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.
In a post in September 2018, I detailed the extensive reforms being undertaken or planned for Uzbekistan’s higher education system. The reforms cover everything from legislation to recognize (and encourage the growth of) privately operated universities and institutes to new government funding streams to improve access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
2018 was also an important year for higher education in Uzbekistan with the 100th anniversary of the country’s oldest university, now called the Mirzo Ulugbek National University of Uzbekistan [ru]. History buffs can read more about the formalization of higher education in Central Asia in my May 2017 post.
One of the main outcomes of the rapid reforms undertaken in 2018 seems to be a new wave of institutional growth. Although it’s been less than four months since I published my post on reforms in Uzbekistan, I have read a number of news stories and press releases about the opening of new higher education institutions (HEI) in the country.
For the most part, these new institutions are branch campuses of foreign universities. Branch campuses are relatively low risk, high return propositions for the host country and for the home university.
Students get their degree from the home university without necessarily ever having to go to the main campus (although there are usually options for exchanges and visits) and have the comfort of knowing that the degree comes from an established institution with a good (almost always) reputation.
Whilst the university will have to invest in infrastructure and resources, it’s a great deal less effort to run a small campus – often with 1,000 students or fewer – and to import pre-existing courses and materials than to build an institution from scratch. For the host country, expanding international branch campuses is an easy way to tick the ‘are you internationalizing your higher education system’ box that everyone seems to have on their to-do list.
Uzbekistan has long been home to international branch campuses, from the UK’s Westminster University to Italian Turin Polytechnic University and South Korean Inha University. For many years, these were the only permissible forms of private higher education. Now, they are being joined by a number of other campuses, diversifying the system further.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given their recent shared history, Russia is steaming ahead with at least six new branch campuses [ru]. This more than doubles the current number of Russian branch campuses in Uzbekistan (four). Many of these are extremely well known and have excellent reputations, so it is not a trivial matter that they are deciding to set up shop in Uzbekistan:
- Moscow State Institute of International Relations – often known by its Russian acronym MGIMO (МГИМО)
- Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, a film school also often known by its Russian acronym VGIK (ВГИК)
- Moscow Power Engineering Institute, which already has a branch campus in Tajikistan
- Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology
- Russian State University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism
As well as the Russians, the Koreans are also increasing their presence in the country [ru] by opening a campus of Ajou University, a top engineering institution. India is set to open its first Uzbek campus [ru], a branch of well-known Amity University. And there are ongoing rumours about unnamed French and British institutions [ru] expressing their higher education interests too.
In the future, I expect to see the direction of travel flip, and for new privately run and operated HEIs to be opened by domestic actors. This might be Uzbeks with international experience and/or education, or perhaps these new institutions will be a mix of state initiated and privately run, along the lines of a number of HEIs in Kazakhstan.
A first step in the homegrown diversification of higher education is already underway, with reports that a new joint Uzbek-Belarusian institute will open in 2019 [ru]. It will be based in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and will focus on applied courses. In turn, ongoing educational cooperation between the two states will also be marked by a new joint faculty in Tashkent. This will be run by the Belarus State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics with the Tashkent University of Information Technology.
I expect there will be more to report on new HEIs in Uzbekistan soon!
**Update: January 26, 2019** My prediction that there would be more to report soon has already proven correct. Sputnik Uzbekistan has just issued a story saying that China will be opening a multi-faculty university in Tashkent [ru]. No details yet about who exactly ‘China’ is, whether this will be a bi-national university or a branch campus, but it’s a really interesting development to see China involved in providing higher education outside its own borders. This will be, I believe, the first Chinese presence beyond Confucius Institutes in Central Asia.
**Update 2: January 27, 2019** And here’s more on this already! Now Malaysia is getting in on the act, planning to open a branch of the Technological University of Malaysia in Khorezm [ru]. This is another exciting development, as it brings a well-established and well-ranked institution to Uzbekistan and more importantly, shifts the focus away from the capital Tashkent.
**Update 3: February 7, 2019** Webster University (USA) will be offering an MBA in Uzbekistan from the 2019/20 academic year after its President signed an agreement with the Ambassador of Uzbekistan to the US. And, while not necessarily leading to a new institution, Tashkent University of Information Technology has signed a wide-ranging cooperation agreement with East Kazakhstan State Technical University [ru], meaning that Uzbekistan’s ‘near abroad’ neighbours are getting in on the act too.
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?
The ‘near abroad’ is a Russian conception, describing countries that used to be part of or have close ties to the Soviet Union, as distinguished from the ‘far abroad’ countries that we might otherwise call ‘the rest of the world’. Although Russian language usage is diminishing in Central Asian states, in part owing to state-building government tendencies to enhance the standing of national languages, Russian remains either an official or a widely used language in these countries (source: One World Nations Online).
The continuing importance of the Russian language enables the promotion of cooperation and opportunities in higher education for Central Asian states and nations. Just today I’ve read two reports on educational exchanges within the former Soviet sphere:
- The development of linkages between Belarus and Tajikistan [en], as reported by Belarusian News. These government-level links began with professional development for Tajik civil servants and the most recent press release focusses on cooperation between the countries’ Academies/Institutes of Public Administration. The cooperation will cover research and conferences, training and staff/student exchanges, thus both sharing and building up expertise on both sides. (Just don’t mention ‘academic freedom’…)
- A very proud-sounding press release from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, usually known by its rhythmic Russian acronym MGIMO, on its recent attendance at the Education and Careers Fair in Almaty, Kazakhstan [ru]. The report mentions participation by universities and employers from 15 countries, most of which are ‘near abroad’ but with a smattering of other countries thrown in.
Of particular interest about the MGIMO report was its note that attendees were particularly interested in its English language courses. This reflects the growth of a different kind of study abroad option for Central Asian students: one in which students enhance their academic and English language skills but in an environment that is not entirely unfamiliar. For many years the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan and KIMEP in Kazakhstan have supported students to stay in the region and to study in English; now it seems that trend is expanding with students seeking opportunities in Russia, eastern Europe and Asia (e.g Malaysia and Singapore).