Internationalisation’s new goals are political, not academic

War affects every aspect of society, including higher education. In discussing the political situation in Russia today, many people draw parallels between what is happening now and what happened in the 1930s. Although any historical parallels should be treated with caution, Russian higher education in the early 1920s and early 1930s bears some similarities in logic and trends to what is happening today.

These trends include more control over academic research, in particular the use of research by institutions affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences and in the use of research in universities to address tasks related to state military and defence priorities. It also includes the rapid disconnection of Russian universities from the international academic agenda and the dramatic drop in international mobility and collaboration.

A brief history

Higher education and science in Russia have been connected to the international community in different ways in different historical periods. We have moved from close ties to almost complete autonomy and isolation, and from cooperation and integration to a quest for our own national identity.

The internationalisation of science and education has traditionally been mostly an issue for government policy; only recently has it moved to the institutional level. However, this period didn’t last long and today the Russian higher education system has pivoted back to one of centralised control over research and education as well as its international activities.

120 years ago, before the revolution, the Russian system of higher education and science had reached the peak of its organisational and content-based development and contact between the Russian academic community with its foreign colleagues was considered quite important; the Russian science community was well integrated into international science networks.

World War I, the Bolsheviks’ rise to power and the related civil war resulted in the breaking up or disrupting of many of the connections between Russian professors and their foreign colleagues. These were partially restored by 1924 for a brief period when the government saw international scientific contacts as an important tool for ending the country’s political blockade. Internships abroad and research and conference visits were restored.

International scientific contact during the later 1920s were successful enough; international cooperation was officially declared an important factor in the development of science. In the mid-1920s, international philanthropic and charitable foundations and societies started to play an important role in international mobility and the internationalisation of Soviet science.

Some of the most significant were the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation and the Royal Society of the UK. They offered scholarships to Russian researchers (including young researchers) for long-term placements at the world’s leading universities. Those who received the scholarships served as vehicles for new scientific ideas, information and academic research papers. These scholarships turned out to be very important for embedding whole scientific disciplines, such as theoretical physics.

These intense international connections lasted for less than a decade. In the late 1920s
and early 1930s, political relationships between the USSR and capitalist countries began to cool down.

That led to radical changes in the international component of Soviet science and education policy. Stalin’s rule (1934-1953) is often described as an era of political isolation which reduced all international contacts, including science-related ones, to a minimum.

At the same time, it should be kept in mind that after the Soviet victory in World War II, this closing down of partnerships with the so-called capitalist countries was combined with active economic, scientific and technical cooperation with East European countries. This is described as ‘Sovietisation’ – applying ideological, social and political pressure to those countries. It was accompanied by the restructuring of the Soviet science and education management system.

The necessary and natural elements of scientific interaction, such as travel abroad, correspondence and meeting foreign colleagues started to be perceived in the Soviet
Union of the early 1930s as fraught with possible accusations of spying, anti-Soviet activity or other negative connotations.

This severe isolation continued until Stalin’s death in 1953. Throughout this time, Soviet scientists had almost no chance to consider the new achievements of their foreign colleagues, communicate with them or publish their articles abroad. All activity of that kind was considered to be ‘spying and fifth columnism’.

The goal of the isolation policy was not only to minimise contact between Soviet scientists and the international community; the war of ideas was equally important. The idea of global science and its universal nature was renounced; ‘socialist’ science was supposed to have its own trajectory, unlike ‘bourgeois’ science.

Soviet influence on scientific, educational and technological policy extended to both East European and some Asian countries, such as China, North Korea and Mongolia — those that had chosen the socialist path of development and were Soviet allies.

What is happening today?

Today Russia in general and its higher education system in particular are rapidly returning to isolationism and de-internationalisation. While the pre-war period was characterised by international ambitions on the part of both the government and higher education institutions – the Academic Excellence Initiative ‘5-100’ (2013-2020) being one of the important endeavours – now there is a decline in international cooperation at the institutional level as well as at the individual level. There is a rapid decline in institutional international contacts with the US and European countries. The reasons are bilateral.

After the outbreak of war, and especially after the Russian rectors’ letter of support for the war, universities in many countries ceased institutional cooperation with Russian institutions. On the other hand, there has been a breakdown in relations on the part of Russian universities which are afraid to be blamed for “cooperation with the enemy”.

A substantial share of international faculty and researchers who had been hired during the more liberal ‘5-100’ period have left the country. In the pre-war decade a huge effort had been made to bring them to Russia.

Many waves of grant competitions aimed at creating international labs and the strategic activities of leading Russian universities (in particular by the 5-100 institutions) brought many international researchers into the country, not only as individual researchers but as team leaders, advisors and head of labs and educational programmes.

Their exodus has resulted in a huge brain drain of people whose purpose had been to build and nurture Russia’s academic quality and reputation.

‘Sovereign science’

Russia is no longer part of the Bologna system. That means the de-internationalisation of its teaching standards, lower prospects for students to continue their education abroad and much less transparency and visibility. Low visibility affects research output as well. Having an international component, which until recently was seen as a sign of quality, is now being replaced by a trend towards autonomy and an inward-looking perspective.

The focus on publications in leading international journals when it comes to assessing the quality of research, grants and individual and institutional research achievements is being replaced by a focus on local Russian journals. The term “sovereign” science is beginning to dominate.

The recently introduced law on “foreign agents” (the list of these now includes a growing number of researchers and public intellectuals) bars people who are assigned this status from teaching at public educational institutions.

Together with the growing requirements to get permission to publish articles on certain topics before their submission to international journals, accusations against a number of researchers of “revealing national secrets” and other signs of political pressure, this reinforces the tendency towards localisation.

At the same time, we cannot say that the international component is totally absent. There is a reorientation towards other regions (such as Syria, Iran and Pakistan) when it comes to policies on research cooperation and attraction of international students. Internationalisation has new goals which are more political than academic.

In many ways it is a return to the Soviet model, where international cooperation was seen as a tool of political influence and where such activities were strictly regulated and controlled by the state.

Maria Yudkevich was director of the Center for Institutional Studies and vice-rector of HSE University, Moscow, Russia. Her book Higher Education in Russia, co-authored with Yaroslav Kuzminov and published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2022, provides a historical and comparative analysis of Russian higher education from early times through various historical periods up to the pre-war and aims to increase understanding of the mechanisms behind current changes in Russian universities. Internationalisation and its role for Russian higher education is one of the key topics.