Toe the line or get drafted: Russian students walk tightrope

Academics say mobilisation gives universities a powerful tool, with learners who get expelled facing being sent to the Ukrainian front

October 6, 2022
Source: Getty

Fears of a broader draft could be used to suppress opposition to the war and further limit free speech on Russian campuses, giving universities a “powerful tool” to silence potential dissenters, academics worry.

To date, the Kremlin has said it is drafting only reservists to fight in Ukraine, with the presidential decree explicitly exempting students at public universities. But there is anxiety that more young recruits – including those with no combat history – could soon be tapped as Russian losses mount.

While university students were expected to remain exempt from Russia’s obligatory year-long military service, the war efforts have increased the risk for those students who step out of line, academics said.

“If you’re expelled, you go straight to the army…the universities now have an extremely powerful tool to pressure students for any social or political activities,” said Anna Lyubimtseva, coordinator of the Freedom Degree project, which fields queries from Russian students facing dismissal.

Institutions could use the threat of conscription not only to stifle students’ criticism of the war, but also to maintain control over “basically everything which will make an impact on universities’ image”, she said.

Anatoly Oleksiyenko, a professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, noted that universities had historically served as “sanctuaries” for young men avoiding conscription. He agreed that institutions “have a lot of leverage over behaviour and attitudes of their male students”.

Igor Chirikov, a senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, said that with an ongoing war, “the stakes are much higher” for young men.

“The danger of being mobilised is still there for students, which is why a lot of them prefer to flee the country, despite assurances,” he said.

Dr Chirikov noted that both inside and between institutions, the mobilisation has created rifts. Distance learners are not covered under the exemption for public university students, for example. More than 300,000 students at private universities were also initially not exempt under the 21 September order.

While Russia’s Defence Ministry appeared to broaden the scope of the exemption on 1 October, saying that private institutions would also benefit from an exemption, their early exclusion sent a message, said Dr Chirikov.

“This creates threats to enrolment for a lot of private institutions. I don’t think it’s just a coincidence; it’s rather a trend to push on private education in Russia,” he said.

But among academics, there was disagreement about whether mobilisation-related pressure would make much difference to learners.

“I am not sure the administration needs more tools to pressure the students – they are already deeply scared,” said Greg Yudin, a professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “If they actually rebel, they will hardly mind this danger.”

Further down the line, the war could significantly shape Russia’s higher education landscape, some observers have speculated.

Ms Lyubimtseva predicted that, should the war continue into next autumn, it would cause men’s university enrolment to increase, driving more competition for places.

She said the situation would “open the door for corruption”, with young men likely bribing their way in. But even without bribes, some administrators might feel compelled to give young men a spot at their institution.

“[They] may feel this sympathy with boys that if they don’t give them a place, they may get sent to war,” she said.

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

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