Former Soviet countries with high proportions of students studying in the European Union have achieved higher levels of democratic development than other post-Soviet states, according to the preliminary findings of an upcoming study.
Meanwhile, former Soviet republics with higher proportions of students studying in Russia have reached significantly lower levels of democratic development.
The research was conducted by Maia Chankseliani, associate professor of comparative and international education at the University of Oxford, who presented the initial findings at a seminar hosted by the Centre for Global Higher Education on 21 September.
It was based on an analysis of the destinations of study abroad among students from the 15 former Soviet Union countries in 2015, using data from the Unesco Institute of Statistics, plotted against the ranking of each home nation in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index.
Each of the post-Soviet countries included in the study had the same level of democratic development in 1991 and seven still have authoritarian governments.
In general, the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – sent a high proportion of students to the EU and have high levels of democracy. Meanwhile, central Asian nations, such as Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, performed poorly on both measures.
Overall, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students from the former Soviet region pursuing degree programmes at European universities since the late 1990s, according to the research.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Dr Chankseliani said the research aims to discover whether studying abroad in a democratic society “may be viewed as an apprenticeship in democracy for those students who come from less democratic contexts” and a “powerful mode of socialisation that is likely to induct students into the norms and rules of a host community”.
“While studying abroad, individuals may undergo changes in how they think about socio-political, cultural and economic systems and developments around them and their own role as citizen-contributors to their communities,” she said.
“Amongst other influences, mobility may be transformative for student migrants’ civic consciousness – their critical awareness of wider society and their willingness to contribute to it – and their understanding of what democracy entails. Such apprenticeships in democracy...may be essential in facilitating democratic developments at home, when students return to their home countries.”
Dr Chankseliani said that further research is required to explain whether students who have new views on the electoral process, the functioning of government and political culture following a period of studying abroad translate this into “actions that may lead to democratic transitions at home”.
She added that the initial findings show that studying abroad "can possibly serve not only the goals of improving economic standing of individuals, institutions and nation states, but wider societal goals of supporting global peace and well-being, as student mobility offers the potential of facilitating democratic socialisation".
“Future research will need to improve our knowledge on how student sojourners who come from less- or non-democratic contexts rediscover, remake and reorganise the idea of democracy while living in Europe," she continued.
"Such research will be of enormous importance for the conceptual understanding of the democratisation promise of European higher education.”