Higher education in Russia and international academic cooperation – seeking trust

ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 1/2020. International cooperation in higher education became more challenging once EU-Russia relations descended into crisis after Russia's takeover of Crimea. However, our study points out that higher education cooperation has been almost the only form of cooperation that has continued virtually seamlessly since the 2014 events.

A great deal has happened in Russian higher education during the 2010s. For example, systematic evaluation of the quality of teaching and research has been launched, and – partly as a result of this – several higher education institutions, and especially their branches, have been merged or abolished. These academic reforms have tried to improve the quality of Russian higher education and to restore its reputation. Alongside them, there have also been news about difficulties faced by humanities and social sciences universities, lay-offs of teachers, (already cancelled) reporting requirements of meetings with foreign colleagues, and more recently, restrictions that have been placed on students’ political activity.

Education policy is part of internal policy and, for its part, illustrates the aspirations of those in power in Russia, but it may be part of foreign policy, too. Higher education is an important form of international cooperation, and it can also be used consciously as an instrument of foreign policy.

The EU's objective has been in particular to democratise – or “Europeanise” – Russia; Russia's objective has been to improve its external image.

We have been studying cooperation in higher education between the EU and Russia in the Towards Good Neighbourliness with Higher Education Cooperation project funded by the Kone Foundation. We have observed together with my colleague Larisa Deriglazova that foreign policy purposes are clearly present in education cooperation at the level of the EU and the Russian state, even though neither side has been very successful in their implementation. The EU's objective has been in particular to democratise – or “Europeanise” – Russia; Russia's objective has been to improve its external image. However, despite failing to achieve these objectives, the importance of this education cooperation for the higher education reforms in Russia cannot be denied. It has played a significant role in particular for those teachers, researchers, administrators and students who have had the opportunity to participate in the cooperation. Thus, the academic objectives have partially been achieved at the levels of institutions and individuals. The cooperation with EU has also been important for Russian higher education system because of the funding it has guaranteed. This was especially true in the 1990s when the cooperation started and the cooperation relationship was still very unbalanced.

Cooperation became more challenging once EU-Russia relations descended into crisis after Russia's takeover of Crimea. However, as we have said in our study, higher education cooperation has been almost the only form of cooperation that has continued virtually seamlessly since the 2014 events. Indeed, there is a clear position to the political dimensions of higher education cooperation among those working at the grass-roots level in Finnish and Russian institutions: academic cooperation is considered to have a positive impact on the relationship between the countries and the weakened relations between the countries were not felt to have affected the cooperation. This perception came out in interviews with Finnish and Russian actors; they emphasised the non-political nature of academic cooperation, as well as the fact that political topics were not discussed or even should not be discussed with cooperation partners.

In our project, we have also considered whether education cooperation could help in creating a climate of trust. Such a climate may be clearly found at the grass-roots level in EU-Russia education cooperation:  there is respect and trust for partners, desire for mutual learning and interest in continuing cooperation. However, interviews with experts from EU countries also reveal a contradiction: while there is respect and trust for individual Russian teachers, researchers and administrators, there is also suspicion and lack of trust in the higher education system as a whole. Recent news from the higher education field is not helping to alleviate these suspicions or lack of trust.

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Sirke Mäkinen is a University Lecturer at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki.