By Professor Maurice Okoli
With the rapidly changing global situation and emphasis on shifting towards the continental south, Russia has initiated processes to restructure its educational programmes. The move is part of measures to ensure the speedy training of a new generation of thinkers, highly qualified professionals, and knowledgeable specialists who would effectively handle its diverse policy initiatives with concrete results, especially in Asia and Africa.
This Kremlin-backed incredibly unique programme aims to raise the weak institutional structures and explore creative methods to improve learning processes, dialogue and exchange of ideas in education. This would enable to turn out graduates who could think outside the box and boldly explore new strategic perspectives across the Asian and African regions.
On 17 May 2023, Minister of Science and Higher Education, Valery Falkov, outlined and comprehensively explained the Asia and Africa program’s framework, its importance and the crucial aspects during the government meeting, including cabinet ministers, with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.
In accordance with the government instructions or directives, the absolute majority of the program participants have a chance to study tuition-free, the bulk of state-funded slots to be distributed among the universities in the Russian Federation.
Valery Falkov noted that with changes in the geopolitical situation and the growing role of the eastern vector, it has become necessary to significantly increase the number of state-funded slots in the Department of Oriental and African Studies, up from 860 to almost 1,000. In addition, it is envisaged to proactively develop a draft programme for promoting education and research in a number of priority areas to meet the challenges of the geopolitical changing times of the Russian Federation.
The draft programme for developing training in Oriental and African studies was developed in collaboration with leading scientific institutes and universities and with the involvement of large Russian companies with interests in Asian and African countries.
Historically, Russian Oriental studies is a complex research area; it includes the study of various aspects of the life of Asian and African peoples and countries. Further, it includes the study of their history, philology, ethnology, political, social, economic development and international relations. Of course, Oriental and African studies are both based on an in-depth knowledge of the respective languages and national traditions.
Recognized world centres for Oriental and African studies have been established in Russia: at Lomonosov Moscow State University, at St Petersburg University, at MGIMO, and at the Higher School of Economics. The same goes for great scientific organizations: for instance, the Institute for African Studies, the Institute for Oriental Studies, and the Institute for China and Modern Asia. And, of course, we are speaking about the traditions of Russian Oriental studies, which must be preserved and expanded.
Therefore, it is important that while working on the programme, three goals have been precisely identified:
The first one is to consolidate the efforts undertaken by research institutes, universities, public authorities and businesses to improve the quality of education and research in this area.
The second goal is to expand Oriental studies and research in the country’s regions. The demand is overwhelming. It is believed that the Primorye, Khabarovsk and the Trans-Baikal territories, Buryatia, the Irkutsk and Tomsk regions, Kalmykia and other regions should become centres for a new Orientalist training system and for promoting research in this sphere. There is a plan to support them separately as part of this special programme.
It is important to mention here the Russian-Arctic Research Consortium, which was created by the initiative of North-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) Yakutsk to develop cooperation in the Russian Arctic-Asian direction, which will contribute to the expansion of international relations of the northern Russian regions with the countries of Asia in the face of new global challenges.
The third goal is to ensure Russia’s academic and expert leadership in global leadership based on the traditions and research schools developed over many decades. This matters a lot in establishing effective intercultural communication. It is imperative to support the existing professional association of Orientalists, research schools and groups of researchers led by recognized scholars and, of course, to support talented youth.
The development programme includes several key activities, particularly the development of new curricula with a stronger practical component, which will form part of the effort to form a national higher education system.
According to Minister of Science and Higher Education, Mr Valery Falkov, the development of academic mobility comes second. This applies to students, teachers and researchers equally. “We believe that internships in the countries under study should become a mandatory part of professional education, without which it is impossible to fully master the language, understand the culture, or conduct high-quality research,” he stressed in his presentation.
“Of course, we will focus on attracting talented young people to this area by creating new youth scientific laboratories. This tool has a proven track record. We are confident that once implemented, the programme will provide a system-wide effect to achieve the country’s strategic priorities, while the demand for well-trained specialists, as well as the results of their research, will be high,” concluded Mr Falkov.
It was not the first time this issue was raised. Last year, during the ‘Government Hour’ at the Federation Council, the Upper Chamber of Parliament, Russian Science and Higher Education Minister Valery Falkov mentioned it. And here I would like to quote him: “We need specialists who are not just fluent in languages of the regions and have a profound knowledge of their history and culture, but who are also proficient in economic and geopolitical matters,” he said at the Federation Council.
Understandably, more than three decades after the Soviet collapse, Russia has few well-trained multipolar-oriented specialists and professionals to work seriously in Asian and African regions. That has been the narrative during the past few years. There were complaints of an acute shortage of multipolar-oriented policy leaders with the necessary adequate knowledge and expertise to direct, coordinate and monitor purpose-driven activities in Asia and Africa.
As far as these questions are concerned, we have to look at them a bit seriously. With the emerging multi-polar world, there is increasing competitiveness for influence and the need to reinforce cooperation between government and business sectors in the social and cultural spheres in the regions.
Perhaps, we must acknowledge that the challenging task requires adopting suitable strategies for implementing a set of result-expected policy goals. On the other hand, Russia has so many reputable educational institutions graduating thousands of candidates yearly.
Closely connected with the questions under discussion here, an elaborate policy report was presented in November 2021. That report, titled ‘Situation Analytical Report’, was prepared by 25 policy experts headed by Professor Sergei A. Karaganov – Dean and Academic Supervisor of the Faculty of World Economy and International Relations of the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics (HSE University). Karaganov is also the Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
The report was very critical of Russia’s current policy toward Africa. It indicated deep-seated inconsistencies in policy implementation and further underlined that there have been few definitive results from various efforts in dealing with African countries. It says in part: “Apart from the absence of a public strategy for the continent, there is a shortage of qualified personnel and lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa.”
The Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences was founded in 1959. Since then, it has undergone various changes and conducted huge scientific research on Africa. It has nearly a hundred staff including well-experienced researchers, academic fellows and specialists on various African issues and directions.
In Russian media reports, Professor Dmitri Bondarenko, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies (IAS), indicated – just before the first Russia-Africa summit and precisely the 60th anniversary of the IAS – that state institutions and business companies seek the Institute’s consultancy services. In particular, the Institute played an important role in preparation for the first Russia-Africa summit held in October 2019.
“The situation has been changing during the last few years. Today, the importance of Africa for Russia in different respects – including political and economic – is recognized by the state; the Russian Foreign Ministry and other state institutions dealing with Russia-African relations in various spheres ask us for our expert advice on different points quite often,” said Bondarenko.
According to him, the situation now is much better for African studies than before the early post-Soviet years. In particular, today, there are many more opportunities for doing fieldwork in Africa. Russian Africanists and their work are becoming better known in the global Africanist community. Quite a lot of junior researchers join the academy nowadays. In an assessment, African studies in Russia are on the right road, broadening international cooperation with Africanists worldwide.
In one of the regional studies, the majority of my academic colleagues noted serious indicators that the young African generation is desirous of embracing Russia. But most of them hold the balance between the United States and Europe on one side and Russia and China on the other. Sharing further my views that there is a need for building and consolidating relations with the youth. Short-term and re-qualification courses and youth leadership programmes could be appealing here, those by the educational institutions in Russia.
The youth could critically help to shape public opinion on Russia. Learning and embracing group ideas, even mere group interaction, helps build relationships. Thus, on a broader scale, it is necessary to tap into this spectrum of the population with youth and women’s programmes. The youth could easily be attracted to stimulating activities by the Russian authorities. Russia’s long-term geopolitical stake should be noticeable, too, in Africa.
In summary, I would like to underline that the accelerated development of human resource potential is inextricably linked to economic development. The 21st century has heralded the rise of a knowledge economy, and Russia needs people who will be able to make vital contributions to tackling the social and economic challenges facing Africa. The Soviet Union made an invaluable contribution to developing the scientific and educational potential in many African countries and is now the Russian Federation’s explicable turn.
Professor Maurice Okoli is a fellow at the Institute for African Studies and the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences. He is a fellow at the North-Eastern Federal University, Russia