The Bear Begins to Wake: Russia Internationalizes

When it comes to the internationalization of higher education, the Russian Bear has remained in hibernation. On the global stage, Russia has not been widely viewed as a major international player in the area of higher education, nor has it made any splashy announcements about new government policies or institutional activities. Such a situation is surprising when one considers the amount of internationalizing activity engaged in by the other emerging economies of the BRIC group. Brazil recently launched its Science without Borders program to send 100,000 students abroad in three years. India and China are often discussed as the top senders of students studying abroad in the world. All three have been very public in discussing their desires to internationalize their higher education sectors, including wanting to make their own higher education institutions more internationally competitive. Moreover, Brazil, India and China are located in the fastest growing regions of destination for students studying abroad. In the meantime, the Bear has slumbered.

It is important to note that the Russian higher education system has historic strengths, particularly in areas such as math, science, and economics. Moreover, the government has been working to restructure the nation’s vast system to position it to grow and thrive in a post Soviet era, though not all reforms have been easy.

But now it seems that Russia has a new found interest in international engagement.

Concern over the inability of Russia’s higher education institutions to compete in international rankings has recently fostered great concern among institutional leaders and government officials. As a recent New York Times article summarized, “Each new [international] rating announcement sets off hand-wringing about the predominance of the United States and the rise of China, both sore points and models for Russia.” Part of their strategy to strengthen Russia’s higher education system is to focus on internationalization.

For example, Jason was invited to a meeting in Moscow in late May sponsored by Russia’s National Training Foundation that was focused on the internationalization of Russia. While Jason and other foreign speakers discussed the changing nature of internationalization and how different governments and systems have sought to foster internationalization, Russian speakers discussed their own efforts and the need for internationalization in Russia. One of the most impassioned set of remarks came from Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council. He emphasized that the internationalization of Russian higher education was imperative both for growing the soft power of the Russian State and strengthening Russia’s economic competitiveness (thoughts we’ve echoed more generally before here and here).

The general sentiment of those participating seemed to be that in order for internationalization efforts to move from rhetoric to reality there needed to be greater cooperation between the Russian government and higher education institutions.
Russian higher education institutions have faced a number of obstacles in their attempts to internationalize. The two leading obstacles, according to a 2007 report from OECD, are problems with recognizing foreign degrees and the lack of compatibility of the domestic higher education system with those of other nations. However, both obstacles seem to be disappearing. Until recently the government rarely recognized foreign academic credentials and hiring a foreigner to teach or research at a Russian university required special permission from the government. Such restrictions made it very difficult to attract non-Russians to assume faculty positions at Russian universities. To address this issue, President Medvedev, in December, 2011, signed a new law allowing for automatic degree recognition of a select group of foreign institutions and reducing the red tape that often prolonged hiring of foreign academics.

The lack of compatibility between higher education systems creates a barrier both for Russian students going abroad and foreign students coming to Russia. In terms of being a study abroad destination, Russia’s share of student’s studying abroad remains less than 5%, below that of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, France and Canada. However, there are signs of growth.  Between 2000 and 2009, Russia’s share doubled from 2% to 4%. Moreover, while China and India may be home to largest number of students studying outside of their country, Russia doesn’t lag that far behind — it is the sixth largest sender of students abroad. And, the Russian government announced a new loan program starting in 2012 to support students studying abroad in certain key areas. The loan would be forgiven if the student returned to Russia for three years.

Other issues remain, though. How the health benefits and pensions for foreign academic will be handled is still not clear. The growth in the number of international students studying in Russia mostly comes from neighboring states, many of which were former Soviet republics, and not from the broader global market. Many Russian students who do not speak a foreign language face barriers to study outside of the country. Internationalization efforts are not comprehensive across the sector, focused mainly on the nation’s  elite institutions.  And, while the government has laid the legal groundwork for institutions to create two-tiered (bachelor and masters) academic programs in line with their participation in the Bologna Process, most institutions have yet to make any actual changes.

These challenges to internationalization persist, and despite the interest expressed at the Moscow meeting, implementation still lags. So, while the Bear begins to wake, we wait to see whether it will roar or merely yawn.

[Creative Commons licensed Wikimedia photo by Simm]

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