Kazakhstan, Russia, and the international students caught in between

Kazakhstan is in the world’s headlines after a series of protests that started over energy price hikes rapidly escalated and continue to unfold at the time of writing this on 7 January 2022.

The involvement of Russia into the situation in Kazakhstan just a couple of days into events has set off alarm bells and I strongly encourage you to follow any (indeed all) of the following experts for more on this and other developments:

If you’re not on Twitter, look to RFE/RL for reliable English language updates and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs for a list of resources to help understand events in Kazakhstan.

The unfolding crisis is clearly going to make a serious impact on Kazakh-Russian relations – and it’s also having an immediate effect on international higher education.

Although over the past 30 years, Kazakhstan’s higher education system has changed enormously, providing access to ever more students in an increasing number of subjects and at a wider range of institutions, that hasn’t stopped huge numbers of students from setting out to Russia to pursue their studies. Kazakhstan is the number one source of international students in Russia, with 2/3 of all Kazakhstan’s outbound students heading to Russia. In 2020, almost 20% of all international students in Russia were from Kazakhstan. That’s just over 60,000 students, which is 40% more than from #2 country (Uzbekistan).

For the last couple of days, my inbox has been peppered with alerts from Russian higher education institutions who have released special notifications for students from Kazakhstan. These have been uniformly supportive. The basic message is: don’t worry, you can study online for now, you will not miss out. Here’s a sample from a St Petersburg based university:

From the website of LETI University, accessed 07.01.2022

In English this reads:

Information for students from Kazakhstan

Distance learning will be arranged for students who left for Kazakhstan for the New Year holidays and who are not able to return to St Petersburg on time [for the start of the semester] due to the situation.

[in the blue box] In this situation, you should inform the Dean’s Office using the form in your online portal (or by phone) and also show travel or other documents confirming your stay in Kazakhstan. If you don’t have internet access, the university guarantees to extend the semester on an individual basis.

The experiences of border closures due the pandemic over the last two years has clearly helped universities to be able to prepare a rapid response to support pedagogical continuity for international students stuck abroad, but this is the first time I’ve seen this applied to a political crisis.

It’s also striking for the sympathetic tone. While the old school Soviet model of higher education has clearly gone, it’s still quite a leap to see the needs of students so firmly at the heart of a customer-service oriented support function in Russian universities. Maybe I’m being cynical so if you can prove me wrong, please do so: I would be happy to stand corrected.

Yet I can’t help harbouring some lingering uncertainty. The tone of the support and the rapidity with which it’s been offered have some uncanny parallels with the depth and speed of Russia’s willingness to send troops to “create peace” in Kazakhstan.

For those who believe that higher education is disconnected from broader political events, think again. Universities may not create the politics, but in many places (Russia, Kazakhstan, and beyond), higher education absolutely has a role in shaping politics. This becomes even clearer when you set politics onto an international stage.

In most cases, this connection is passive or reactive. For example, think about how higher education responds to political upheaval (and this can be done positively, as was the case recently when the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan managed to provide scholarships and safety to students from Afghanistan) or how it becomes a conduit for government policy (think here about how higher education institutions are increasingly taking on immigration functions).

I would argue that higher education institutions often end up taking political action either unwittingly or out of self-preservation, especially in authoritarian settings. But I also believe that a case could be made for higher education interpreting the current mood or current political events and taking its own steps to crafting international academic relations.

One thought on “Kazakhstan, Russia, and the international students caught in between

  1. Pingback: Kazakhstan: Higher education on hold at home, students stranded abroad – Emma Sabzalieva

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