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Shanghai Cooperation Organization University: A multi-headed dragon or a paper tiger?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional inter-governmental initiative established by China, Russia and four Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. And five years after the SCO’s mandate was extended to include education issues, its member states are now keen to develop the “SCO’s common education area”, as evidenced the recent agreement to establish the Shanghai Cooperation Organization University.

In November, 60 universities from China (15), Russia (16), Kazakhstan (11), Kirgizstan (8) and Tajikistan (10) signed the Charter of the SCO University in Moscow. The SCO University is a network of higher education institutions aspiring to boost academic and research exchanges and cooperation, promote the exchange of educational practices, and create mechanisms for the recognition of higher education diplomas issued by the SCO University in its member states and other countries. The objective is to design “coordinated higher education programmes” at the Bachelor, Master and PhD levels, support the mobility of students and university (teaching, research and administration) staff, carry out joint research projects and so on. Five thematic areas—regional studies, ecology, energy, IT and nanotechnologies—are identified as priorities for the mutually agreed educational programmes. Chinese and Russian are two key languages of instruction (in addition to the member states’ national languages), and the English language can to some extent be used for teaching purposes. Finally, the new “umbrella” university is endowed with its own management structure (executive board, board of trustees, etc.).

The creation of the SCO University is the first ambitious top-down higher education initiative in the region. However, its success will depend on several factors. First, the countries and their participating universities have to reach a more specific agreement on the funding modalities of the coordinated (joint) education programmes. In the absence of a targeted budget going beyond coordination costs, there is a risk that poorer countries of the region will not be able to fully participate, while the cooperation activities will be reduced to bilateral or trilateral schemes. In addition, the University’s loose “umbrella” structure requires sufficient incentives to be put in place for the active participation of universities.

Meanwhile, other large-scale political initiatives in higher education seem to be looming on the horizon in some of these countries. For example, the EU and China are finalizing a new framework for cooperation in education, culture and research, which will among others include the establishment of an EU-China Higher Education Council and joint scholarship schemes. The new framework is expected to be unveiled by the end of this year.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization University European Commission, EU and China