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Master Thesis Reader - Research and Innovation in Higher Education

Rationales for the internationalization of higher education: the case of Russia

Gunsyma Shaydorova


Although universities have developed international activity since the Middle Ages, the 1980 - 90s witnessed a new wave of interest to issues of internationalization in higher education. Over the past three decades, the number of students enrolled outside their country of citizenship has risen dramatically, from 0.8 million worldwide in 1975 to 4.1 million in 2010, more than a fivefold increase (OECD, 2011; OECD, 2012).

Growing interest in internationalization of higher education can be explained by different reasons. Firstly, the process of globalization of the economy and labour markets pushed demand in internationally-competent workers with knowing of foreign languages, social and intercultural skills. As world economies become increasingly inter-connected, multilingualism and intercultural skills have grown in importance on a global scale.  Secondly,   an export of educational services has become one of the sources of revenue for higher education institutions (HEIs) and national economies in many countries.

Advantages of internationalization of higher education are apparent: improvement  quality of training, joint research projects, implementation of international quality standards and enlargement of international cooperation. Alongside these positive accounts, however, there has been skepticism towards the quality, effectiveness and relevance of education and research through international cooperation as well as increasing concern over inequity and marginalization.

Currently international dimension of higher education is being increasingly promoted on the national and institutional levels in many countries. It should be noted that both levels are very crucial. The national level has a significant influence on the international dimension of higher education through policy, funding, programs and regulatory frameworks. Yet it is usually at the institutional level that the real process of internationalization is taking place (Knight, 2004, p.6 -7). To some extent, institutional level is a mirror which reflects national policy. More and more higher education institutions became independent and strategic actors in the process of internationalization. According to the 3rd Global Survey Report of International Association of Universities' (Knight, 2003a), based on the analysis of survey responses from 745 institutions in 115 countries, 78% of institutions consider internationalization as having increased in importance within their institution over the past three years.  

Today with increasing internal and external pressures, Russian  universities as well as many universities in the world are expected to develop  strategies in all areas, including the international dimension to make their competitiveness appealing to both domestic and global markets.  Russia’s education potential has traditionally been seen as an essential  resource for the country's development. Since the Soviet era, Russia has boasted a wealth of experience in attracting foreign students. It should be noted that the  Soviet Union used higher education mainly as a geopolitical tool and as an “ideological weapon” especially during the Cold War.  With 126,500 foreign students enrolled in 1990, Russia was ranked among the first 10 countries in the world providing academic services for foreign students (Sheregi F., Konstantinovsky D. & Arephiev A., 2006).  However, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia’s share of the world’s educational services market has been on a steady decline.

The post-Soviet period of the internationalization of higher education can be divided into two stages.  The first stage (1990-s – mid 2000-s) is characterized by activities mainly at the  institutional level and lack of a policy at the national level.  Many HEIs participated in exchange programs, established cooperation with abroad universities, also this period is marked by active work of international organizations. Since the mid - 2000s, internationalization has been high on the agenda in Russian higher education policy. With increasing internal and external pressures, Russian government  had to develop strategy in the area of the international cooperation in higher education to make universities more competitive and appealing to both domestic and global markets.

It should be  noted that joining the Bologna process in 2003 was an important movement and it  promoted the internationalization of higher education in Russia and the integration of Russian HEIs into the European  Higher Education Area. Whereas exchange programmes such as ERASMUS were aimed at the individual student, teacher or institution; with the Bologna process the internationalization of higher education has been taken to the national level through reforming the structures of degrees to make them more comparable between the different countries. Nevertheless, there is a low level of integration into the world market of educational services where the competition is growing. According to OECD statistics (OECD, 2012, p.364), in 2010  Russia was the 7th most popular destination for international students. It attracted a relatively modest 4% of all students, compared to 17% in the United States, 13% in the United Kingdom and 6.4% in Germany.

The internationalization of higher education has become a pressing issue over the past years and the Russian government has paid attention and made a lot of efforts to internationalize universities.  Recent initiatives of the government in the area of higher education include  innovative educational projects, development and support for national research universities and most recently, the international competitiveness program. Why are  the government and HEIs  interested in international  activities? What are rationales for the internationalization of higher education in Russia from the perspective of main stakeholders (the government and higher education institutions)? How have rationales for  the internationalization of Russian higher education changed since the 1990s? A clear understanding of rationales  is significant  because, they dictate the kind of benefits or expected outcomes one would expect from internationalization efforts… rationales are reflected in the policies and programs that are developed and eventually implemented (Knight, 2004).

Growing interest in international dimension of higher education induced research on issues of the internationalization. As Teichler and Kehm pointed out, ‘the general state of research is characterized by an increase of theoretically and methodologically ambitious studies without a dominant disciplinary, conceptual, or methodological “home” (Teichler & Kehm, 2007, p.260). According to Teichler and Kehm (2007), complexity of issues of internationalization and interplay with other problems explains mainly an inter-disciplinary area of studies of internationalization. The main topics of research on the internationalization of higher education include  various issues, among them are interplay between globalization and internationalization of higher education, different types of mobility and exchange, mutual influence of higher education systems, internationalization of the content of teaching and learning, financial aspects,  supranational, national and institutional policies of internationalization.

One of the significant areas of research on the internationalization of higher education is from the perspective of national policy, i.e. studies about the internationalization of national systems of higher education.

Authors have identified rationales for internationalization differently over time. Aigner et al (1992) described three reasons for internationalization: safeguarding international security, maintaining economic competitiveness and fostering intercultural understanding. Scott (1992) identified  seven grounds for governments to internationalize their higher education system. They include the increasing competitive nature of economics, countries’ wish for environmental interdependence, the multicultural and multi-religious diversity within nations, the growing number of foreign owned firms within national borders and the pressure they exert on local businesses, the multi-raciality of academic supervisors and the striving for peaceful relations between nations.

Other authors stressed the importance of economic factors in internationalization processes in higher education. For example, Davies has added to Scott’s work that internationalization is “closely linked with financial reduction, the rise of academic entrepreneurialism and genuine philosophical commitment to cross-cultural perspectives in the advancement and dissemination of knowledge” (Davies, 1992, p. 56). The conceptual framework of the master thesis is based on the literature on internationalization of higher education (Huisman & van der Wende, 2004) and particularly on concepts of Knight (2004) and de Wit (2002).  Knight's updated and developed conceptual framework (2004)  provides some clarity on definition, meaning and principles to guide policy and practice. She  updated the definition of the internationalization as  the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of post-secondary education. (Knight, 2003, p. 2). This definition is applicable both to institutional and national/sector level.

Political rationales include such subcategories as foreign policy, national security, technical assistance, peace and mutual understanding, national and regional identity. They have been very important in all periods especially postwar period (World War II), the period of restructuring the relationships with the former colonies, as well as during the process of  integration of the European Union.  

The economic rationales include financial incentives, labour market, economic growth and competitiveness. They are related with the short and long term economic benefits.  Short term benefits mean first of all  tuition fees and the other money international students bring with them during their stay in a country. Regarding long-term economic benefits, international students can fill labour shortages and they can improve a country’s research capacity.  Economic rationales are currently considered as one of the main drivers of internationalization policies in many countries.

The third group of rationales are academic rationales. They include international dimension in research and teaching, extension of academic horizon, institution building, profile and status, enhancement of quality and international academic standards. Despite the fact that economic rationales are becoming very important educational and academic rationales remain  crucial for many countries.  In contrast to the economic rationales,  academic rationales for internationalization tend to promote policies based on cooperation, although it is necessary to point out  that cooperation and competition go hand in hand (Huisman & van der Wende, 2004).

As for the cultural and social rationales, internationalization is often considered as an important way to promote and preserve national culture in response to the  globalization processes  In this sense, the internationalization of higher education is viewed as a way to ensure cultural and ethnic diversity.

Knight (2004) points out emerging rationales at the national level such as:

  • human resource development;
  • strategic alliances;
  • income generation/commercial trade;
  • nation building;
  • and social/cultural development and mutual understanding.

The conceptual framework proposed by Knight (2004) and de Wit (2002) is modified with the aim of: 1) making a specific framework focusing on the national level and 2) reducing the overlap between the rationales.

Firstly, it should be noted that such academic rationales as international dimension to research and teaching, extension of academic horizon, institution building, profile and status are predominantly institutional level rationales. As for enhancement of quality and international academic standards, they refer more to national level.  Enhancement of quality is generally a top-level rationale whereas international academic standards is a more specific rationale which contributes to quality. Also it necessary to point out  the growing importance of international rankings especially for evaluation of competitiveness of universities and higher education systems on the whole.  University rankings have become an integral part of the global higher education system. They have important functions in supporting communications, informing stakeholders about universities and acting as instruments of transparency and image-building for universities at the national and international levels.

There appears to be an overlap between two rationales as Financial incentives and an emerging one as Commercial trade. Many national governments consider higher education as an export commodity and encourage various internationalization income generating activities as contract education, recruitment of foreign students and international education advisory services. Characterizing growing importance of commercial trade Knight means mainly cross-border delivery of education, which include franchise arrangements, foreign or satellite campuses and online delivery. In my opinion, commercial trade can be included into financial incentives. The framework proposed by Knight (2004) includes one  rationale called Labour market as well as an emerging rationale entitled Human resources development which can be included into Labour market.  Some rationales have been removed in order to reduce the overlap. For example, rationales as Intercultural understanding, Citizenship development, Social and community development can be combined under more general rationale Social and cultural development.

A modified framework for national internationalization rationales is proposed  in Table 1.

Table 1. Rationales Driving Internationalization at the National Level.


The research has a qualitative approach and there are  two reasons to undertake this kind of study. Firstly, the qualitative approach is determined by the nature of the research question. In a qualitative study, the research question often starts with what or how; in our case begins with “What are rationales for internationalization ...” that requires the understanding motives of stakeholders for internationalization. Also it is crucial to underscore the understanding of the particular context within various stakeholders such as government bodies and agencies or HEIs are acting (Maxwell, 2005). This is in contrast to quantitative question that ask why or how many and look for a comparison of groups or a relationship between variables, with the intent to establish a relationship or cause and effect. Secondly, utilizing a qualitative study can be explained because of sufficient time and resources need to be spend on extensive data collection in the field and data analysis mainly of "text" information (policy documents).

Data collection

The study is based on using such methods  as a documents analysis and an interview. The main research method is the documents analysis.  Documents included  for the analysis can be classified as: 

  • legislation (e.g., Law on Education in Russian Federation);
  • policy documents of different government bodies and agencies of the Russian Federation (e.g., Concept of Government Policies of the Russian Federation on Developing National Human Resources for Foreign Countries at Russian Educational Institutions (2002);
  • universities strategies and programs on internationalization;
  • others (e.g., verbatim records, reports and presentations of an expert group 7 “Labour market, post-secondary education and migration policy” for preparation Strategy of socio-economic development of Russia 2020).

The first and the fourth groups of documents are used for background information. The second and the third group of policy documents represent the most significant and numerous part of the documents body and can be regarded as a statement of the courses of action that policy-makers and administrators intend to follow. According to Scott (1990), there are four criteria for assessing policy documents: firstly, the authenticity of the document; secondly, the credibility of the document; thirdly, is the document representative, and, fourthly, the meaning of the document. For the purposes of this study, government and higher education organizations’ policy documents are selected and analyzed. The documents are reached through web-pages of government bodies as well as universities, also on-line databases will be used.  The analysis  covers documents published between 1991 - 2013.

Analysis of rationales for internationalization of higher education from the perspective of the higher education institutions is based on universities strategies and programs on internationalization. According to statistical data, currently there are  1046 higher education institutions, 609 of them are public and municipal and 437 non-public institutions. (Russia's 2013: Statistical Pocketbook, 2013, p.13). Because of the time constraints and limit of resources,  ten higher education institutions with high ratings on internationalization criterion are analyzed in the  master thesis. The selection is done according to the National rating of classical and research universities of 2012/2013 academic year.

The second  method of the research is an expert interview. The expert interview is an important source of information since experts have high insight in aggregate and specific knowledge.  Two individuals will participate in the research representing different positions and opinions related with the topic of the thesis. The experts are identified through specialized literature review. Their capacity as experts is based upon their formal positions as senior administrators:

  • the head of an institute of education of an university, an expert member of a working group  7 “Labour market, post-secondary education and migration policy” for preparation Strategy of socio-economic development of Russia 2020;
  • a professor, the head of a regional center for academic mobility.

Moreover, three interviews published in official sources are used for the  research  as a secondary data.

Data analysis

In order to define rationales for the internationalization of higher education from the perspective of the government and universities, a content analysis is used for analysis of policy documents and interviews. According to Berg (2001), content analysis as "the interaction of two processes: specification of the content characteristics (basic content elements) being examined and application of specific rules for identifying and recording these characteristics" (p. 248). In other words, certain content elements, such as words, paragraphs, items, themes, concepts are coded. King (2004) describes a code as "a label attached to a section of text to index it as relating to a theme or issue in the data which the researcher has identified as important to his or her interpretation” (p. 257).

Padgett (1998) explains the process of coding qualitative data as “ a process of identifying bits and pieces of information (meaning units) and linking these concepts and themes around which the final report will be organized” (p. 76).  Based on Knight's classification of rationales, a template of categories  is constructed with some modifications. The process of coding is done  during the review of the policy documents by hand using the a template of categories.

Key findings

Exploring rationales for  the internationalization of higher education is crucial, but the difficulty is that they are  often formulated implicitly or described in  general terms, such as ' enhancement  quality of education' or 'competitiveness of higher education' and cannot be measured. A clear understanding of rationales is necessary because, they dictate the kind of benefits or expected outcomes one would expect from internationalization efforts… rationales are reflected in the policies and programs that are developed and eventually implemented (Knight, 2005, p. 14–15).

This study has found that  the government sector has all four rationales for the internationalization of higher education whereas universities mainly academic and economic ones. As the examination of the government sector  policy documents showed, political and economic  rationales are regarded as having high priority while both academic and social/cultural rationales are considered as having moderate priority. A disaggregated analysis of  categories has demonstrated that a type of political  rationales  -  foreign policy - is regarded as having high priority. This analysis has also proved the following subcategories of economic rationales having high priority: economic growth and competitiveness, financial incentives and labour market.

Universities as one of the main stakeholders do not have one exclusive rationale, but a combination of rationales for internationalization.  The  diversity of rationales and greater importance of institutional level rationales partly can be explained by the fact that internationalization was not given much importance at the national level especially in early of the 1990s. At the institutional level, the most preferred rationales are academic ones: international profile and status, international academic standards and research and knowledge production. In comparison with the Soviet period, income generation through export of educational services is becoming a motive for international cooperation although it is not among main rationales.

Analysis of current rationales for  internationalization from the perspective of the government sector and universities and comparison with rationales before the 1990s allows to identify certain change in motives. Firstly, it should be noted  the shift  from the political rationale to the economic, as well as a shift within the political rationale from peace and mutual understanding and technical assistance to  foreign policy. The overarching rationale of the  internationalization policy on the national level is an economic one.

As for academic rationales, they often remain implicit reflecting the general consensus that internationalization improves academic quality. Analysis of documents and literature review allow to conclude that the before the 1990s international academic standards  were main motive for the internationalization for institutions of higher education whereas currently international profile and status is dominant. Finally, cultural motives for the internationalization of higher education are not so strong as they were before the 1990s.

Implications for further research

The internationalization of higher education in Russia is relatively an unexplored topic. So, there are various directions for further research. Few studies have analyzed the rationales for the internationalization of higher education in Russia from the perspective of different  stakeholders. Analysis of rationales for the internationalization of higher education in Russia requires taking the viewpoint of the  students and the staff.  This will allow to have a comprehensive picture of  the rationales for the internationalization of higher education. One of the possible directions for further research is a comparative study of rationales  for the internationalization of higher education in Russia and other countries.


First and foremost, I would like to express my gratitude to my supervisor, Dr. Vuokko Kohtamäki, for her continuous support,  advice and encouragement in the thesis writing process.   I have been extremely lucky to have a supervisor who cared so much about my work and who responded to my questions  so promptly.

Also I would like to thank  the  staff of Higher Education Group at the University of Tampere. In particular,  I would like to thank  Dr. Yuzhuo Cai and Dr. Jussi Kivistö for their valuable comments during master thesis seminars.

Finally, I would like to thank the European Commission for providing the scholarship which allowed me to undertake this research and also give me the opportunity to study at Danube  University  Krems, the University of Tampere and Beijing Normal University.


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