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Russia moving to expand international student recruitment

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Russia continues to invest in its leading universities and will open as many as 150 new institutions over the next several years
  • The Russian government will also close or merge up to 100 universities this year that have fallen below quality benchmarks
  • The nation’s 15 leading universities have formed a joint initiative to expand their international recruiting efforts
  • The Foreign Ministry has supported the formation of a new association for foreign graduates of Russian universities and the number of scholarships for foreign students will also increase in 2016

On Monday this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped on to the green marble dais in the United Nations General Assembly Hall for his first address to the UN since 2005. The President’s speech was followed by a 90-minute meeting with US President Barack Obama, the first such discussion between the two leaders in nearly two years.

Both events were widely seen as political wins for President Putin in that they clearly signalled Russia is not isolated after its widely condemned military action in Ukraine. More to the point, Monday’s events may also reflect an underlying shift in global power structures and a step towards a more balanced distribution of economic, military, and political influence across multiple poles of influence around the world.

Such developments are relevant to our ongoing consideration of international education markets as student mobility patterns are also influenced by such shifts in global dynamics. Matching its recent moves to assert its influence on the world stage are Russia’s prominent and ongoing reforms in its higher education system and its steps to both bolster the international ranking of its institutions and attract greater numbers of international students.

Consolidation in higher ed

Russia is in the midst of an extensive programme of consolidation and, for lack of a better term, “re-targeting” of investments in its higher education system. There are a few interrelated plans at work here. On the one hand, the government is moving to close a larger number of (mostly private) institutions that are seen as low-quality or underperforming providers. The number of closures or mergers for 2015 has been projected to affect as many as 100 institutions all told.

At the same time, Russia is continuing with a scheme known as the “5/100 initiative“, a multi-year project, initiated in 2012, to boost the global competitiveness of Russian universities. The plan calls for at least five Russian universities to be ranked among the top 100 institutions in the world by 2020.

More recently, the government has also announced plans to open a large number of new institutions. University World News has reported that up to 150 new institutions will be created over the next several years with “a focus on training specialists for high-tech, innovative and knowledge-intensive areas of the national economy” and “increased funding from the government.”

Stepping up recruiting

Earlier this year, the 15 leading institutions that are participating in the 5/100 project announced the formation of the Association of Global Universities (AGU). The association is meant to function as a networking and coordinating body among the universities and its interests are broad, including government relations and the advancement of research.

However, the association is also establishing a joint centre to recruit foreign students to study in Russia. Based at Ural Federal University, and headed by the Ural Federal’s Vice Rector for International Affairs Maxim Khomyakov, the centre will establish and maintain an international network of agents. It will also recruit students directly to member universities.

One of the primary goals of the centre is to recruit students to meet institutional quotas established under a national scholarship programme administered by the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and the International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo). But if matching highly qualified students with scholarships for leading universities is an initial goal, the centre also clearly has larger ambitions of both recruiting fee-paying students and helping to build the international brand of Russian education.

With those broader goals in mind, and to the extent that the joint initiative enables a more active international agent network recruiting students for Russia, its impact is likely to extend well beyond the campuses of the 15 participating universities.

The centre is starting up operations through 2015 and expecting to have an impact on recruiting results in 2016. “We can expect serious results by September 2016, because in most countries applicants for 2015 have already decided where they will matriculate in terms of both country and university,” Mr Khomyakov said recently to Russia Beyond the Headlines.

In a related development, the Russian Foreign Ministry has also supported the establishment of a new international students’ association with the goal of connecting the estimated 1.5 million international alumni of Russian universities. The World Foreign University Student Association was launched in July 2015 to further promote ties between Russia and the international community, and also advance Russian culture and education abroad.

“Russia is proud of its centuries-long experience in the peaceful coexistence of various peoples and religions. Freedom, responsibility and our other traditional values have formed our moral-ethical denominator. And our [foreign] graduates’ mission is to spread it far beyond the borders of Russia,” said Foreign Ministry official Anatoly Viktorov.

Boosting scholarship quotas

Finally, Russian officials have also recently announced an expansion of scholarship support for foreign students, with a 33% boost in the number of scholarship places allocated to 5/100-participating universities for 2016.

Starting in January next year, the number of scholarships will be increased to 20,000 from the current 15,000.

As is the current practice, applications for the scholarship are administered by the Rossotrudnichestvo, with successful applicants reportedly to be offered a choice among six universities. University World News has reported that the bureau received 16,000 applications from 160 countries this year, and that total spending on the programme is in the range of US$50-US$60 million per year.

The same report notes that, “the plan involves paying particular attention to trying to increase the number of students from the EU countries, the US, Canada, as well as other Western countries, from which the number of applicants is currently significantly lower than from Asian countries and the Commonwealth of Independent States.”

While no clear policies have been announced in this respect, there is also some speculation that the expanded scholarship programme, as well as the new international student association launched this summer, will trigger expanded post-study work and migration opportunities for foreign graduates of Russian institutions.

Education marketing specialist Olga Gozman says of the recent moves to boost Russia’s profile as an international study destination, “There is an acute need to attract foreign students due to the existing ambitious state plans to strengthen the positions of Russian universities in global rankings.” This underlying need, we can imagine, will continue to inform decisions with respect to higher education funding, policy, and internationalisation in Russia for years to come.

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