Russian in Egypt’s schools: A new take on ‘The Great Game’

Three hundred years of imperial rivalry between Russia and the Anglophone states have washed up on the shores of Egypt. The latest development is a plan to make Russian available as a second language in an unspecified number of schools and colleges.

Details are sparse, but this builds on attempts by Russian universities to recruit Egyptian students to fill places left vacant by declining domestic enrolments. Russia’s Kazan Federal University has been offering preparatory language classes and last year St Petersburg University agreed to establish a branch campus in Egypt.

This is the latest version of what is known in diplomatic and military circles as ‘The Great Game’, a competition between the 19th century British and Russian Empires over influence, power and commercial presence in Asia that has enthralled tsars, commissars, autocrats, prime ministers and political thugs for decades.

Geographically, it was once confined to Afghanistan and surrounds, but it soon spilled into Persia and India. The focus was primarily on military alliances and trade preferences, but now embraces education, language and culture. The latest announcement is a timely reminder that the world of global higher education that has flourished for the last 50 years is facing some challenges.

Mobility and other challenges

The first challenge is politely described in the financial sector as a ‘tightening enabling environment’. There is a war in Europe, heightened political tensions in Asia, COVID still lingers, energy prices are still volatile and natural disasters have devastated communities in many countries – all factors which absorb resources and political attention, suppressing any appetite for cross-national work.

The same factors constrain mobility, which is the second challenge. Travel costs are high, and capacity is still limited. COVID management policies are still operating in some places and war zones increase risks and affect mobility. Nationalism and populism are still influencing visa policies, with debates on the numbers that can be issued and extended processing times in some jurisdictions.

Populism, nationalism and ideology are also changing attitudes towards cross-border mobility. Since India’s independence it has pursued a policy of self-reliance which has limited the presence of international education providers. That policy has changed, which may encourage Indian students to study at home and may attract more international students to India.

China’s ‘double reduction’ policy shift in 2021 limiting after-school tutoring and regulations reducing access to international school programmes will reduce the pool of Chinese students ready to study abroad. The same policies increase state surveillance of students studying abroad and foster insularity.

Such moves are paralleled by increased domestic surveillance of classroom exchanges, be it by students in China or parents in Florida. Both are aimed at promoting a narrow world view, one that shuns ‘others’ and celebrates a drab monoculture of conformity and rote learning.

Competition and the war over talent

Nationalism, economic competitiveness and self-sufficiency shape the fourth challenge: increased competition for knowledge. This competition produces a complex market for talent and patents and limits the free movement of ideas and intellectual exchange across borders.

It discourages collaboration and teamwork and fosters theft of intellectual property and an illicit trade in technology. All impinge on academic communities which thrive when there is free exchange and ready cooperation.

Economic competitiveness is also at the core of the fifth challenge: the changing global demand for skills and credentials. There continues to be a strong appetite for first degrees, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, in most labour markets.

In China, large numbers of graduates and the economic downturn during COVID have reduced opportunities and narrowed the wage and prestige premium of an international undergraduate degree. This has been reinforced by a lift in quality in Chinese universities. The result is an increased demand for graduate education domestically and internationally.

This is likely to continue for the immediate future, but many applicants will be less well prepared for graduate studies that require strong oral and written communication skills.

This is why higher education authorities like the Russian ministry are pursuing language programmes which can be a foundation for university entrance.

International education and power games

These five challenges will all influence the demand for international education. Their effects will be accentuated by some demographic realities. There are ageing populations in some countries that have been traditional sources of international students.

While China’s current youth population is larger than expected, birth rates have been low for some years. South Korea’s teenagers are much fewer than its 19- to 24-year-olds who in turn are fewer than its 25- to 29-year-olds.

India, conversely, has a large youth population with a rapidly growing proportion completing secondary education. Other nations like Egypt and Nigeria also have increased demand for higher education which cannot be met by local institutions or by small branch campuses.

Young people from wealthier families will look for cross-border learning opportunities. Recruiting those students is now an element in ‘The Great Game’.

It is not just about accumulation of soft power, of having social and political elites who are well-disposed to a particular nation state. It is about economic and strategic alliances. And it is no longer a small enterprise of just a few students moving under an umbrella of government scholarship programmes. It is a noticeable part of the trade in services.

Competing projections have international higher education growing from around five million students globally to eight million by 2030 as the most likely scenario. But the lower projections tend to favour a more modest total of six million. Managing both volatility in demand and diversification in the source of students and how well they are prepared are a further challenge for the business of higher education.

But this likely demand is an opportunity. There is still an appetite for diversity, difference and variety in education; young people want choices. There are still many who value freedom of movement, and freedom of worship, and some who seek tolerance of difference – be it faith, identity, sexuality or how and where they work or create. They are not interested in the adventures of foreign policy warriors but in their own individual freedoms.

Hopefully, they are also interested in working collaboratively on the more intractable problems that face the world – issues like feeding all people adequately, delivering safe and affordable water, managing climate, maintaining individual privacy and extending access to learning in a digital world. All are cross-border problems and the opportunity to work on them is compelling and will continue to make international education attractive to so many young people.

If they pursue these opportunities, perhaps they will avoid the fate of the British explorer Arthur Conolly who coined the expression ‘The Great Game’. He was tortured and beheaded by the Emir of Bukhara.

Alan Ruby is senior fellow in the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and director of the Global Engagement Office at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, United States.