Education as a Soft Power Instrument of Russia’s Foreign Policy
Login if you are already registered
(votes: 1, rating: 1)
Rector of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University) of the RF MFA, RAS Full Member, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation
At the present stage in world history, through globalization and as a result of an emerging new “poly-centric system in international relations,” but also because of changes to the key factors allowing nations to have an impact on world policies, what comes to the fore and becomes aligned with military and political weight and economic resources is soft power: achievements in culture and arts, sciences, technologies, education, and more.
“[…] This is not about empire, but rather cultural progress. Exporting education and culture will help promote Russian goods, services and ideas; guns and imposing political regimes will not.
We must work to expand Russia’s educational and cultural presence in the world, especially in those countries where a substantial part of the population speaks or understands Russian” .
V.V. Putin. Russian and the Changing World, 2012.
A New Leadership Resource in Today’s World
Any nation in its foreign policy focuses on strengthening its international positions and image, as well as creating a favorable external environment for its country’s long-term socioeconomic growth. And while the foreign policy toolkit used to accomplish this objective may change from epoch to epoch, in the 20th century’s bipolar world, the dominant trend was for states to concentrate on building up their hard power and their military and economic might.
At the present stage in world history, through globalization and as a result of an emerging new “poly-centric system in international relations,” but also because of changes to the key factors allowing nations to have an impact on world policies, what comes to the fore and becomes aligned with military and political weight and economic resources is soft power: achievements in culture and arts, sciences, technologies, education, and more .
Soft power is a state’s ability to win others over, ensuring support for their agendas in international relations by demonstrating their cultural and moral values, their policies’ appeal, and the efficiency of their political institutions . This is a strategy built on certain instruments that help a country position itself on the world stage such as exporting education, promoting their language and disseminating national cultural values.
One should not ignore the growing competition among national universities and study centers. Almost all higher education institutions are involved in this race for the best potential students.
Today, political leadership in the world is increasingly dependent on a nation’s ability to “nurture purposefully” its neighbours or competitors . In times of transition in the global political system, nations are fighting more and more over their right to define the values and rules of this world order.
Competition between values and models of public, national and socioeconomic development is seen as a key trend at the start of the new millennium. Leadership today is not deemed possible without the rapid progress in human potential that lies at the core of this new, knowledge-based, economy. Many fast-growing countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), moving towards the innovation economy, focus particularly hard on the modernization and internationalization of their national educational systems . Only an advanced educational system meeting the requirements of an innovative, high-tech economy, that is also highly integrated with international education and science, can, in the “worldwide competition for minds” emerge as a key competitive advantage for today’s Russia and attracting the most talented foreign students. Offering education services to foreign students is one of the key soft power instruments of any state. It is the university years that shape young people’s values and views.
During their time as students, creative and inquisitive undergraduates from other countries actively learn the language of the host country and display a keen interest in its achievements in science and culture. They acquire valuable social capital and, returning to their home countries with this treasure of newly acquired knowledge, ties, affections and friends, they often become effective conduits of the language and culture of the country in which they studied. As a result, the soft power of national education is a more effective way to influence the outside world than military or other forms of pressure.
An Impalpable Presence
At the same time, one should not ignore the growing competition among national universities and study centers. Almost all higher education institutions are involved in this race for the best potential students. In Russia, universities compete with each other as well as with foreign universities, be it elite institutions in the United States and UK, where education is rather expensive, or certain universities in Central and Eastern Europe, where, by contrast, education is very cheap.
We should be realists and understand that, with all its remarkable traditions, with all its wealth of experience, Russia’s higher education system is now part of a global education space. What does this mean? The main implication is that we need to develop links with foreign universities at many levels, network, run exchange programs with foreign partner institutions, invite foreign professors and undergraduates and ensure our professors and tutors publish their articles and research in leading foreign journals .
Increased Internationalization of Higher Education in Times of Globalization
The number of students that seek education outside their respective countries (or “mobile students” to use the UNESCO classification) in the past three decades has more than quadrupled (from 0.8 million in 1975 to 3.7 million in 2009). UNESCO notes three main jumps in student mobility between 1975 and 2004. During the first rise (1975–1980), the total number of mobile students increased by 30 percent, growing from 0.8 to 1.04 million. The next boom happened between 1989 and 1994, when mobility increased by 34 percent. A third wave between 1999 and 2004 saw a 41 percent increase .
In the past decade, international mobility among students has continued to grow. While in 2007, the global total of foreign students amounted to 2.8 million, it increased to 3.7 million in 2009. This mobility is forecast to reach 5.8 million by 2020 and 8 million by 2025 . Today we may be witnessing a fourth wave in the “internationalization of university education” under the influence of the broader economic and social globalization and internationalization .
International mobility among students is supported by a variety of programs (ERASMUS, SOCRATES, and Nordplus in Europe, for example) and can take different forms: from completing a full course at a university in another country to participating in language programs. International academic mobility is further incentivized by specialized services supporting the export of education and academic exchanges of professors and students, such as, for example, France’s Edu France, Egide, or Germany’s DAAD.
Having recognized early the advantages of using education to influence the world, North American universities lead the charts in terms of the number of foreign students they have.
Globalization and internalization recently have significantly strengthened the social, economic and political roles of universities. The global research university model has gained great popularity worldwide: it helps universities contribute actively not only to the generation of new knowledge but also to its diffusion and implementation through innovations .
In addition, new forms of internationalization have emerged over the past fifteen years offering trans-border mobility for universities or their programs. Program mobility is based on remote education courses that foreign universities can offer, or joint courses and programs. Mobility of universities allows them to open campuses overseas or invest in the establishment of new universities abroad .
Having recognized early the advantages of using education to influence the world, North American universities lead the charts in terms of the number of foreign students they have. According to UNESCO, in 2007 U.S. universities attracted the largest numbers: 595,900 foreign students, or 21.3 percent of the world’s total of foreign students. Quite a lot of them studied in the UK (351,500, or 12 percent). Third in the rating was France, with 246,600 foreign students (9 percent), followed by Australia (211,500), Germany (206,900), Japan (125,900), Canada (68,500), South Africa (60,600), Russia (60,300) and Italy (57,300 students) .
Asia today is one of the larger suppliers of “young brains” to the United States. Half of all foreign students at American universities come from India, China, Taiwan, South Korea or Japan.
These 11 countries have 71 percent of the mobile students in the world, and 62 percent of them study in the first six countries. Most of the countries on the list also supply foreign students: Germany (77,500), Japan (54,500), France (54,000), United States (50,300), Canada (43,900) and Russia (42,900). China has the largest number of outgoing students (almost 421,100), followed by India (153,300) and South Korea (105,300).
Asia today is one of the larger suppliers of “young brains” to the United States. Half of all foreign students at American universities come from India, China, Taiwan, South Korea or Japan. Apart from achieving political influence, teaching foreign students brings the United States considerable economic gains. English, as the language of international communications, plays an important role in making U.S. education appealing. In addition, U.S. permit practices allow foreign students educated in the United States to stay for one calendar year in the country without applying for any additional entry documents, and work at universities, non-profit research institutions or in the private sector. As a result, any foreign citizen who is an American university alumnus has the opportunity to acquire practical skills in his or her specialty field in the United States .
Foreign students assess how attractive a particular education system is but also take into consideration other important, non-academic factors, such as the cost of accommodation, visa requirements or conditions for gaining citizenship after graduation, the level of tolerance in the host society and integration prospects. According to annual surveys of foreign students in New Zealand by the country’s education ministry, these factors are decisive in international students’ country choice for higher education .
EU policies (Bologna process) aiming to introduce a single European space in higher education are of particular interest. The process initially had two dimensions – internal and external. The internal dimension of the Bologna process was to improve university education in Europe (in the early 1990s Europe noticed it was lagging behind the United States in that area); enhance universities’ efficiency at meeting the demands of the knowledge-based economy, and to create a new identity, a “European” student (as opposed to, for example, a German or French student).
The external dimension of the Bologna process aims to compete for the best students and professors on the international markets of education by making the European tertiary education more appealing and moving in education from “Europeanization” to “internationalization” (before 1990s there was no difference) .
Russia’s Soft Power Potential in Internationalizing Higher Education
Russia’s education potential has traditionally been seen as an essential development resource for the country:
“Russia’s main hope is the high level of education of the population and, mainly, of our youth. And that is a fact, despite all the well-known problems and complaints about the quality of the national education system.
Fifty-seven percent of our population aged 25-35 has completed higher education. Apart from Russia, a similar level is found in only three other countries: Japan, South Korea, and Canada. The explosive growth of educational needs continues. When it comes to the next generation (aged 15-25), it is fitting to talk about universal higher education, with more than 80 percent of our young men and women obtaining or seeking it.” 
Since the Soviet era, Russia has boasted a wealth of experience in attracting foreign students. Importantly, the USSR for a long time used higher education as a geopolitical tool and as an “ideological weapon” at the time of confrontation and the Cold War, long before the term ‘soft power’ was coined.
Fifty-seven percent of our population aged 25-35 has completed higher education. Apart from Russia, a similar level is found in only three other countries: Japan, South Korea, and Canada.
However, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia’s share of the world’s educational services market has been on a steady decline. According to OECD data, Russia had only 3 percent of the total number of foreign students in 2004 and a meager 2 percent by 2007. Apart from being a lost opportunity, it is also a missed opportunity to use soft power in international affairs. The USSR, for a number of years was, after the United States, the second most attractive destination for foreign students, Russia today only holds ninth place. Most of the foreign students in Russia today come from developing economies, the former Soviet republics and Asia. The largest groups of foreign students come from Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, India, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Armenia and Ukraine.
The Russian education system could be made more competitive through the implementation of an efficient education export strategy. In the context of Russia’s foreign policy priorities, which include supporting compatriots, creating a favorable setting for the development of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, and strengthening EurAsEC as a regional integration centre, one of Russia’s top policy priorities is to enhance the country’s role as a key education center across the CIS . Russia enjoys significant advantages in the CIS to appeal to foreign students (price to quality ratio, the language of study, the reputation of the university, geographic proximity).
The success with which the Russian education system internationalizes and becomes part of the single European space in tertiary education will depend on progress in relations between Russia and the EU, in addition to consistent efforts to create common space in the economy, domestic and foreign security, education, science and culture.
Enhancing its relations with the United States and Canada, as well as bi- and multi-lateral links with Brazil, India, China, and South Africa including within the BRICS framework, Russia will be better placed to strengthen the export potential of its education system on the world markets of education services, and to integrate Russian education within the world’s common education space .
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia’s share of the world’s educational services market has been on a steady decline. According to OECD data, Russia had only 3 percent of the total number of foreign students in 2004 and a meager 2 percent by 2007.
One of the promising areas for education cooperation could be found in the Asia Pacific region, given the strengthening of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and its initiative to set up a network of partnerships with all integration associations.
Significantly, Russia has been successful in creating a CIS university network (for MA students). Its objective is to emulate and implement a program similar to Erasmus Mundus within the single education space of the CIS countries. Proposed in 2008 by the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, the university network consortium now consists of 16 leading institutions from 8 countries: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan and Ukraine. The project intends to promote cooperation and inter-university ties for the benefit of tertiary education across the CIS countries. Having completed the basic course at their home university, be it in Kazakhstan, Kirghiz Republic or Belarus, CIS students may continue their education with an MA course in Russia at the University of the Friendship of the Peoples, Moscow State University (MGU), and The Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University) among others.
Now the SCO has a similar university network, where the partnership promotes collaboration between Russian, Chinese and Kazakh universities. The SCO’s success could be built on by establishing a Eurasian University to cater for different fields, including integration of countries in the Eurasian Union. This holds particular importance for Russia as those are neighboring states that share common history and large Russian-speaking populations.
Russian universities so far have had very few joint education programs or programs in foreign languages, or joint international research aimed at internationalizing the content of the curricula. And here yet another priority is to set up bilateral and multilateral programs with foreign universities and in particular joint MA and postgraduate studies programs with the leading European universities. Their graduates will get diplomas from two or even three universities at the same time, having studied in Russia and at partner universities abroad. Such affiliation with different national schools will be a major boost to students’ human capital and competitiveness.
Teaching in a foreign language is no longer a luxury but a must if the universities are to remain competitive.
If they are to develop efficiently and compete for the best minds and best-qualified personnel, Russian universities must see themselves as part of the international education space. However, not all Russian universities today can be part of this internationalization of higher education. One issue is the language barrier, in particular for provincial universities. A network of academic and student exchanges can only work if our tutors, assistant professors, and professors are fluent in foreign languages and can freely give lectures, conduct seminars and are able to evaluate foreign students’ work or assist Russian students in absorbing foreign language materials.
The teaching language is an important factor in this internationalization. English-language programs are believed to be so popular among foreign students that such countries as Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and even France have started to offer programs in English.
In other words, teaching in a foreign language is no longer a luxury but a must if the universities are to remain competitive.
The Importance of University Rankings for the Appeal of Russia’s Higher Education
University rankings have become an inalienable part of the global tertiary education system. They have important functions in supporting communications, informing service users about universities, and acting as instruments of transparency and image-building for universities at the national and international levels.
These instruments, which have become so popular, provide a graphic demonstration of the growing competition among universities for talent and sources of funding. Universities strive to improve their ratings, which only leads to more competition. The upside is that rankings force the administrations to be ambitious, stimulate them to modernize their governance systems, and urge them to perform better.
Russia’s leading universities are struggling to stand alongside the top international service providers because of their weak presence in international university ratings such as the Academic Ranking of the World (Shanghai Rating), the QS World University Ranking, or The Times Higher Education World University Ranking. In 2011–2012 not a single Russian university made it to the top 100 best universities in Britain’s The Times World Reputation Rankings.
Clearly, Russian universities may feel discomfort over the long-established system of indicators and indices published by foreign rating agencies, and some reasons for their performance lie outside the universities’ own control. But as a result, we often hear calls to set up our own national rankings, or to criticize international assessments. This seems clear: there should be national rankings, at the very least for us to feel equal to the task of negotiating a more objective and substantive evaluation of higher education. This could see the list of top hundred universities change. But it would be counterproductive to pretend that Russia’s higher educational establishments can continue to employ a different scale of values in these times of such frenetic global competition in the education market.
Russia’s leading universities are struggling to stand alongside the top international service providers because of their weak presence in international university ratings.
The Russian Government’s Resolution dated April 25, 2012, announcing that Russia will recognize foreign university diplomas, academic degrees and titles, has sparked a new wave of debate about these rankings. One of the criteria for foreign diploma recognition is a place in top 300 in at least one of the three leading rankings mentioned above. The Russian president also signed a decree on measures to implement government policies in education and science that states, among other things, that by 2020 at least five Russian universities must be included in the list of the world’s top 100 leading universities according to the World University Ranking .
Most of these global ranking indicators include an assessment of the level of research based on the university’s publications in peer-reviewed international journals (in the Web of Science or Scopus lists), where one aggregate indicator covers both the education and research conducted by the university. Russian universities, however, are not sufficiently integrated in the global publications system for international journals.
If we are to enhance this research citation index, we must become more actively involved in the internationalization of academic life, in part through better academic mobility; internships at foreign and international research centers; and the publication of academic and scientific achievements, including joint papers with foreign scholars and scientists in leading foreign journals. Additionally, long-term contracts with foreign professors, who are frequently published in foreign peer-reviewed journals, could help Russia become more internationalized.
* * *
Russia’s education system has the potential to become an effective foreign policy instrument. This soft power instrument should focus as a priority on potential students from post-Soviet countries. Later, should we succeed in implementing the objectives formulated by President Putin for Russia’s universities, we might try and attract some of the student flows from the world’s major demographic centers, such as China and India. The priority task of improving quality and internationalizing the national higher education system can be effectively addressed through Russian universities’ deeper integration with the global education space and by following the Bologna process.
It is worth noting that the efficiency of university education as a soft power instrument can only be assessed in the longer term. Culture and values take time to diffuse and take root, but once they do, they remain deeply rooted for a long time. Making this foreign policy tool more effective requires patience and hard work.
1. See: Putin V.V., Russia and the Changing World // Rossiiskaya Gazeta, February 27, 2012. (Russian)
2. See: Appendix 1 to the Foreign Policy Doctrine of the Russian Federation. Principal areas of Russian policies in international cultural and humanitarian cooperation (2010) (Russian)
3. Nye J., The Means to Success in World Politics. N.Y., 2004.
4. See: Bogaturov A.D., Leadership and Decentralization in the International System // International Processes. 2006. V. 4. No 3 (12). (Russian)
5. The Concept of Long-Term Socioeconomic Development of the Russian Federation to 2020 (2008) (Russian).
6. For details see: Press Conference with A.V. Torkunov. How Universities Could Seek Recognition in the Global Higher Education Markets // RBK TV, 23 May 2012. (Russian)
7. See: World Education Report 2006. World Education Statistics in comparison — The UNESCO Institute For Statistics, Montreal, 2006. P. 32–34.
8. Tremblay K., Internationalization: Shaping Strategies in the National Context // International Organizations Research Journal. 2010, No 3 (29). P. 117 (translated into Russian).
9. See: How many students study abroad? // OECD Factbook 2011–2012. Economic, Environment and Social Statistics. 2011. P. 214.
10. See: Concept for Developing Science, Research and Innovations in the Institutions of Higher Vocational Education of the Russian Federation to 2015 (2010) (Russian).
11. Tremblay K., Internationalization: Shaping Strategies in the National Context // International Organizations Research Journal. 2010, No 3 (29). P. 116 (translated into Russian).
12. See: Global Education Digest 2009: Comparing Education Statistics across the World. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2009. P. 36–37.
13. Research Universities in the USA: a mechanism integrating science and education / Prof. Supyan V.B., (ed.). Moscow, Magistr, 2009. P. 220.
14. See: The Ministry of Education. Research Findings // The Experiences of International Students in New Zealand: Report on the results of the National Survey. May, 2008. P. 44.
15. See: Corbett A., Universities and the Europe of Knowledge. Ideas, Institutions and Policy Entrepreneurship in European Union Higher Education Policy, 1955–2005. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
16. See Putin V. V., Russia in Focus – The Challenges We Must Face // Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 16 January 2012. (Russian)
17. Concept of Government Policies of the Russian Federation on Developing National Human Resources for Foreign Countries at Russian Educational Institutions (2002). (Russian).
18. Draft Concept Paper on the Export of Education Services by the Russian Federation in the period 2011–2020 (Russian).
19. Decree of the President of the Russian Federation dated May 7, 2012 No 599 “On Measures to Implement Government Policies in Education and Science” // Rossiiskaya Gazeta, May 9, 2012. (Russian)
(votes: 1, rating: 1)