Former Soviet Union

Mapping change in former Soviet higher education systems

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Me in action presenting at the Comparative and International Education Society’s 2018 conference in Mexico City. My ‘presenter hands’ are marginally more controlled than usual!

I recently presented at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Annual Conference and this blog post is about my presentation called Mapping change in former Soviet higher education systems: A view from the Russophone space.

I also presented with my colleague Hayfa Jafar on our new joint research on how faculty in post-conflict societies are experiencing internationalization in higher education – watch out for more on this to follow in the future.

As part of my PhD thesis on how higher education in the former Soviet space has responded to the fall of the Soviet Union, I want to include some analysis of how academics who have published about this regional space and time have conceptualized change.

In planning that analysis, I noticed that we know a lot about how authors writing in English conceptualize change in the former Soviet space – whether we like it or not, English is the dominant language of academic publication and there are quantitatively more articles and books available in English.

Yet my research is about a space where Russian has been the dominant language of the academic community. So this led me to wonder: do authors writing in Russian and publishing in Russian academic journals think about and write about change in similar or different ways? And how much do we know about this in the English language space?

(Spoiler alert. The brief answers are a) that there are both important similarities and marked differences, and b) not very much at all)

That explains the context to the analysis I then undertook of 23 articles written in Russian published in Russian language peer-reviewed journals published since 1991 (a list of the articles and journals can be found in my presentation). All the authors write about Russian higher education and were based at Russian institutions at the time of writing.

There are many possible ways to present what I found in this analysis (and I thank my supervisor and his research group for their feedback as I went through this process) but I decided to summarize my findings using a chronological but non-linear map. You can see it in the background of the photo above, and in full below.

The purpose of the map, which is designed like a Venn diagram, was not only to highlight some of the key themes that emerged from my analysis, but to show how these themes changed or overlapped over time.

The three phases shown are based on a framework adapted from Semyonov and Platonova’s work on policy change in higher education in Russia since 1991. They explain the three phases as:

  • Laissez-faire, from 1991 to around 2003. Although there were legislative changes, on the whole this period is considered to be one less government intervention in higher education, not least because of widespread economic crisis;
  • A period of major reform, from around 2004 to 2011. State investment in higher education led to the introduction of the Bologna Process and a unified higher education entrance exam, plus reforms to create merged and enlarged ‘super-institutions’ – the federal universities, plus the new designation of national research university;
  • Since 2012, a period epitomized by reforms aiming to improve the effectiveness of higher education through e.g. performance evaluations, competitive funding schemes, and more mergers/new institutional types emerging.


My analysis showed broad convergence with Semyonov and Platonova’s findings with several notable differences. I discussed four of these in my presentation. Here’s a very brief summary:

  1. Whereas for the state, the first period might have been laissez-faire, for the people living in Russia and working in the higher education system, their response was more connected to a discourse of crisis and survival.
  2. A number of articles in the first two time periods talked about how change wasn’t happening, and in fact there was more continuity with the Soviet system. Higher education is shown in many articles as being on the sidelines of the social change happening around it.
  3. In the crossover between the two later periods, I noted that some of the articles observed contradictions in the reform process, particularly in relation to the introduction of the Bologna Process
  4. Across all three phases, there is a lot of discussion about faculty: what is their role, how should they and are they responding to change, and so on. It wasn’t surprising to find more coverage of faculty matters in the Russian articles as most are written by practising academics who are or have been in some way involved in what’s been happening in Russian higher education.

This analysis will eventually form part of my PhD thesis so I don’t have a standalone paper to share. However, if you’re interested in finding out more, I’ve uploaded my presentation to Research Gate – although do note that my presentations are highly visual, so there are not many words to read! The presentation also has a few bonus slides that I didn’t share during the conference. Also, please do leave comments after this post if there are things you’d like to say in response.


A visual tour of Central Asia’s universities

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I’ve had a small gallery of my pictures of Central Asia’s universities up on this site for a while, and have been meaning to update it after taking lots more photos this summer.

So here we are, for your viewing pleasure (well, mainly for mine), here is a new and updated gallery showcasing just a few of the many and varied universities and colleges in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:

Does study abroad lead to democracy in former Soviet countries?

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The cat meme is back… You’ve got to admit this is a good one…

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.

Chankseliani has suggested in an article in this week’s Times Higher Education that the experience of studying abroad in democratic societies may act as an “apprenticeship in democracy”.

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?