Echoes of the cold war as Russia boosts number of foreign students


2019-12-19 /

Moscow aims to double university intake from overseas to boost skills and build ties.

334,000 foreign students are enrolled in Russian universities, according to government figures, a cohort that has more than doubled since 2010 as part of a push by Moscow to ramp up a policy that served as an instrument of soft power during the cold war.

Russia is vying with Germany and France to be the world's sixth most popular destination for international students and the second most popular non-English-speaking country after China.
While students from former Soviet Union member states such as Georgia and the Baltic republics dominate Russia's foreign intake, recent years have seen a surge in young Africans and Asians, reflecting a shift in the Kremlin's foreign policy as relations with western nations sour.

Posters for African-themed club nights are stuck on walls next to the RUDN university gates and nearby restaurants serve Indian curries, Chinese soups and Arabic cuisine.
Russian universities are teaching 17,000 students from African countries this academic year, up from 6,700 just eight years ago, President Vladimir Putin said at a conference dedicated to Moscow's African relations in October. Four thousand are supported by scholarships provided by the Russian taxpayer.

The Kremlin's target is to increase the number of foreign students at Russian universities to 710,000 by 2025.
"People come to us not only for the experience of learning in Russia but also for knowledge. Foreign graduates receive a high-quality education, which helps them build their careers both in their homeland and in Russia," says Ivan Prostakov, vice-rector of Russia's Higher School of Economics, which this year enrolled students from 101 countries. "In the global education market, it is possible to attract the most talented students."
Almost all the country's universities are publicly owned and undergraduate fees are capped at about $6,000 a year, making them significantly cheaper than many European options.
The Soviet Union was a major destination for foreign students during the cold war, with the Kremlin encouraging young people from communist or pro-USSR countries to study in Moscow and other cities.
RUDN was set up in 1960 specifically to bring international students to Moscow. In 1961 it was named after Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, who had been executed that January.
Former Namibian president Hifikepunye Pohamba is an alumnus, as is Michel Djotodia, former president of the Central African Republic. Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan terrorist, was a student in the late 1960s but was expelled.
Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro gave guest lectures, while Yassir Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, was a celebrated visitor. João Lourenço, Angola's president, studied across town at the Lenin Political-Military Academy in the 1980s before returning home to start his political career.

Today, in addition to the boost to diplomatic ties by hosting foreign students, Russia is also seeking to attract inter­national talent to fill domestic skill gaps.
"Value creation in this century is all about talent and people. If you fail to win people, you lose in the long run," says Alexey Likhachev, director-general of Russian state-owned nuclear group Rosatom.
"We have world-class engineering schools, including aerospace and nuclear. Second, as a growing economy, we have not just jobs to fill but ambitious projects and aspirations to break through," he says.
"Highly skilled professionals and talent are increasingly mobile: even if they are educated in Russia . . . they may either choose to remain in Russia or live abroad, depending on which places they find most attractive to fulfil their potential."
Rosatom is working with 11 Russian universities to support nuclear-related education programmes and help increase foreign-student enrolment, as part of what Mr Likhachev describes as creating a "human-centric talent ecosystem" to support their nuclear projects in more than 40 countries.
Marina Lavrikova, senior vice-rector at St Petersburg university, says the advantages of foreign students include "the internationalization of the student body . . . [and] creating a positive image of Russia and the Russian education system among foreign citizens".
Fourteen per cent of St Petersburg's 24,000 students are foreign, Ms Lavrikova says, including 1,195 students from China, the largest foreign group. "This [foreign recruitment] is a priority . . . it is a national state task," she adds