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What You Should Know about International Education in Russia

The Russian Federation or Russia is a fascinating study of contradictions. It is the largest country in the world, yet only comprises 1.87% of the world’s population. It is a single country with a multiplicity of rich and vibrant cultures yet is perceived as drab and unexciting. The people are described as “quintessential party people,” yet they are associated with conflict. Russia also has an impressive resume when it comes to famous academics, yet some of its most prominent universities failed to make the grade in a 2012 audit


Russia has also been making political headlines lately, and not in a positive way. However, on the positive side, it has now opened its borders to international students from 21 countries, and in-person instruction can now commence. 


However, not much has been written about international education in Russia itself. The lack of material can make it hard to drill down to the hard facts, but  I believe Russia has the potential to play a big role in the international education stage, particularly given a significant shift in educational policy. Here is what you should know about international education in Russia today. 


The state of higher education in Russia

According to the OECD, more than half (54%) of its population between 25 and 64 years old are tertiary degree holders in 2016, the second-highest for all OECD plus its partner countries. The site uniRank, identified 375 accredited HEIs in Russia as of 2021, with Moscow State University (MSU) topping the list. In the 2021 QS World University Rankings, MSU also tops the list at 74th place with Saint Petersburg State University (SPSU) at number 225. 


This is interesting because of the Russian Academic Excellence Project (Project 5-100) launched in 2012. The goal was to have five (out of 21 included in the program) Russian HEIs institutions rank among the top 100 in global university rankings by 2020, and neither MSU nor SPSU are part of Project 5-100. However, 15 out of the 21 Project 5-100 HEIs did make it to the Top 1000 for 2021.


Apparently, Project 5-100 did not reach one of its goals according to the QS Top Universities site. However, comparing  the progress of the top two ranking HEIs in Project 5-100 against MSU and SPSU shows something interesting. 

Three out of four did not have any dramatic shifts in their ranking, while TSU is slightly exciting, but nothing to write home about. In fact, Novosibirsk State University and SPSU y appear to be in lockstep, which would indicate that Project 5-100 had no significant impact on improving the ranking of its grantees. However, if you look at the big picture, you will see that this might not be the case for all HEIs.

In this chart, I added ITMO University, which is a Project 5-100 HEI, and showed dramatic improvement compared to the others in the chart. What this seems to indicate is that HEIs that were in good shape before educational reforms in Russia continued to do well in rankings, while those that were in bad shape benefited greatly from government assistance. 

International students

The question of international education now comes into play. One of the goals of Project 5-100 is to increase the number of international students coming into Russia, partly for prestige, and partly to mitigate the steady decline in domestic HEI enrollments resulting from demographic changes. 


The exact number for this goal is a moving target, but the current one is 700,000 a year by 2025. This is more than double the number of enrollments in 2019/2020, which was 297,995. 


However, unlike many countries that look on international students as revenue-generating, Russia will actually spend billions to train foreign students and provide them well-paid jobs to encourage them to stay.


How has the strategy worked so far? Let’s look back at 2017 to see how Russia compares to top international education hosting nations in terms of growth.


Year-over-year growth for the world’s leading global study destinations, based on the most recent two reporting years available for each country. Source: ICEF Monitor

A 9% increase from 2017 to 2018 is not bad at all compared to how the US and UK did. It certainly seemed that Russia was on the right track.  Given that in 2014 there were just 183,000 international students in Russia, and in 2019 it was close to 300,000, it is not outside the realm of possibility that those numbers could double in five years. 


Now let’s look at the ratio of international students against its total student population for 2021 for the five universities in our chart.

To recap, the HEIs in red are part of Project 5-100, while the HEIs in blue are not. It seems participation in the project does not have a profound effect on the international student population. It is interesting to note, however, that Saint Petersburg State University, which does not offer scholarships to its international students, has the lowest percentage of foreign students in its mix. 


It also pays to take a closer look at the composition of the international student population in 2020. 

A vast majority of its foreign student population comes from Russian-speaking and non-English-speaking countries, which necessarily limits the reach and diversity of the international education sector. Kazakhstan, for instance, has a population of 18.8 million people and makes up more than 20% of the total international student population in Russia. China, on the other hand, has a population of 1.4 billion people, yet only contributes less than 10% to Russia. 

It’s all about the numbers. Top sending countries like China and India with large populations can make or break an international student strategy, so it makes sense to tailor programs to attract students from those countries. This is the purview of HEIs with the support of the government.

Great things about Russian HEIs

That said, HEIs in Russia have been making it very attractive for other English-speaking students to enroll. Top Universities identifies institutions that offer degrees taught in English as well as English language programs. The state has also jumped in, funding 15,000 scholarships to international students that even include a maintenance allowance equivalent to $1,630 monthly.


Even if scholarships are off the table as is the case with some HEIs, the cost of getting an education in Russia is quite low compared to HEIs in most European and Western countries. An undergraduate degree, for example, costs an average of $3,430 a year. The tuition will vary depending on the HEI and the program, but the most you can expect to pay is $12,570 a year for any degree, including postgraduate ones. Housing prices can be prohibitive, but HEIs typically offer dormitory accommodations at very low prices.


Student-teacher ratios in higher education are also quite favorable. They range from as low as 8:1 to 11:1, depending on the HEI. This is good news for students needing a little more help with adjusting to the Russian system of education. 


The government has also recently eased restrictions on the work rights of international students. They no longer have to obtain additional permits to obtain work outside their university or program. It is also easier for graduates to obtain permanent residency status provided they meet certain requirements.

What HEIs need to do

Russia already ranks 6th in the top destinations for international students in 2020, and we can probably attribute that in part to Project 5-100 and in part to the sheer number of HEI and program options available in this vast country. However, it could be and do so much more. 


Russia has a lot of potential in the international education market, but HEIs need to take action to develop it. They need to market Russian HEIs as capable of delivering quality education despite their relatively low positions in global rankings and expand their reach beyond their neighbor countries and into the rest of the world.


The introduction of English-language courses and programs certainly helps, but Russian HEIs can go one step further and form global partnerships with other institutions. This will allow them to put a foot in the door in countries where Russia has no significant presence. It will also open up the market into these undeveloped sectors and help Russia reach its Project 5-100 goals.


Partnering with other institutions will also open communications, promote transparency, and dispel many of the myths and misconceptions about Russia and its HEIs. It is the next logical step for a mostly untapped international education sector and could have a significant global impact. It would be interesting to watch developments when and if that happens. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)

#PartnerForLife #InternationalEducation #InternationalStudents #MSM

Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As the Vice President of MSM Global, she leads MSM’s extensive back-of-the-house operations, including MSM’s human resources, financial management, information technology, and marketing, communications, and social media activities. 


She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.  


Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments. 

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