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.

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