Foreign Recruitment in Russian Higher Education

By Victoria Pardini, M.A. candidate at Stanford’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

European University of St. Petersburg’s international program.

Higher education isn’t simply a social good, but a critical economic good and even a political tool for governments to soften their image at the international level. The United States hosted over one million international students in higher education institutions last year, many drawn to the prestige of an American education.

International recruitment is certainly not a new concept in Russia, where international exchange and foreign student enrollment has been a goal since the Soviet era. However, the government increasingly views the recruitment of international scholars and students as important to improving a university’s reputation, and has structured reforms with this goal in mind.

International students at the Higher School of Economics participate in a Russian Culture Café event. (Source: Higher School of Economics)

The 5–100 program seeks to place five Russian universities in the top 100 rankings of Russian higher education institutions by 2020. This initiative encourages the development of scientific laboratories and publications by scholars. It also seeks to increase the number of foreign students to 15% and the number of foreign faculty to 10% at selected universities, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok.

The 21 universities included in the program also receive funding from the government to support marketing and PR campaigns to encourage foreign student enrollment and attract young scholars to their institutions.

For my master’s capstone project, I decided to research how universities recruit foreign students and scholars, and how their strategies might have changed in the past five years, especially since the 2013 enactment of 5–100. I also examine the “trickle-down” effect of foreign recruitment in smaller universities, where there is no defined marketing budget, and international departments have had to become “one-stop shops” for registering foreigners. These departments help students become acclimated to life in Russia, and design curricula to prepare students for a two-year master’s or four-year bachelor’s degree, entirely in Russian. At 5–100 Project universities, administrators have begun designing English language programs for students, as well.

Students at Ukhta State Technical University meet for a preparatory course about rules of migration registration and visa extension in Russia. (Source: Ukhta State Technical University)

The idea for this project first came to mind when I was an English teacher last year at Ukhta State Technical University in the Komi Republic, Russia. The university focuses primarily on oil and gas engineering, and despite its intimidating location about 1,000 miles northeast of Moscow, the university successfully enrolls international students from various locales and education levels, including Mexico, Ghana, and the Philippines. The success of this small university made me wonder how international recruitment operated and its results at more well-known universities in major cities.

During my research trip to Russia this spring, I visited four Russian universities: Higher School of Economics, Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, European University at St. Petersburg, and Ukhta State Technical University. At each institution, I arranged meetings with experts to better understand how Russian internationalization and foreign recruitment operates both inside and out of these member institutions.

The Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

My results were mixed and interesting. At the Higher School of Economics (HSE), a member university and leading research institution in Russia, I learned how the focus in recruitment has shifted away from BRICS countries, particularly India, to countries in East Asia, to mirror the Russian government’s own eastward pivot. To that end, the university has set up social media sites in Vietnamese and Indonesian. I had the chance to meet with students from these countries, as well as from the United States, to get a sense for why they selected HSE. They mentioned several reasons, including its reputation within their home countries, as well as full scholarships available through rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian agency which works toward implementation of international humanitarian cooperation in 80 countries worldwide.

European University at St. Petersburg. (Source: Maxim Bouev, Wikicommons)

I also met with students and staff from the European University at St. Petersburg, which boasts a more western-oriented model. Most of the students I spoke with were from the United States or western Europe, and took advantage of the university’s promise to “study Russia in Russia.”

My work at Ukhta State Technical University best modeled the trends that I had come to understand about Russian internationalization and higher education before coming to Russia. Most students not from countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States — which includes Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan — came from Africa or East Asia, and the university has gradually been diversifying its population since 2013, now hosting students from 28 total countries.

Outside one of the buildings at Ukhta State Technical University. (Source: Victoria Pardini)

My research seeks to understand why these universities have prioritized recruitment, and what the importance of an “international” image is for the institutions themselves and for Russia generally. Education is a critical tool of soft power, and has always served a twofold purpose as a social good and a vehicle for influencing individuals as a representation of a national or cultural ideology.

On the whole, while the students I spoke with raised problems they experienced in university structure, culture shock, language, or weather, none of them seemed particularly discouraged with Russia. Westerners sought education in Russia not simply for a degree, but to get practical field experience, and those from other areas understood the comparative value in a degree from a Russian university compared to their home countries. Additionally, some students were provided full tuition stipends from their home countries to study at Russian universities, as part of cooperation between the two countries.

Victoria Pardini (center right) with staff of the international department at Ukhta State Technical University. (Source: Victoria Pardini)

From my analysis, there remains work to be done in the sphere of internationalization in Russian higher education. None of the experts or staff I spoke with consider basic recruitment to be a cure-all, either for increasing the prestige of Russian universities or for raising the image of Russia worldwide. However, the influx of students in the past 10 years — a threefold increase — is a promising start. Strong recruitment must be paired with a sturdy infrastructure within these departments for hiring and tenure, and communication between administrators and students must be modified to better incorporate Russian and international populations, a challenge not unique to Russian initiatives.

Still, the international departments that I visited were all innovative, full of young, vibrant employees excited at the prospect of catching up with an internationalized educational model. Regardless of size of institution or even location, it was these conversations that made me the most enthusiastic about the potential for internationalization in Russian higher education.

Pardini travelled to Russia through funding from a Global Perspectives Grant, offered through Stanford Global Studies. Visit this website for more information about the grants and other testimonials.

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