What do the European Union, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), the Western Balkans and the Association of Asian Universities have in common?
Answer: They are all excellent examples of regional groupings, alliances or partnerships that higher education institutions and nations within the former Soviet space have become involved with in recent years.
This notion of regionalism – the introduction of supranational political initiatives for higher education that are formed around regional alliances, associations and groupings – is fairly new in higher education studies. This is despite the fact that such partnerships have proliferated and continue to flourish, whether organized by universities themselves or as priorities within groupings of multiple nations.
Regional initiatives are not always based around geographic blocs, as the example above of the BRICS suggests, although it is common to focus on shared spaces. In this way, regional identities and initiatives do not only reflect historic legacies or geographic commonalities, but also represent imaginaries of future constellations of actors.
The rationale behind entering into regional higher education initiatives, the power dynamics among the actors involved, and the impact of these partnerships and alliances on the everyday lives of those working in higher education are among some of the many important issues raised in a new special issue for Higher Education in Russia and Beyond (HERB) that I have guest edited and which has just been published.
The special issue begins with four articles exploring different varieties of regionalism, assisting in the conceptualization of the term and its role for higher education in the former Soviet/communist space. Larissa Titarenko discusses how policymakers prioritize different regions for both economic and political purposes, observing that the economic dimension makes Asia an important focal point for cooperation in Belarus. In my article, I lay out why Russia too shares a growing interest in educational cooperation with Asia, offering several examples to illustrate how and why regional connections to Russia’s east are on the rise.
Heading west, Alenka Flander’s article ties together regionalism in the Western Balkans with national initiatives to internationalize the Slovenian higher education system. Looking to the future, she posits that other Slavic language groups outside the EU may be a new region in the making for Slovenia. The final article in this part by Maxim Khomyakov frames Russia’s involvement with the BRICS within the Global North-Global South discourse, arguing that this non-geographic region holds fascinating possibilities for Russia as it looks forward beyond its own Soviet legacy.
The second part of the issue contains four articles that consider the scope and prospects for higher education regionalism within the former Soviet space. Natalia Leskina asks whether there is such a thing as a Eurasian Higher Education Area, showing that while the political odds make it unlikely, it is actually bottom-up initiatives by universities that are driving the development of this regional grouping. Abbas Abbasov considers how Russian branch campuses can be seen as a new form of (post-colonial) regionalism, shining a spotlight on the regional activities of Russia’s leading university, Moscow State University, as a case study.
Keeping the focus on Russia, Zahra Jafarova examines patterns of student mobility to the former metropole. She unpacks the dynamics of shifting trends from Ukraine and Kazakhstan, finding that student mobility is being influenced by Russian soft power, albeit in different ways in the two countries. While Russia may be leading the way in former Soviet higher education regionalism, Martha Merrill’s piece on Central Asia makes it quite clear that these countries’ very different visions and abilities to develop education do not offer promising prospects for a Central Asian regional identity to emerge in higher education.
The third part of the triptych deals specifically with the European Union (EU), which is currently the most significant region for higher education ideas, policies and programmes across the former Soviet space. Chynara Ryskulova explains how the choice made by Kyrgyzstan’s policymakers to adopt European reforms has heralded a new quality assurance system that has not yet been fully absorbed or accepted by the faculty that have to deliver the new reforms on the ground. On the other side of the former Soviet Union, Nadiia Kachynska also points to the difficulties of integrating into the EU’s Horizon 2020 research program, analyzing the reasons that Ukrainian universities still struggle to participate on an equal basis with their EU counterparts.
Svetlana Shenderova and Dmitry Lanko then take us to the Russian-Finnish borderlands, pointing out the gaps that emerge as the two countries attempt to cooperate on double degrees without sharing experiences and expertise obtained from their involvement in other regional initiatives (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for Russia; the European Union for Finland). Finally, Aytaj Pashaeva looks at a twining project that brought EU experts to Azerbaijan to support the development and launch of the Azerbaijani Quality Assurance Framework in 2018.
Taken together, the 12 articles add considerable depth to our understanding of what regionalism in higher education looks and feels like across the ex-Soviet/communist space. The articles help us move beyond describing the wealth of regional initiatives – although this is in itself is an important contribution – towards answering more profound questions around what engagement in these initiatives signifies at individual, institutional and national levels and how regionalism can be used both to perpetuate existing hierarchies and inequalities but also to break free from them and look in different directions.
Higher Education in Russia and Beyond is an open access non-academic journal published by the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Russia. The special issue on regionalism is one of four volumes that will be published in 2019; the back catalogue from its inception in 2014 can be found here.
My huge thanks go to the authors of the articles in the issue for such interesting and insightful contributions as well as their willingness to engage with me and the regular editorial team as we moved towards publication.
Thank you also to Maria Yudkevich, Vice Rector of HSE, for the invitation to guest edit an issue of HERB and for being open to the exploration of this relatively novel topic. Finally, thank you to Vera Arbieva, HERB’s coordinator, for her constant professionalism and support.
These days, there’s a lot of literature out there – both in the academic and the policy worlds – on studying abroad. You can read about why students choose to go abroad for higher education, how studying abroad changes students, how states compete to recruit the best students from around the world, what this all means for the global inequality between nations … and much, much more.
Studies of students studying abroad from or in the former Soviet Union, my particular region of interest, are few and far between. Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics English-language publication Higher Education in Russia and Beyond collected a good array of new work on this growing area of interest earlier in 2017 (including my article on Tajikistan’s international students) and there’s a special edition of an academic journal on study abroad from Central Asia planned for later this year/early next year (watch this space).
Amongst a handful of researchers focussing on Central Asia, Nazgul Mingisheva of Kazakhstan’s Karaganda Medical State University presented really interesting empirical work on international students from South Asia who study at her university at the 2017 ESCAS-CESS Regional Conference. There are also a growing number of publications on the impact of the Kazakhstan government’s massive Bolashak scholarship scheme, which to date has funded over 10,000 students to complete Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhDs and vocational/short-term study abroad.
So that’s the state of the field: a vast amount available on study abroad in general, and really not very much (in English at least) on student mobility from the perspective of the former Soviet countries.
As such, the findings from a new study by Maia Chankseliani of the University of Oxford have been greeted with a great detail of interest. Firstly, her research on student mobility from the former Soviet states fills in broad gaps in our empirical understanding of trends and changes in study abroad from this large region.
More important, however, is her stunningly stark finding that there seems to be a link between where students from the former Soviet countries study and levels of democratic development in their home country. The basic hypothesis is that the more students who study in European Union countries as opposed to Russia, the greater the likelihood that their home country is more democratic. Just take a look at this:
Here you see that countries towards the top-right (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) have both much higher proportions of mobile students heading to European Union states AND higher rankings in the Economist’s democracy index.
Conversely, those countries that send fewer of their mobile students to the EU (bottom-left of the graph – mainly Central Asian states) also experience lower levels of democratic development.
Now, contrast those findings to the next graph, which plots the number of study abroad students going to Russia against levels of democratic development. The results are almost completely reversed:
Here you see the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sending the fewest mobile students to Russia, placing them at the top-left of the graph. Although the Central Asian states are less grouped here, there is clearly a connection with the proportion of students going from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to Russia vs the EU and their levels of democratic development.
Whilst abroad, students are exposed to the norms and rules of a democratic country and potentially undergo personal changes in their own views about politics, society and economics. On returning home, they may become facilitators for greater democratic development.
This thesis appears to be compellingly supported by her data (although Kyrgyzstan seems to be an unaccounted-for anomaly). If true, states wishing to transmit their own democratic norms and values have a clear rationale to start channeling their soft power resources into recruiting students from less democratic nations.
However, I think the data only tells us part of the story.
The graphs, clear and compelling as they are, do not explain how students who have studied abroad go back and make a difference in their home nation. Can you really induce a change in political system simply by having temporarily lived in a democracy? Or is it that the changes Chankseliani is indicating are on a much smaller scale – tiny individual actions that collectively may lead to a cultural shift at home?
Further, the actual number of mobile students from the former Soviet states is tiny compared to the overall number of people in those countries who go through higher education, and even less compared to the population as a whole. Put otherwise, there simply aren’t enough people studying abroad to come back and make such significant changes at home that democratize the country.
Finally (for now), the biggest issue I have with the data is that they disregard the history and context of the home setting. Take the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as an example.
Each of these countries has centuries-long histories of statehood, and each shares the same geographic neighbourhood as Europe. Indeed, the boundaries of contemporary Lithuania have changed so much over the last few hundred years between what is now Germany, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania that in some respects it’s a very artificial distinction to separate out the Baltics from Europe in the first place. As soon as these three states regained independence after the Soviet period, they threw themselves back towards Europe, gaining EU membership in 2004. It could be argued, then, that it is the structural conditions of these states – their history, geography, culture, and pre-Soviet political systems – that leads to students going to study more in the EU than in Russia and to their current democratic political systems than to the notion that it is the returning mobile students who lead to democratic change.
Chankseliani acknowledges this in her longer presentation on the subject, available on ResearchGate. This opens the way to some fantastically interesting future studies on what she terms the actor vs structure debate.
What do you think?
Are students who’ve studied abroad drivers of political change? Is this even possible in authoritarian states?
Or is the systems and structures that surround us that are responsible for political developments?