), supported him by saying that "indeed, managing such projects is the most interesting and complicated thing, a veritable intellectual challenge. Governments of different countries from the US to Australia and from Ireland to South Africa are trying to play a bigger role in shaping their tertiary education systems. University development becomes increasingly driven by the state, whereas previously universities challenged governments and were their own engines for development. What we see now is that governments challenge universities to evolve in a particular direction. Academic excellence initiatives are paving the way to a model where state control is higher".

Following sessions turned from global issues to the experience of individual countries. Sabine Behrenbeck, Head of Higher Education Department and Head of Excellence Initiative at the German Council of Sciences and Humanities also emphasized the importance of university autonomy. In Germany, the academic excellence initiative is within the purview of 2 institutions: German Research Foundation and Wissenschaftsrat (represented by Ms. Behrenbeck).

Next speaker, Farid Ouabdesselam, Head of Excellence Initiative Implementation of the French National Research Agency (ANR), noted the mutual influence of German and French academic excellence programs. The French government opted for maximum university independence (extra funds come from endowments).

According to CERC and CFREF (Canada First Research Excellence Fund) Program Manager Kevin Lapointe, Canadian government has no direct influence on the way excellence programs are implemented. However, with the introduction of a new ministerial position, i.e. a Minister for Science, science in Canada is expected to see dramatic infrastructural change. The Ministry is already considering a revision of research funding. Mr. Lapointe emphasized competitive selection procedures and, citing previous experience, noted that several projects proposed by the same university would often differ significantly in quality.

Toshio Kuroki, Program Director of the World Premier International Research Center Initiative of the Japanese Society for Promotion of Science, explained that the objectives of WPI (which provides 10-year funding to universities that have won competition for research in key areas) include promotion of cross-disciplinary research, such as application of mathematical methods to material science. Mr. Kuroki underscored the importance of grassroots mergers driven by unrestrained communication and collaboration of scientists. Internationalization is another objective of WPI. "Japanese science is lagging in terms of internationalization, and that impacts our university ratings," he said. However, WPI is already changing the situation as 31% of scientists in 5 research centers are foreigners. Delegates were very interested in the hallmark of the Japanese initiative, i.e. the emphasis placed on supporting breakthrough research.

Head of Perspektywy Education Foundation Bianca Siwinska presented the Polish academic excellence program. Poland conducted two KNOW (program for national leading scientific centers) contests in 2012 and 2014. Professor Li Xiaoming (Head of Peking University initiatives under Project 211 and Project 985) expounded on concepts, experience and results of these projects for Peking U and China as a whole. He briefly commented on the World Class 2.0 initiative being developed now. Projects 211 and 985 (now completed) extended funds both for general tertiary education infrastructure (research and university library networks, database of digitized books) and research assets of the participants of Project 211. Project 985 (initiated in 1998) incentivized universities to launch new programs.

Spanish initiative called International Campus of Excellence saw life in 2009, shared Luis Delgado, Deputy Director General for University Modernization and Internationalization (Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport). "Until then, competition was limited to research projects. We wanted to stimulate institutional competition," noted Mr. Delgado. The initiative, underpinned by 17 agreements signed with Spanish regions, aimed at creation of a knowledge economy that would lower the country's dependence on such sectors as tourism and construction. Following an evaluation of the results of the first stage of the program, Spanish government recently decided to resume it.

Andrey Volkov, Deputy Chairman of the Council on Competitiveness Enhancement of Leading Russian Universities among Global Research and Education Centers, completed the overview of national academic excellence initiatives and emphasized that the most important outcome of Project 5-100 today is that "a real discussion regarding the future of Russian universities has started among professors, administrators and students. We see the whole sector mobilizing".

The conference was deemed critical for sharing experience and promoting collaboration at the closing meeting of Initiative Project Offices held on July 1 and moderated by Gregory Androushchak, Chief of the Strategic Department of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation.