A License for Education

February 11 | 2021

In February, the Russian State Duma will—on second reading—consider amendments to the Law on Education restricting educational activities and international contacts.

Dmitry Dubrovsky


Poster:  Unknown artist. 1919, Petrograd, 2nd State Lithograph. (Wikimedia Commons)


In particular, the lawmakers propose introducing a permissive procedure for international cooperation in the sphere of education and for the licensing of educational projects.

The amendments were adopted on first reading in late 2020. During the second phase, they might change considerably. However, the odds of that are slim.


An Anti-Western Package

Changes to the Federal Law on Education of the Russian Federation are part of a package of legislative amendments introduced by the State Duma in December. The same package also includes amendments to the Law on Foreign Agents.

The amendments were the result of the active work of two commissions set up to investigate alleged Western interference in Russia’s internal politics: the Ad Hoc Commission on Protecting State Sovereignty and Preventing Interference in the Domestic Affairs of the Russian Federation and the Commission of the State Duma on the Investigation of Foreign Interference in Russia’s Internal Affairs.

These commissions mimic the name of a U.S. Congressional commission: the House Committee on Un-American Activities.


Target Audience—Students and the Academic Community

In its 2020 work report, the Federation Council commission indicated that “youth, students, and academia” are considered to be the United States’ main target audiences in Russia.

According to the authors of the report, Russian “academic structures” themselves allow this interference into Russia’s internal affairs in the interests of the State Department and the Pentagon.

Graduates of the School of Local Self-Government are among those suspected of “contributing” to the implementation of alleged U.S. plans to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs.

Thus, the report made it clear that measures should be taken to limit and control students, “academic circles,” and forms of education not currently subject to state control.

To this end, the State Duma has introduced, among others, a bill aimed at protecting young people and students from the influence of the West.


Mandatory Registration

In an explanatory note on the draft, the authors complain about the lack of regulation of educational activities. Such gaps are allegedly exploited to allow for a “broad spectrum of propaganda activities, including those supported from abroad and directed at discrediting Russia’s public policy, revising its history, and undermining the constitutional order.”

To prevent such “interference,” the law requires the formal registration of any education and training activities (including, for example, the newly established Free University). The project proposes to give the Ministry of Education and Science the right to issue licenses for educational projects.


What Counts as “Educational Activities”?

The term “educational activities” is interpreted very broadly. It may include research projects, lectures, websites, YouTube channels… The bill attacks not only well-known independent educational projects and educational activities conducted by NGOs, but also the activities of universities.

At the same time, special attention is paid to international cooperation. Under the new law, all international cooperation and exchange programs must be approved by a special government body. This will lead to additional political control over universities, further censorship, and more restrictions.


The Benefits of Broad Interpretation

The author of the draft, Senator Andrei Klimov (who is also the chairman of the Commission for the Protection of Sovereignty), openly admitted that the vague definition of “educational activity”—which allows for broad interpretation—is intentional. According to Klimov, “transparent measures” are insufficient in the fight against “dangerous activities.”

The senator argues that those who oppose the new amendments are actually backed by “external forces” and “influenced by Washington.”

According to critics, however, the amendments represent another attempt to empower the state and equip government officials with arbitrary means to silence their opponents.



Attempts to “protect” the academic community and students from “smoldering influence” and take control of relations with foreigners already have a history.

  • In 2019, the Ministry of Education and Science issued an order obliging academics to obtain their university’s consent to meet with foreign colleagues (the decree was revoked after it met with indignation from scientists and the new minister).
  • Similar language was used in the demand of the Nikulinskaya Inter-District Attorney’s Office in Moscow, which included, in particular, a requirement to search for “pro-American groups of influence” in Russian universities. It, too, was withdrawn.

Will the new bill be rejected?


Scientists Are Opposed

The Russian scientific community quickly responded to the challenge. Academics sounded the alarm about the radical legislative amendments, rightfully fearing that they might hurt international cooperation. An open letter by some of those opposed to the amendments was published in the most popular academic newspaper, “Troitsky Variant.” Scientists and science popularizers also said that they would not follow the requirements of the law if it was adopted in its current form.

The “First of July” Club, an informal association of Russian Academy of Sciences academics, likewise protested, arguing that the proposed licensing impedes the constitutional freedom to search for and obtain information. There is a high risk, they indicated, that the process will be carried out selectively, which will strengthen ideological control over the humanities and social sciences, especially history. Moreover, they fear that the amended law will hamper the development of Russian science.

“The atmosphere of suspicion towards scientists and their international contacts stands in stark contrast to Russia’s official goals of internationalizing higher education,” commented Katarzyna (Kasia) Kaczmarska, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Edinburgh. According to Professor Kaczmarska, amending existing rules “further suppresses free exchange of opinions in academic circles” and is likely to “exacerbate scientists’ and researchers’ self-censorship.”

* * *

The state is sending another message to scientists and the academic community: you are not trusted, your international contacts are treated with suspicion. We can expect that scientists will choose research topics and themes for public statements even more carefully. Self-censorship may intensify. According to critics, the result will be increased ideological control over academia.

The growing suspicion about the international contacts of Russian scientists hinders the policy of internationalization of Russian universities, improving their international ratings and attracting foreign students and faculty.

Indeed, the amendments to the law on education have precisely the opposite goal: to eradicate what a group of legislators call “negative foreign interference.” As a result, international educational projects will become even more complicated and risky to carry out.


Dmitry Dubrovsky, PhD (History), is an Associate Professor at the Higher School of Economics, an Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Independent Social Research in St. Petersburg, and a member of the St. Petersburg Human Rights Council.


School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Almaty Management University

Almaty, 31 October 2 November 2024


Academic freedom is a cornerstone of scholarly and research activities worldwide. The globalization of higher education and science necessitates a shared understanding of academic freedom principles globally, particularly in Eurasian countries. Despite the universality of academic freedom, the commitment to its protection and promotion varies and is shaped by the intricate interplay of legal, socio-political, and cultural contexts. A country’s legal regulations and policy frameworks significantly impact how the protection and promotion of academic freedom are understood and implemented.

The quality of democracy and freedom protection in a country also affects the level of academic freedom there. This effect is evident in the rapid challenges all political systems face, such as managerialism and consumerism in higher education. It is even more pronounced in undemocratic regimes with breaches of institutional autonomy and ideologization of higher education.

Equally striking is how the global academy interprets academic freedom when it encounters local traditions that are not universally democratic. In this regard, the operation of campuses of leading universities in authoritarian countries and the debates about the principles and conditions of their operation deserve additional interest.

These observable diversities raise the question of whether global academic freedom can be discussed as a universal concept and how to distinguish the diversity of academic freedom manifestations from aberrations. It also raises the question of how to protect and promote academic freedom as a principle while considering the legal, socio-economic, and cultural contexts in which it is practiced.

For a conference exploring the complexities of academic freedom in a global context, with a particular focus on Eurasian countries, here are some potential topics that could be addressed:

  • The cultural and social context of academic freedom in practice, the contextualization of academic freedom, its cultural and political interpretations, and the universality of academic freedom.
  • Academic freedom in democratic vs. authoritarian regimes, the balance between the social-economic dimension of academic freedom and political rights’ dimension,
  • Legal framework of academic freedom, comparative analyses of legislation, the impact of legal tradition on the application of academic freedom in different countries,
  • Globalization and academic freedom, including academic freedom on international campuses, academic exchange, and academic freedom strategies for maintaining academic standards and freedom in diverse political landscapes.
  • Managerialism and academic freedom, balance between financial sustainability and scholarly independence. Academic integrity and academic freedom
  • Effect of the social and political crises for the academic freedom, academic freedom for persecuted scholars: issues and supports of the scholars in exile
  • Ethnic and moral considerations in upholding academic freedom, including ethical dilemmas scholars faced due to the conflict between national and international academic standards.

The conference is organized by CISRus (Center for Independent Social Research) with generous support of Almaty Management University (AlmaU) and in information partnership with Ghent University.

The conference will be conducted in English. We welcome applications for individual contributions, which should include the title, a brief description (up to 200 words), and a short academic biography of the presenter (approximately 100 words). Presentations will be organized in either thematic panels or roundtable discussions. The organizing committee reserves the right to determine the presentation format (panel or round table) for each selected participant.

Please send your applications to the email: freeacademia.conference@gmail.com


Application Deadline: July 25, 2024

The Conference Committee is ready to provide accommodation for all participants for the days of the conference and has some capacity to contribute to the ticket costs as well. Please indicate your need for accommodation and travel expenses with your application.


The conference committee:

Dmitry Dubrovsky (Research Scholar, Department of Social Science, Charles University; Professor, Free University)

 Aleksandr Vileikis (Professor, School of entrepreneurship and innovation, AlmaU)

Elizaveta Potapova (Senior Researcher, Public Policy and Management Institute, Lithuania)

Irina Olimpieva (Director CISRus, Research Professor at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University)


About AlmaU:

Almaty Management University – is a world-class, entrepreneurial, socially responsible university. More than 35 years in the education market, the oldest private university in the country, the 1st business school of the Republic of Kazakhstan, a pioneer of business education in the CIS.

The School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (SEI) is a leading and internationally accredited (BGA&AMBA) entrepreneurship school with a commitment to excellence, innovation, and global perspective. SEI AlmaU offers a range of cutting-edge entrepreneurship programs designed to prepare students for successful careers in diverse fields.


Information for traveling:

Kazakhstan has adopted a policy allowing dozens of countries to enter without a visa. Please contact your local Kazakhstani embassy for further details. For guests who may require a visa, AlmaU will issue a letter of invitation confirming their participation in the conference. Participants will also receive information about housing and traveling to Almaty.


Біз сіздермен Алматыда кездесуді асыға күтеміз !

We are looking forward to meeting you in Almaty!

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