Universities as Actors and Instruments in Diplomacy

“Battleships like those of the first decade of the 20th century” – some political leaders speak openly about the function of today’s world class universities, as indicators of national power and prestige.

The difference in the average life expectancy is much in favor of the modern equivalents. Their maintenance however requires a constant upgrading of expertise and investments. It’s a serious work, education, and it is not necessary to continue speaking about it in the shipbuilding or military language. The economic or political rhetoric might be by far more adequate. The challenges the (academic) world is facing nowadays can be met and transformed into opportunities only through intensive and targeted transnational and transsectorial cooperation. Internationalization plans are built on the consideration of financial and political opportunities. They are grounded in academic and universal values, which are at the very core of the sector’s soft power. There is all the more reason for all interested parties to recognize the enormous potential that lie dormant in institutions which were so far not considered as obvious and, for whatever reason, easy partners.

European programmes are driven by instrumental logic and are used as soft power – they are modelling the preferences of partner countries and of the member countries themselves, to make them perform to the best interest of the EU. The most important achievement of EU is the culture of peace. The EU model has some limitations though: it cannot play the role of a global peace stabilizer, as the international institutions turn out not to be effective enough. Therefore, the concept of “power” is relativized against modern challenges, which no superpower can meet on its own. Universities must realize that the brand “Europe” can be more successful than “EU“, its advantage being the historical and cultural heritage of the Old Continent. In order to capitalize on it, universities on both sides should identify and address the barriers which affect genuine and proper relations between Russia and EU.

The numbers bear out that the cooperation between Russian higher education institutions and those from EU is restricted in terms of operating partnerships. When the Erasmus+ Programme was introduced, two of its attributes were particularly highlighted: increased financing and more opportunities for collaboration with countries outside of the European Union. For many institutions this was a chance to make (more) use of the contacts already established. An increased mobility was about to follow in a climate of catching up opportunities which were not easily attainable in the past. As for the cooperation with Russia, as consequence of events and conflicts in the not academic world, the new Programme’s potential could not be released to the full extent.

The European Union is executing its external and internal policies through the management of grants, as EU programmes communicate important and clear guidelines for business collaboration and constantly help to set up priorities, just as they do for the academic international cooperation.

The reasons, why an institution wants to address international cooperation and invest in it, can be of different nature: social/cultural (national cultural identity, intercultural understanding, citizenship development, social and community development), political: foreign policy, national security, technical assistance, peace and mutual understanding, national identity, regional identity, economic: growth and competitiveness, labor market, financial incentives; academic: international dimension to research and teaching, extension of academic horizon, institution building, profile and status, enhancement of quality, international academic standards. As these rationales reveal, the potential outcomes lie clearly in the extent of the diplomatic power. Additionally, the articulation of a global view ensures that internationalization is used as an overarching management tool and that the institutional culture is constantly updated.

Strategic plans in higher education must be ahead of reality and represent a long-time horizon. Some operational objectives concerning internationalization are easily achieved, and they soon need upgrading and extension which obliges aspiring institutions to reach beyond the current comfort zone and take initiative in transnational and transsectorial collaboration.

This article is based on Valdai Paper #8 , prepared within the framework of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club research program.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.