Russian state programmes to support African students are of key importance. Programmes that would specifically cover the cost of their education at Russian universities, as well as provide scholarships for African students sufficient for a decent standard of living in Russia, where many cities are among the most expensive to live, even by global standards, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
The upcoming Russia-Africa summit should serve as an important impetus for further strengthening partnership and cooperation between the Russian Federation and the countries of the African continent.
One of the important tasks in strengthening cooperation is, undoubtedly, the development of partnerships in the field of higher education, as well as scientific research between the Russian Federation and African countries. Here, on the one hand, the USSR is remembered fondly for having provided large-scale assistance to the young African states in the training of personnel. In many African states, national associations of graduates of Soviet and Russian universities have been created and are still actively operating. A significant number of Soviet graduates now occupy important positions in both the public and private corporate sectors in African countries, as well as in the universities of these countries. Russian universities have preserved their methodological approach to most effectively organising the learning process for African students, taking into account the specificities of their languages and respective countries of origin. All this evidences the strengths of the Russian educational system in the already emerging global competition for African students.
On the other hand, this global competition puts forward new, additional requirements for the Russian educational system, since now African applicants have the opportunity to choose between different countries to study. First of all, this is, of course, a financial issue. Not all African students are ready to pay for their education on their own. The budgets of African universities also often do not have significant free funds in order to cover the academic mobility of students and teachers at their own expense. At the same time, Russian universities, as during the early post-Soviet period, look at foreign students primarily from a commercial point of view as a necessary source of extra-budgetary funds. Largely for this financial reason, large-scale educational cooperation between Russia and African countries was sharply reduced in the early post-Soviet period.
Therefore, Russian state programmes to support African students are of key importance. Programmes that would specifically cover the cost of their education at Russian universities, as well as provide scholarships for African students sufficient for a decent standard of living in Russia, where many cities are among the most expensive to live, even by global standards. It should be noted that a lot is already being done to resolve this issue, both through Rossotrudnichestvo and other departments. The number of study quotas in Russia available to African students is constantly increasing. We must admit here that, compared with the same quotas allocated by Russia for students from post-Soviet countries, the quotas for Africa are small. For understandable geopolitical reasons, the post-Soviet states here are a priority for Russia’s international educational cooperation.
Obviously, this situation will continue in the medium term. But it is also clear that Africa’s place in this scale of Russia’s priorities also needs to be increased. Otherwise, amid the global competition, in conditions where, for example, China itself offers multimillion-dollar scholarship programmes for African students, Russia’s role will remain limited.
However, here it is necessary to make an understandable reservation. It is clear that amid the current geo-economic conditions, the budget of Russia is under serious pressure through sanctions, on the one hand. On the other hand, for obvious reasons, now the most high-priority expenditure items of the Russian budget are industries that are, let’s say, very far removed from education. All this imposes and, as I think, will impose tangible restrictions on the expansion of Russian budgets for international educational cooperation, both at the state and at the university level. Based at least on this, we can assume that today’s Russia is unlikely to become a global leader in attracting African students. However, using at least the available opportunities with maximum efficiency (which, to be honest, is still a remote prospect) is a realistic task that can be set and successfully solved.
Another, no less important issue is the formats of education that Russia can offer to African students. During the Soviet era, in many disciplines, primarily engineering and technical training, the young African states did not yet have their own educational facilities; by and large, this is becoming a thing of the past. This reflects the fact that Africa is increasingly beginning to comply with the general global trend, where the majority of students prefer to obtain a basic bachelor’s degree at home, at their own universities, and go abroad primarily to receive a master’s degree. As a result, the number of students going abroad for undergraduate studies is declining compared to those going for graduate studies, and is expected to continue to decrease.
In this context, the global competition for African students is increasingly unfolding precisely in relation to master’s programmes. Here Russia can also find itself in an unfavourable situation. On the one hand, the decisions taken at the official level in Russia to abandon the Bologna system of higher education, as well as the statements made by the leaders of the educational sphere of Russia about plans in this regard to significantly reduce the number of master’s programmes in Russian universities in the coming years and a massive transition to a one-stage “Soviet” system of five-year higher education, limit Russia’s opportunities in the medium term to attract both African and all other foreign students. This predicament arose for institutional reasons, rather than financial ones; Russia’s ability to offer master’s programmes that are attractive to foreign students will inevitably be reduced.
On the other hand, in this context, it should be noted that, in our opinion, Russian universities as a whole have managed to maintain a high level of basic higher education since Soviet times, something that amid post-Soviet conditions was transformed into a bachelor’s education. At the same time, the situation in Russia as a whole in relation to the specialised, master’s level of higher education, from our point of view, is less rosy. In our opinion, it is no secret that in a fairly significant number of Russian master’s programmes, our universities, including the most famous ones, took the simplest path — the actual repetition of the bachelor’s disciplines; yes, at a deeper historiographical level and with attractive brand names, but the essence did not change. In such conditions, the increase in students’ new knowledge and practical competencies in the master’s programme compared to the bachelor’s degree often turned out to be insubstantial. This perhaps aggravated the situation; at times one could get the impression that Russian universities, both administrators and teachers, have not yet learned how to work effectively at the master’s level and separate it from undergraduate level. It is obvious that the preservation of such an approach to business will also not help to increase the attractiveness of Russian master’s education for foreign students, especially given the aforementioned financial and institutional restrictions.
The next important aspect that determines international educational cooperation at the present stage is short-term academic mobility: semester, monthly and other internships for students and teachers in foreign partner universities. Previously, in the context of the Bologna system, such programmes were carried out by Russian universities with their previous partner universities in Europe, as well as in America, as a rule, on the financial principle of reciprocity, when each side paid the costs on its territory. In the case of many African universities, however, this scheme of equal distribution of costs for academic mobility is unlikely to work, because, as noted above, their budgets are small, and for objective economic reasons they do not have enough free resources. They often develop this cooperation with Western and Chinese universities on a grant basis. Therefore, for Russia, this issue of financial support for short-term academic mobility with African universities is becoming a key one.
Until February 24, 2022, Africa, in our opinion, was, unfortunately, far from being on the list of priorities for international cooperation among Russian universities. Now, even in the news feed, you can see how the situation is changing. Regularly, certain Russian universities report on negotiations with African partners, on the signing of agreements on joint programmes and conferences.
But there was some luck in this misfortune. The refusal of European and American universities to cooperate with Russia has practically forced our universities to turn their attention to Africa. It is important that this trend does not die out on its own the day after the Russia-Africa summit, as unfortunately sometimes happens in our country. Even given the current financial, institutional and methodological constraints, Russia’s opportunities to develop educational partnerships with Africa would be used as efficiently as possible.