International higher education is driving a new regional order

Last year was a remarkable year in the history of post-Soviet Eurasia. As the countries of the region celebrated 30 years of independence, trying to recover from the economic consequences of the global pandemic, some, like Kazakhstan, found themselves in the shock of unprecedented political upheaval, which resulted from the three decades of unequal distribution of economic wealth and growing dissatisfaction among the poor, which culminated in uncontrolled looting and bloodshed, pushing the compromised authoritarian leader inherited from the Soviet Union to eventually step down.

Others, like Ukraine and Russia, the peoples of which historically viewed one another as siblings, woke up one February morning to learn that they are no longer relatives but rather the worst enemies in the world, slaughtering one another in one of the most atrocious military conflicts of modern times as human sacrifices to the selfish desire of another post-Soviet authoritarian leader to retain his power and his colonial grip on a brethren state.

Still others, such as the countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia, found themselves faced with one of the most complex of geopolitical conundrums; trying to understand how to act when their former Soviet family members are going through one of the ugliest divorces in history, while Russia and the West are pushing them to choose sides or suffer economic and political consequences.

Observing the attempts of every member of the Eurasian Economic Union other than Belarus to distance themselves from affiliation with the weakening Russian state, it would not be wrong to state that the 30-year anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union marked, in fact, the beginning of the second stage of the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the formation of the new regional order in post-Soviet Eurasia.

My argument is that internationalisation of higher education has been an important precursor of this second stage of disintegration and that it will continue to be an important factor in the formation of the new geopolitical order.

A spur to greater institutional autonomy

At the time when the Soviet Union collapsed, the higher education systems of the former Soviet republics were as tightly integrated as productive sectors of the economy, transportation systems and supply and distribution chains. Moreover, they were modelled on Russian universities, the Russian Academy of Sciences and research schools.

In an alternative scenario, these countries could have chosen to retain a single model of higher education and to harmonise educational reforms across the board to facilitate the development of a new regional cooperation order.

Instead, many chose to aggressively internationalise, rushing to join the Bologna Process to remodel their universities in accordance with the newly emerging European system, funded international mobility programmes to train a new generation of faculty, scholars, business and government leaders at large, and joined the global race for a place in international ranking systems and orders by introducing standardised admissions tests and participating in international assessments and accreditation systems.

In a different paper I would have argued that these developments have replaced the old Russian colonial structures in the region with the increasing grip of new oppressive systems of Western academic colonialism.

But for the purposes of this article, I would like to note that the very same developments have led to the increased autonomy of the countries’ higher education systems from Russian academic centres and have led to the emergence of new local academic cadres, education policy-making capacity and leadership, which have created unique national solutions to, at times, common issues and challenges.

In some ways, internationalisation of higher education during the first three decades of the countries’ independence has created a platform for the formation of diverse national ideologies and economic systems in the region, which, in turn, has created the conditions for the second stage of disintegration of the Soviet Union.

A continuing commitment to internationalisation

In this new stage of disintegration, the old commitment to maintaining a regional economic, trade and military union across the majority of the post-Soviet states will inevitably weaken, the role of the Russian centre will shrink as new, most likely multilateral, collaborations will emerge between countries in the region, with external players trying to strengthen their influence in this part of the world.

Despite the pessimistic predictions that global higher education will de-internationalise in the years to come as a result of geopolitical polarisation, the mere survival of the former Soviet states depends on their continuing commitment to active internationalisation of higher education and diversification of not only their economic and political but also their intellectual and cultural connections with their neighbours and countries outside the post-Soviet space.

A careful observer can already note the reversal of regional international student mobility streams, with Russia suddenly becoming a sender to other countries of the region and international students transferring from Ukrainian and Russian universities to universities in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

In addition to these student flows, there is an outflow of Russian researchers and faculty to the countries of the region as a consequence of military mobilisation, economic decline and the tightening of political control, which has the potential not only to address some research and academic deficits in post-Soviet member states, but also to increase the share of international (mainly Russian) faculty in the universities of Central Asia and the Caucuses.

In Kazakhstan, education authorities announced the government’s financial commitment to investing in opening branches of Russian and Western universities in several regions of the country as well as to increasing grants for international research collaboration.

Uzbekistan has come to recognise the importance of reviving its government-sponsored international mobility programme and to expand it to students willing to pursue masters and graduate degrees abroad, trying to emulate the effect of the ‘Bolashak’ programme administered by its Central Asian neighbour, Kazakhstan.

Moreover, with the decreasing interest of students in the region in pursuing higher education in Russia, one can predict an increase in self-funded students exploring the possibility of going to study in other neighbouring countries in Eurasia or further afield.

This in turn will lead to the emergence of new ties, partnerships, organisational forms and policy solutions as well as to cultural and intellectual exchange, strengthening the ability of each country in the region to exercise soft power.

Resisting new forms of colonisation

To summarise, internationalisation of higher education in post-Soviet Eurasia will continue to reshape the region and, due to the increasing geopolitical importance of the area, the rest of the world.

Moreover, there is a hope that the diversifying ties of the region’s educational authorities, universities and individual scholars with the rest of the world will also strengthen the ability of the post-Soviet states to resist new forms of colonisation and to support their own sovereignty and cultural and intellectual autonomy for years to come.

Aliya Kuzhabekova is assistant professor at the University of Calgary in Canada, where she researches international higher education and educational reform in post-Soviet Eurasia.