Is boycotting Russian universities the right thing to do?

Over the past two years, you could not get through a conference, webinar, article or conversation without hearing the word ‘COVID’. But since 24 February 2022, the term ‘COVID’ seems to have been replaced by ‘the Russian invasion of Ukraine’, which has affected all areas of our lives.

The West is in shock, and for good reason. It is not often that we witness such events in the Global North. On 5 March 2022, Mark A Ashwill addressed the initial reaction to the invasion when he wrote about the need for empathy during these complex times. He also highlighted the hypocrisy of the West given we did not see a similar response to other invasions, including the decades-long occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel and the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003.

In boycotting Russian universities, some Western higher education institutions have hastily followed the lead of their national governments without critically analysing the advantages and disadvantages of taking such a serious decision. As an international education professional, I am concerned that the negative consequences of this boycott for both Western and Russian universities outweigh the potential positive ones.

A changing landscape

On 4 March 2022, the Russian Union of Rectors published a statement in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war. Many Western governments and universities have taken this at face value and used it as justification to suspend collaboration with Russian higher education institutions and associations.

This response was a clear message that we in the West do not approve of such behaviour. It is a response of such magnitude and so unprecedented – despite the fact that many universities maintain partnerships with universities residing in countries that have and continue to violate the sovereignty of nations – that I would also argue that it was in fact an overreaction by the West.

The power dynamics between the Russian state and higher education institutions seem not to have been considered; for example, public opposition to the war was criminalised by the Russian Duma on the same day the Russian Union of Rectors’ statement was issued.

Through this comprehensive boycott, we have ultimately eliminated opportunities for mobility and joint educational and research activities with Russian universities, most of which do not provide the Russian state with knowledge or technology which could be used against Ukraine.

International collaboration and student mobility continue to be two of the primary strategies used worldwide to leverage national and ethnic diversity for the purposes of improving the quality of education; developing our students into global citizens; and producing innovative research.

By eliminating these strategies from our internationalisation toolkits, both Western and Russian universities and their respective populations suffer. If the essential functions of a university are to educate the future workforce of a nation, conduct research and contribute to society at large, doesn’t severing academic ties with an entire nation do more harm than good in achieving these goals?

Support for Ukraine

On a positive note, it is heartening to see such widespread solidarity with Ukraine. The breadth and depth of support organised for the Ukrainian people have been inspirational. But while universities and individuals alike should be applauded for their swift response, it pains me to point out that there is a ‘selective solidarity’ taking place.

Most likely unconsciously, we have forgotten the most vulnerable. In this context that means Ukrainian students and scholars at Russian universities; international students in Ukraine (many of whom come from African nations and India); and students and scholars in Russia who oppose the war.

By failing to incorporate these groups in our discourse about the conflict, we risk reproducing historically uneven knowledge and resource allocation between the Global North and South, which is one of the acknowledged shortcomings of current internationalisation models.

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