Higher Education in Europe's Unrecognised Territories: Challenges and Opportunities

ZOiS Report 2/2020

by Thomas de Waal and Sabine von Löwis

Universities in Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and northern Cyprus have fallen victim to the conflicts associated with these de facto states and been cut off from international academic exchange.

In Abkhazia and Transdniestria, higher education institutions (HEIs) are underfunded, struggle to overcome their Soviet legacy, and are slow to adapt to international trends. That has resulted in a variable quality of education and brain drain. In northern Cyprus, isolation has led to a commercialisation of higher education, resulting in some success stories but also to many cases of unregulated ‘diploma mills’. In all three cases, HEIs are mostly excluded from the European Union’s (EU’s) Erasmus+ education programme, while academic staff and students lack opportunities for international collaboration.

International partners engage with the higher education sector in these territories without recognising their independence. This engagement is worthwhile for several reasons. The provision of good-quality higher education and academic exchange is a key part of a healthy society. Engagement with HEIs in de facto states can also help conflict-resolution efforts. Yet this engagement has proved difficult in practice.

Higher education has been internationalised over the last thirty years, mostly with positive effects. Europe’s universities have a long tradition of autonomy and academic freedom, which encourages them to reach across borders and conflict divides. However, systems of harmonisation and quality assurance are aligned with nation-state education systems, and HEIs generally do not receive recognition if their home state is unrecognised. A lack of quality assurance also takes many HEIs in de facto states down the path of becoming diploma mills—especially in northern Cyprus.

Abkhazia and Transdniestria became isolated from international contact by the conflicts of the 1990s, and have only maintained academic networks, relations, and standards oriented towards their patron state, Russia, based on their Soviet experiences and practices.

Northern Cyprus has taken a different route, with a rapid proliferation of HEIs which accept international students. It has around twenty registered universities. Most HEIs are accredited by Turkey’s Council of Higher Education (YÖK). International higher education is now a big source of revenue for the territory’s economy, but the sector is highly unregulated and foreign students risk being exploited.

Policy recommendations

Policies of de-isolation of HEIs in these territories will have wide beneficial effects. There is potential for international academic cooperation in language centres in Abkhazia and Transdniestria. Scholarship exchanges should be expanded. Widening the Erasmus+ programme’s scope would be a great opportunity for students, staff, and joint research initiatives. International cooperation can be developed on the basis of existing language and cultural exchange programmes.

 Specifically, international actors should:

  • make higher education and contact between HEIs a greater priority in official conflict-resolution initiatives of the EU, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the UN;
  • begin dialogue with conflict parties on how HEIs in de facto states can take part in the Erasmus+ scheme;
  • offer knowledge transfer for academic staff at universities in de facto states on how to participate in international research programmes, in close cooperation with parent states.

 Parent states should:

  • encourage academic and student exchanges across conflict divides;
  • approve bilateral contacts between international universities and HEIs in de facto states; and
  • develop double degrees between universities across conflict lines.

 De facto states should:

  • de-register HEIs that do not meet international standards;
  • use online teaching for exchange with international partners; and
  • attract international staff and students for teaching, research, and cultural exchange.