Russia and Global Security Risks
Academic Mobility and International Relations: New Forks for a New Decade

The closure of borders, obviously, cannot but affect the effectiveness of the soft power factor in international relations. Even if the measures being taken now seem temporary and forced, their introduction, in general, will prompt trepidation among many potential applicants, teachers and researchers of moving beyond a familiar frontier, writes Boris Zhelezov.

Among the areas most affected by the pandemic, those hit hardest by the closure of state borders, those mentioned most often are tourism, food services, transportation and international trade in general. International educational cooperation and, in particular, academic mobility, fail to be listed among the hardest-hit victims of the coronavirus in domestic and international media and high-level political statements. International educational forums (UNESCO, B20, the Bologna Process) which focus on the problems facing national educational systems have turned out to be unprepared for lockdown conditions. The reports of officials in recent forums at all levels looked mainly for success stories, where resolving the problems of international academic mobility was not prioritised. The previously unused concept of resilience, in other words elasticity, flexibility, the ability to restore the original state, has become the most popular notion in modern international educational discourse, along with the use of Information and communications technology (ICT). 

Against the backdrop of justified high-priority concerns about the impact of the loss of a school year on a global scale, expressed inter alia by experts from UNESCO , the consequences of losses in the development of international academic mobility, which concerns mainly higher education and science, can also be very pressing both for the global economy and for world politics.

The economic consequences of the decline in international academic mobility can soon be calculated and estimated, at least in part. The leading countries which take in foreign students will get less income from tuition fees (where they are charged), as well as from the provision of room and board by 20-30%, or even 50% among foreign students who did not enter or did not arrive at their foreign universities in 2020-21 (Official data on foreign students for the current academic year has not yet been published; this general estimate is based on an analysis of a number of speeches by representatives of importing countries and individual publications; for example, British ELT numbers are down by 82% due to COVID, according to ICEF Monitor  Market intelligence for international student recruitment) and, most likely, in 2021-22 academic years. As for the next academic year, the decrease in mobility will not necessarily be due to the continuation of the pandemic; it will reflect the fears of applicants and their parents about the likelihood of a return of COVID-related restrictions, as well as the simple unpreparedness of applicants to enrol in a foreign university and live abroad after a year of quarantine, even if this foreign life is completely or almost completely normalised. 

It should be noted that, according to various expert estimates, living expenses contribute up to 4-20 times more funds. International students generate global economic impact of US $ 300 billion ( than training costs, regardless of whether they are funded by governments or individuals. In this regard, the transition to distance learning, if it is not accompanied by the students relocation to the country of study, still entails significant economic losses for that country, to which losses from the cost of developing an electronic format for the training process are inevitably added.

It is more difficult to quantify the additional economic losses of a potential country of study, which should include the deprivation of economic benefits that would have been gained from foreign students who could have stayed in the country of study for work, or promoted its technological and other achievements in one form or another. These losses are likely to be long-term in nature, not only economic, but also political. The reduction of the number of international students and the redistribution of their geographical priorities was observed even before the pandemic (for example, from Asia and Africa not to Europe and the United States, but to China), and after the end of the pandemic it could significantly affect the change in the balance of power on the world stage within a short time-frame. China's foreign enrolment growth flattened out in 2018  ICEF Monitor. The prospect that Chinese will replace English as the main language of international communication, for example, in the field of new technology, does not look incredible when you look 1-2 decades ahead.

The humanitarian and political component of international academic mobility as soft power in international relations traditionally garnered significant attention, as reflected in the policies of most leading states. There is a reason to believe that the greatest effect from this component was achieved by immersing foreign students into the cultural atmosphere of the host country, providing them with the prospect of either staying in this country after completing their studies, or maintaining close ties with it. Today, a significant proportion of functioning international scientific and educational projects are based precisely on such connections  between individual project participants who once studied together or worked side by side under the roof of the same scientific and educational centre.

It is appropriate to recall that the modern world political elite, for the most part, received education in the context of expanding opportunities for international communication, movement towards common norms and rules, and agreed curricula and scientific terms in all spheres of knowledge. Full-time study among international students (and there was practically no other way) undoubtedly left a deep imprint on the worldview of modern politicians, practitioners and theorists. In this regard, virtual study still seems to be a much less effective means of understanding of the validity of the actions of political opponents, partners or allies.

At the same time, the tendencies towards the strengthening of so-called neo-isolationism, the desire to fence off internationalisation in education, stop the brain drain and ensure the protection of scientific and technical information from unauthorised use have recently become more and more clearly traceable in the politics of many states, regardless of the pandemic. A number of European states participating in the Bologna Process have taken steps at the legislative level to restrict teaching in English in their universities in favour of the national language, despite noticeable progress in the recognition of foreign education. In many countries throughout the world, the recognition of foreign education remains burdened by complex bureaucratic procedures; the academic mobility of scientists and teachers is increasingly limited by restrictive legislation. The latest example: a government legal order, which caused a wave of indignation among Australian universities, giving the Foreign Ministry the right to annul any international agreements, concluded by universities with their foreign partners. 

It seems that the once-popular notion that the introduction of scientific, academic knowledge to a technologically backward country is not capable of posing a threat to security at any level, is now a thing of the past. It was thought that knowledge of physics and the laws of quantum mechanics could not lead to the creation of nuclear weapons in a country, since this requires a technological base. Today, however, fears of the leakage of potentially dangerous scientific information are becoming characteristic of all developed countries, as evidenced by the growth of spy scandals of every dimension.

Many well-known, authoritative experts  active supporters of the internationalisation of education  came out with pre-pandemic calls to reduce the number of short-term academic exchanges due to the environmental damage caused by air travel. Many foundations have already responded to these calls, having reduced or completely abandoned support for short-term mobility.   

The resilience of the scientific and educational sphere in response to the challenge posed by the pandemic has so far been manifested almost exclusively in the transition to the remote or blended learning in universities. Mixed, full-time-distance learning, however, in terms of immersion into the cultural environment and the use of the potential of soft power, does not differ much from purely remote learning, since it provides only minimal contacts with both teachers and fellow students when conducting, for example, laboratory work. Despite the scepticism of a significant part of the academic community about the quality of virtual learning, it is becoming a long-term trend. According to a survey conducted last autumn among the countries participating in the Davos Economic Forum, an average of 25% of respondents agreed with the assumption that in 5 years, most educational programmes will be online. (Survey measures expectations for higher education delivery in 2025  ICEF Monitor  Market intelligence for international student recruitment). Experts have emphasised the intensification of the development of distance learning in the national platform of China, which has resolutely and firmly closed its borders to foreign students during the pandemic. 

The actions of other countries to ensure resilience when accommodating international students has included a certain relaxation of migration rules. A number of countries have extended and continue to extend periods of stay for students to complete their studies (especially postgraduate studies, to complete dissertation research, following the example of  Britain), as well as for employment after the completion of their training or during it (Russia has introduced a very timely law allowing foreign full-time students to get a job for work without having to meet the quota for foreign labour).

The closure of borders, obviously, cannot but affect the effectiveness of the soft power factor in international relations. Even if the measures being taken now seem temporary and forced, their introduction, in general, will prompt trepidation among many potential applicants, teachers and researchers of moving beyond a familiar frontier. If we add to this deliberate restrictions on academic mobility, undertaken for security reasons, and if such restrictions are not pinpoint, but rolling, normative and bureaucratic, this will affect the future role of international scientific and educational mobility as a factor in the global economy and as a soft power in world politics. Obviously, the scale and significance of this influence may be different and depend on many circumstances.

It makes no sense at all to talk about a complete rejection of physical international academic mobility. But will the virtualisation of the scientific and educational space, if physical mobility isnt completely replaced, is it possible, to some extent, to compete with it? 

Virtual mobility also has a number of advantages over physical mobility in the eyes of many politicians and experts. First of all, it does not create such favourable conditions for the brain drain as physical mobility, provided that communication technologies are developed in the country. It makes foreign education more accessible to the local population, since it does not require additional costs, associated with moving and living abroad. With some reservations, it makes the learning process itself more controlled by the state in terms of the content and quality of the results. Finally, it is more environmentally friendly. (A detailed analysis of the impact of international student mobility on climate change is given, for example, in the publication The sustainability of international higher education: Student mobility and global climate change at All in all, until very recently, the moves states made to develop international academic mobility for international relations, as well as economic and political interests were unidirectional: either for or against, Now politicians, universities and countries have new opportunities to choose vectors of development; they may do so in real life, virtually, or expand geographically or into new sectors.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.