Most historical accounts put Peter the Great’s reign at the beginning of the 18th century as the primary driver of efforts to establish Russia as a global leader in knowledge as well as a military power. For the following 200 years Russian universities pushed forward an imperial agenda showcasing their scholarly achievements to the rest of the civilised world.
The war of knowledge produced unforeseen consequences. The faster the progress of Russian universities, the fewer graduates joined Russia’s army of imperial bureaucrats. Instead they chose mostly liberal professions, working for the public interest as opposed to that of the state. With no precedent for such civic autonomy, universities’ legitimacy rested on Russia’s international standing.
The October Revolution of 1917 put Russia at the forefront of international politics. Networks of knowledge transfer were also deeply affected. Russia was the inspiration for world-leading intellectuals like John Dewey or HG Wells. The emphasis placed on teamwork and problem-solving, the removal of compulsory textbooks and the transformation of teaching into project-based work all made Soviet educational experiments rather appealing.
Such experimentation vanished under Joseph Stalin. International cooperation was considerably curbed. Nevertheless, the myth of Soviet education as the 'world's best' survived. This deep-seated belief in the supremacy of Russian education was boosted by the Sputnik launch in 1957.
The high quality of Soviet higher education in mathematics, physics and engineering was unquestioned. The academic careers of Russian émigré scientists after the collapse of the USSR cemented this idea.
In 2003 Russia joined the Bologna Process, thus opening a new chapter in the history of internationalisation for its universities. The national Ministry of Education pushed for rapid implementation of a two-tier (BA and MA) degree system.
At the same time a state-wide national testing programme for university entrance was launched. Debates around Bologna and the national exam again brought to the fore opposing views on the internationalisation of Russian higher education.
The federal government singled out the need for innovative breakthroughs in Russia’s shrinking share of high-tech exports as the only driver for rapid change in the higher education system. Growing oil revenues in the 2000s produced an opportunity to increase funding for universities.
Resource allocation was decided based on effectiveness and excellence: the Ministry of Education and Science launched a scheme for monitoring universities’ effectiveness in 2012 and its academic excellence initiative '5-100' – which aims to get five Russian universities into the top 100 leading world universities' rankings – in 2013.
Both the effectiveness monitoring and the 5-100 initiative have internationalisation as one of their objectives. The former benchmarks each institution according to the number of international students in its overall student population. The 5-100 initiative emphasises the role of outbound internationalisation measured primarily through the numbers of Scopus and Web of Science publications of academic papers.
Numbers over impact
This top-down way of promoting internationalisation has limited the autonomy of Russian universities more than ever before. With few, if any, endowments and no strong connections with business, they are extremely dependent on state funding. The Ministry of Education and Science’s approach to internationalisation is purely quantitative and based on boosting the numbers of international students and publications regardless of their impact.
Keen not to miss out on federal grants, universities sometimes create false incentives for their employees. Academics start to seek any opportunity to publish in English, despite any reputation risks. This leads to university management announcing further restrictions, for instance, issuing a list of 'junk' journals.
Yet with teaching loads higher than in the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, it is much harder for academics to balance compliance with academic ethics and managerial pressures.
This has led to growing – though hidden – divisions among academics, especially those in regional universities. Liberals who are historically linked to humanities and social science departments mourn the loss of the last remnants of academic autonomy. Nostalgic technocrats from the hard science departments prefer to recall the supposed grandeur of the bygone Soviet academic age.
Diverse as their reactions are, all share a discontent with the current state of affairs. For multiple reasons Russia is lagging behind the leaders in the global knowledge economy.
Controversies around internationalisation reflect the clash of two opposite strategic visions. According to the first, internationalisation implies the rapid import of practices and ideas from the global West as occurred in Peter the Great’s time.
According to the other, internationalisation is predominantly an arm of the Russian scientific and cultural propaganda machine, closely linked to attempts to establish Russia as a global power once again.
The recent proposal to ban officials' children from studying abroad should be understood against this background. Although rather unlikely to ever become law, this proposal provides further evidence of the prevailing atmosphere of distrust towards Russian higher education institutions, given that officials are sending their children abroad because they don’t trust public claims about the quality of their own universities.
No strategy for further development can be built on such shaky ground. The challenges that Russian higher education is currently facing are by no means specific. All over the world universities strive to present themselves as global or truly international. However, internationalisation should not be carried out on academics. It is only possible with academics and among them. We have to constantly remind ourselves that knowledge has no borders.
Petr Safronov is associate professor at the Institute of Education, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russia.
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