In a new Cold War, academic engagement is still necessary

By Philip G Altbach, Hans de Wit and Jamil Salmi 

This article was first published by University World News in March 2022. Philip G Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow, and Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow at the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE), Boston College, in the US. Jamil Salmi is professor emeritus of higher education policy at Diego Portales University, Chile, and research fellow of CIHE.

 

In the context of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current brutal invasion and war on Ukraine, it is difficult, but essential, to consider the present and future of higher education and scientific relations between Russia and the rest of the world.

While formal education and research collaboration and other academic relations with official representatives and organisations affiliated with the Russian government should be paused, we should start thinking about a longer-term perspective as well.

Over the past decades, the three of us have had regular contact with Russian higher education, including participation in, and advice to, government-funded initiatives.

We have always done so with a critical eye and in the interest of international academic collaboration.

The primary focus of our activities has been to work closely with students and scholars, providing them, and ourselves, with an opportunity for cooperation that was as autonomous as possible from political interference.

In the current context, it is clear that participation in government-controlled and -funded activities with Russia needs to be stopped immediately and that solidarity and support must be primarily focused on Ukraine, especially in light of the shameful declaration of support for the war published by the Russian Union of Rectors.
 

But what about the long term?

Recent calls by several United States politicians to expel all Russian students and scholars currently in the United States are completely counterproductive.

We have witnessed the great support given by Russian immigrants, in particular students and scholars, to the Ukrainian people, as well as their protests against the Putin regime.

We understand and support the cancelling of formal academic and research relations with Russia by authorities in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

At the same time, we agree with the firm but nuanced statement of the European University Association (EUA) on the importance of academic and research engagement with Russia.

While suspending the membership of the 12 institutions which signed the support letter to Putin, the EUA emphasises the importance of supporting Russian academics who protest against the Putin regime, often at great personal risk of being arrested or fired, and the need to keep communication channels open with these individuals.

For the most part, Russian academics and scientists are not directly involved with the invasion of Ukraine, and many reports indicate widespread opposition to the war in universities.
 

A second Cold War

There are many reasons why continued engagement with universities and relevant research organisations is important in the long run, in particular for the students and scholars who are depending on them.

In that respect, it can be useful to reflect on academic relations during the Cold War between 1945 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and learn from previous experience.

During that period, even in times of significant political tension, academic and scientific relations continued throughout—although on a modest scale and with considerable government supervision on both sides.

Back then, two quite distinct scientific systems coexisted, with only modest linkages between them.

The Soviet system included the satellite countries of Eastern Europe and, until 1960, China.

On the Soviet side, academe was ‘weaponised’ to serve national goals—with many scholarships provided to students from countries favourable to the Soviet Union.

On the other side, the Fulbright Program and many other initiatives offered opportunities for study and research in Western countries.

The ‘academic cold war’ was global in scale.

But it should be kept in mind that resistance to developing academic contacts with the other system came mainly from the Soviet side and that there were Soviet institutions and individual academics doing their best to adhere to integrity and academic freedom.

A second Cold War is quite likely to happen as a result of the Ukraine war, with implications for universities and for research.

But it will probably be quite different from the previous one: Russia has been integrated into global higher education for three decades; research and scholarship have become globalised.

Moreover, Russia no longer has a strong base of satellite countries and, even in the Russian sphere, as in Belarus, there is strong opposition to authoritarian rule.

It is not clear whether China will side with Russia in this new Cold War or if either country will seek to cut itself off from global science.

There has been some academic and scientific decoupling of China in the past year—stimulated in part by the United States but also coming from China itself.

While the details are still unclear, this second Cold War will definitely have implications.

 

Strategies for the future

As stated above, in the current situation, our academic partners in Ukraine should be our absolute priority and receive our full support; all formal relations with Russian government programmes for collaboration and exchange should be cancelled, and formal relations with Russian institutions should be frozen as well.

Human Crowd Forming A Chain Symbol

At the same time, it is important to maintain our professional contacts with the Russian academic community outside and inside the country.

More than ever, they need our support and understanding of the difficult circumstances in which they have to operate under a dictatorial and ruthless regime.

What the future will bring for academic cooperation and exchange with Russia cannot be foreseen at this stage and will require constant monitoring.

But complete academic isolation will be counterproductive in the short and long run.

The academic boycott against the apartheid regime in South Africa has taught us that such a boycott can be effective as part of a broader social, economic and cultural struggle, but continued active interaction with individuals who were critical of the regime in the academic community of South Africa was mutually beneficial.

In this new, tragic and uncharted academic and scientific environment, we must be firm in condemning the institutions and academic leaders supporting the war, but keep the door open for contact and perhaps collaboration with those who share common values of integrity, mutual understanding and academic freedom.