Christian BodeChristian Bode is former secretary general of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Appointed at DAAD in 1990, Bode witnessed firsthand the transformation of higher education in the formerly communist region in Europe. 

International Educator: How have Eastern European countries changed to become more open to international exchange and study abroad since the fall of communism? Were there initial hurdles?

Bode: Looking back to these roaring nineties I see light and shadows. Many of those who had been on the go could now make it for the West. Many young (and elder) scientists left the country—not too many of them returned. Also, a number of Russian students left the former Soviet Union and came to Europe. The number of Russian students in Germany rose to more than 10,000, all Eastern European countries amount to more than 50,000.

International Educator: Are there some countries that are more “advanced” in internationalization than others?

Bode: The dynamics of how European countries dealt with the collapse of communism in the region were varied. There was a great difference between the Middle-Eastern European countries (from Balticum south to Balkans) on the one side and the former Soviet Union on the other side. The former ones were ‘coming back home’ into the European house; the latter one unfolded into 15 new states, which are still seeking their new identity. The old order was destroyed—also the many positive sides of it: the high prestige of education and science “intelligentia” and culture. The new order had difficulties to establish itself: the economic situation deteriorated in most countries, the state subsidies decreased, money started to prevail over ethics (as in the West), corruption (also in the education sector) grew into new dimensions, many new private institutions (mostly in economics, law, humanities) played an ambiguous role, old nomenclatura politicians, mafiosi, KGB-people robbed the state (Russia, central Asian countries), religious and ethnic tensions grew, and nationalistic tendencies in the newly independent states destroyed former divisions of labor.

International Educator: To what extent were Eastern European countries able to reform their educational systems themselves in recent years? What role was played by European institutions in “helping” that reform?

Bode: West European States and the European Union tried a lot to help (predominantly in favor of the Middle-Eastern European States and later members of the EU) through large programs such as TEMPUS, and all of these states finally joined the Bologna Process (or rather: signed the paper). But signing papers and learning new vocabulary is not yet a new spirit or a new reality. Most of the so-called reforms had to be made with the ‘old boys’ who didn't leave or could not be fired and it didn't really change their minds, attitudes, and practices. The new generation (and there are of course fantastic young brains) resigned, emigrated, or accepted the rules. Many of those who returned from successful study abroad did not return to the academic sector but found much better paid jobs in industry and business (which is essentially, internal brain drain).

International Educator: What are some former communist countries, such as Russia, doing now to try to internationalize and what is the larger picture of the region in terms of internationalization?

Bode: Russia is now announcing a new internationalization policy and growing interest in foreign talents, but it is still far from a real welcome culture. The number of Germans studying in Russia is decreasing. Foreign languages are probably less taught and learned than in the cold war period: German (for many, it is the first foreign language) is decreasing, and English is not yet widely spread. Bureaucratic hurdles for exchanges and cooperation (for instance, recognition of foreign degrees) have rather grown instead of fallen.

Despite of all reform rhetoric of governments and university presidents, I have the impression that it will take one more generation to modernize the higher education system in the former Soviet Union successor states according to Western/international standards. All neighbors and friends need a lot of patience and good will.

This is an adapted excerpt from “After the Curtain Fell,” which appeared in the January/February 2013 International Educator about how European higher education has changed in the last few decades since the collapse of communism in the region.