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Report: Russia preparing for new recruitment drive in Western markets

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Russian government is planning to introduce a series of measures designed to encourage greater numbers of students from the West to study in Russia
  • The initiatives will include an expansion of English-taught degree programmes, new scholarships, and streamlined visa processing
  • This appears to mark a new phase of recruitment for Russian universities in line with the country’s official target to nearly triple its foreign enrolment by 2025

University World News reports that the Russian government is preparing a package of new initiatives designed to attract greater numbers of students from the West.

The measures will include an expansion of English-taught programmes at Russian universities, improvements in campus facilities, introduction of new scholarship programmes, and a streamlining of visa processing for visiting students.

The Russian Ministry of Education and Science indicates that scholarship details will be forthcoming later this year. In the meantime, early reports indicate that the government will move to substantially reduce visa processing times for foreign students, from the three months (or more) currently required to 15 days or less.

The drive to 2025

It appears that these initiatives will mark a new chapter in Russia’s long-term effort to further expand its international student numbers. In May 2017, a government executive council formally approved a strategy to build the country’s foreign enrolment from a base of about 245,000 students to nearly 310,000 by 2020. The plan also sets out a longer-term target to build Russia’s foreign student base to 710,000 students by 2025.

To get there, Russia will need to open up new markets and further accelerate the already-steady growth in its international student numbers. The foreign student base in the country has grown significantly since the early 2000s, with an average annual growth rate of 9% through 2016. If it were to maintain that pace, Russia’s foreign enrolment would “naturally” reach roughly 670,000 by 2030. That the government aims to reach an even higher student base more quickly makes it clear that additional measures will be required.

This is the significance of the new package of initiatives being reported this month. The government has committed itself for some years now to improving the standing of Russian universities (most notably through the additional funding provided via the “5/100 initiative”), and to strengthening the offer for visiting students. Speaking at the recent IUNC Eurasia conference in Moscow, State University of Management Rector Ivan Lobanov highlighted the affordability of Russian higher education, the improved performance of leading Russian institutions in international rankings, and the strong employment outcomes for foreign graduates of the country’s universities as major factors that are attracting greater number of visiting students to Russia.

However, a majority of these students still come from the former Soviet Republics (most of which are now Commonwealth of Independent States countries) or, to a lesser extent, from Asia. To highlight one example from within the CIS, Kazakhstan has seen its outbound numbers roughly triple over the last decade. Nearly 90,000 Kazakhstani students went abroad in 2017, with nearly eight in ten of those (or about 70,000 students) going to study in Russia.

In contrast, less than 2,000 students came to Russia from Western markets in 2017, whether from Europe or North America. This amounts to less than 1% of the country’s total foreign enrolment last year.

Demographic downturn

The importance of Russia’s international recruitment goals is underscored by another recent report from the Ministry of Education and Science which indicates that the number of college-aged students in the country has plummeted in recent years. Indeed, total enrolment in Russian higher education has fallen by more than a third since 2011 – from about 8.6 million in 2011 to 6.1 million as of 2016. Total enrolment is projected to decline further through 2021 as a result of demographic trends that have led to a rapidly shrinking pool of applicants for Russian universities.

World Education Services notes that the number of secondary school graduates in Russia was basically cut in half between 2000/01 and 2014/15 (over which time the number of high school leavers in the country dropped from 1.46 million to just over 701,000). This dramatic change is now rippling through to university sector, with the Ministry of Education and Science projecting that higher education institutions can expect a drop in application volumes this year, the first such decline since the early 1990s.

As the longer-term targets for 2020 and 2025 make clear, the government aims to counter this downturn in part by further boosting international student numbers. But the prospect of university closures and mergers is looming as well, and QS reports that 14% of Russian institutions were shuttered in 2017 alone. Going forward, the government’s clear intention to reduce the number of Russian universities will no doubt be a powerful driver of increased competition for both domestic and international applicants.

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