Revitalizing the Soviet Higher Education Export

Comparative case study of international branch campuses (IBCs) in six post-Soviet countries

Last week I attended arguably the most important conference of my field of education, Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Annual Conference organized between April 14–18, 2019 in San Francisco, California. CIES brings together more than 3,000 scholars, practitioners, and academics from over 120 countries. I was presenting my work on the Russian branch campuses in the former Soviet Union and the expansion of the network of satellite campuses since 1992.

First of all, what is an international branch campus (IBC)? IBC refers to an entity owned and operated, at least partly, by a foreign education provider that grants degrees in the name of the said home institution. Some of the most famous examples of IBCs are NYU campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. According to the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT), the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), France, Russia, and Australia, in that order, are the top five exporters of such institutions (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Top five IBC exporting nations (Source: C-BERT, 2017)

Russia’s role in proliferation of IBCs is often overlooked due to the fact that such institutions mostly operate in Russian while most researchers writing about them are English-speaking. Despite this, we know that the first Russian IBCs (“filiali” in Russian) started to emerge in 1960s during the Cold War era in the Eastern Bloc countries as a way to strengthen communist alliances.

Thus, I set out to explore the main characteristics of Russian branch campuses as a form of post-Soviet IBC to understand: (1) To what extent the post-Soviet IBCs in six countries are similar or different?; (2) How well can the conceptions of Western IBCs be applied to the emergence of post-Soviet IBCs? To answer these questions, I chose Lomonosov Moscow State University (LMSU) and its six branch campuses in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan (see Figure 2). As the oldest comprehensive university in Russia with a reputation for being the beacon of science in the post-Soviet Eurasia, LMSU is also the highest-ranked Russian higher education institution according to several global university rankings.

Figure 2. Buildings of LMSU IBCs in six post-Soviet countries (Note: Sevastopol is located in Crimea which is de-facto Russian territory since 2014).

I find that there are more similarities across the six IBCs in all five domains of governance & leadership, access & values, standards & procedures, academic personnel, and larger community rather than differences. They can be characterized by top-down governance style, uniformity in admission framework, curricular standards & procedures as well as teaching staff, and Russophile identity. While being predominantly elite teaching institutions, LMSU IBCs are highly selective and heavily rely on the LMSU brand appeal. I also find that these institutions, due to their role as outposts of Russian higher education, help boost LMSU’s standing in global rankings. To learn more about this topic, please refer to the slides I presented at CIES 2019:

The slides from my presentation at the CIES 2019 on April 17, 2019