Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
4th Oct 2023

Despite international isolation, Russia continues to build foreign enrolment

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Russia’s foreign enrolment reached a high of 351,500 students in 2022
  • Most students come from the former Soviet republics, or from Asia or Africa
  • Russia remains an extremely affordable study destination with study costs a fraction of those in the west

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has triggered a number of important shifts in global political alignment. On the one hand, the war has stiffened the resolve and unity of the NATO countries, perhaps to a greater degree than many would have previously expected. On the other, the long list of sanctions and other measures designed to isolate Russia from the "Political West" appears to have strengthened ties between Russia and many other nations in the "Political South," especially with fellow BRICS nations.

The BRICS group includes the founding members of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. At the 15th BRICS Summit in August 2023, six additional members – Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – were invited to join, and will assume full membership in January 2024. All told, the group currently accounts for roughly 42% of the world's population.

Not that this is a new idea, but the war in Ukraine has a drawn a sharp line under the idea of BRICS as a geopolitical rival for the G7 countries, or for the NATO bloc more broadly. In truth, the situation is more complex and many countries maintain active ties with both BRICS and its allied institutions as they do with the Political West and its various international bodies.

But what the expansion of BRICS illustrates is that Russia is hardly universally isolated in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Indeed, the initial shock of sweeping economic sanctions from the Political West has subsided as Russia reformed its supply chains and trading arrangements to simply rely less on Western markets and more on friendlier nations in the Global South.

We can see these patterns playing out as well with respect to international student enrolment in Russia. Those numbers continue to grow and official government figures indicate that foreign enrolment in Russia reached a high of 351,500 in 2022, representing an 8% gain over 2021 and a considerable step beyond the pre-COVID benchmark of just under 300,000 students in 2019/20.

Students are drawn mainly from the former Soviet republics, or from countries in Asia or Africa. Kazakhstan is the leading sender (with roughly 62,500 Kazakh students in Russia as of early 2023, followed by China with just under 40,000 students). Other key source countries include Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, India, Egypt, and Belarus.

The Russian Ministry of Education reports that medicine and engineering are consistently the most popular fields of study for visiting students.

The bigger picture

Foreign enrolment levels for 2022 have exceeded the Russian government's previous target to host 310,000 students by 2020. A more recent target, however, to build foreign enrolment to 710,000 by 2025, remains very ambitious.

Aside from the close ties of former Soviet republics, and those afforded by the expanding network of BRICS countries, Russia's foreign enrolment growth has had a boost from a couple of key factors.

First, the government has considerably expanded the national quota of spaces set aside for foreign students in Russian universities, from 18,000 in 2021 to 30,000 this year. Students enrolled within that quota programme study for free – that is, the costs of their study are covered under government subsidies to the universities.

In addition, Russia remains an affordable study destination in an era where costs of study and costs of living weigh ever more heavily in student decision making. One recent report, for example, noted that Moscow State University’s Faculty of Journalism currently charges around US$5,000 per year, before any scholarships or grants, and costs of living are similarly attractive with some student beds going for as little as US$10 per month.

For additional background, please see:

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