Former Soviet Union
In my research on former Soviet higher education systems, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 continues to feature prominently as a starting point for some of the subsequent shifts that have occurred in higher education (and in society at large). More recent changes such as the introduction of principles of the European Union’s Bologna Process have shifted higher education even further away from the Soviet model that was inherited. Yet taken as a whole, the notion of a pre-1991 and post-1991 division in the direction of higher education holds quite strong.
That was the starting point for some recent research I did to find out how authors writing about those post-1991 changes in higher education have understood what has happened. I also wanted to investigate whether there are differences in how authors writing in English and those writing in Russian conceptualize these shifts.
To do this, I delved into 57 academic articles (and I read a whole lot more to whittle the number down to a suitable data set!) in English and Russian that discuss post-1991 higher education in Russia or other former Soviet republics. I devised two different methods to analyse the articles and the standpoints taken by their authors.
You can find out more about these methods and what I found at the Europe of Knowledge blog, which is the official blog of the ECPR Standing Group on Knowledge Politics and Policies. I presented my research at the ECPR Annual Conference in 2018 and am happy to say that my paper was selected for the 2018 Award for Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar. This is a great honour and I am very grateful to the selection committee and to the Standing Group, which I am proud to be involved with.
The number of international students around the world is on the increase (see UNESCO graph for growth from 2011-17), and has now reached five million people.
Whilst there are major disparities in the desinations chosen by international students (Anglophone/former colonial nations top the list) and the resources they need to get there (the more financial/social capital your family has, the easier it is for you to become internationally mobile), one remarkable trend is that international students are now drawn from every country in the world.
That includes the former Soviet space, where student mobility until 1991 allowed travel only as far as Moscow, Leningrad (St Petersburg), Novosibirsk and a handful of other academic centres in the Soviet Union. Students could travel between republics but the idea of getting a degree from outside the communist space was out of the question.
In the nearly 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, that picture has changed dramatically. Long term readers of my blog will remember the results of a survey I did of international students from Tajikistan who had ended up far and wide, from the UK to Uruguay, from Slovakia to Singapore.
In revisiting the survey data for a new paper I am working on and will present at CHER in August 2019, I took the opportunity to look at longitudinal trends across the former Soviet space. Using data from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistcs, the graph below shows how patterns have changed since 1998 (the point at which data starts to become more reliable) across 14 of the 15 Soviet republics (there’s no data for Moldova). There are three time points over roughly ten year periods – 1998, 2008 and 2017, the latest data that is available.
The overall picture is of dramatic growth: if there were 120,000 international students leaving this region in 1998, that number had leaped to almost half a million by 2017. That’s an impressive increase of 265%!
As the graph shows, Kazakhstan now sends nearly 100,000 students abroad, a much higher number than second placed Ukraine (coming up for 80,000). And both those countries send significantly more students to other countries than Russia (not quite 60,000) despite Russia’s population being more than three times bigger than Ukraine’s and about six times higher than in Kazakhstan.
The big picture inevitably hides the array of scenarios seen in different countries at different points. In the last 10 years, for example, the number of intenrational students leaving Uzbekistan has been relatively flat, increasing by just 5%. Compare that to much larger increases in other countries such as Azerbaijan (475%) and Turkmenistan (550%). Over the period since 1998, the lowest growth in the number of international students has been from Estonia (up 20%), dwarfed by enormous increases in Tajikistan which are over 1,400%!
That’s a very quick analysis of some extremely interesting similarities and differences between these 14 countries. The aim was to make these numbers available in an accessible format and hopefully to inspire some curiosity to ask why we see these trends, and to think about how these might change over the next ten years.
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:
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?