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A new standard for excellence set up in Hefei

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Challenging the mass. This, probably, will be the next big issue in science together with ethics and politics, as millions of scientists all over the world produce tons of scientific researches everyday. In this crowded environment, the question is how to find the excellence. One of the most recent attempt to create a sort of sanctuary in the seething scientific knowledge has been made in October  this year by the four major universities groups: the Association of American Universities (AAU), the League of European Research Universities (LERU – Italy is represented only with one university, the University of Milan), the China 9 League of leading universities (C9) and the Australian Group of Eight (Go8) research-intensive universities. 

This four group had released the Hefei Statement (Hefei, close to Shanghai, is one of the main scientific research area in China), a document meant to be the milestone of a high level network for scientific research in this global and competitive environment. “We see this statement as the beginning of an important process of deepening community understanding of what research universities are, can be and can do, and of their unique role in meeting global challenges,” said Professor Fred Hilmer, chair of the Go8.

These goals have been reached through a path, started nearly one year ago. Thanks to the vernal sun in Barcelona, last year the 10th anniversary of the LERU had been the meeting where discuss the deep transformation academic world is crossing by, mainly due to the massification of the higher education. Large numbers mean million brains working together, and that's definitively good. But large numbers mean also a great confusion – even the Economist noticed this. From Barcelona to Shanghai, during last year, efforts to create a standard of excellence in higher education have passed through the creation of the Global Research Council, that is (just) a “virtual organization, comprised of the heads of science and engineering funding agencies from around the world”, sponsored by the Us government, and some talks promoted by the C9 and Go8. These talks lead to the Hefei Statement, which could become a strong (and strangely clear) base for future standards in defining a “research university”.

The knowledge economy has led to the growing in number and size of universities all around the world. From that observation, the Hefei Statement notes that “the policy environment in which universities operate also has changed. In particular, policy in many countries is taking an ever more instrumentalist view of universities, a view that ties their roles and purpose to producing the knowledge and skills necessary to operate in a modern economy and to performing research that supports national development”. Rallying around the flag of scientific knowledge – that's basically the call of the four groups.

To do so, a standard is needed. In the documents the major universities put down a decalogue of “what [they] mean for research university”, that has to:

1) pursuit excellence.

2) make every efforts in research with “depth and breath”, namely produce “internationally recognized research results”

3) ensure continuing flow of highly competent and respected graduates through PhD programs

4) teach at both the undergraduate and (post)graduate levels

5) secure the highest standards of research integrity and ethical obligations

6) undertake responsible exercise to produce and disseminate knowledge

7) guarantee a commitment to civil debate and discussion inside and outside the institution

8) preserve a complete academic freedom

9) support its local and national communities and contribute to international wellbeing

10) set up an open and transparent governance

This is not a revolution, clearly. But it can be read as one of the first countermoves of academia against “fordism” in University. That is not really a small issue.

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