Why do international students choose Russian universities?

Most international students in Russia come from CIS countries, or former Soviet republics in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe. The preserved social and cultural links promote this, as well as students’ good command of Russian. Students from outside the former Soviet Union come to Russia primarily due to economic reasons and the strong reputation of Russia’s leading universities. At the same time, however, they often see Russia as an unsafe country and consider it a backup plan. These are the findings of a study conducted by Alena Nefedova, Senior Research Fellow, Associate Professor at the HSE Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge.

Education for Export

Russia is one of the world’s leading countries in terms of its number of international students. According to the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, In 2018-2019, Russia welcomed about 280,000 international students.

The government has indicated that the export of educational services is strategically important. In 2013, the Russian government provided additional subsidies to 21 Russian universities as part of Project 5-100, a national initiative aimed at increasing their competitiveness on the global educational market. In 2017, the government approved a special programme for developing the expert capacity of the Russian educational system. As part of this programme, a special website, Study in Russia, has been developed, which presents over 500 Russian universities for international students.

From 1999 to 2016, the total number of students in the world studying abroad grew from two to five million.

Despite Russia’s success on the global educational market, there is a lack of information about the reasons why international students choose Russian universities. Alena Nefedova from HSE University decided to bridge this gap.

The researcher conducted interviews with 40 bachelor’s and master’s students in Russia. They include 14 females and 26 males; 18 come from the CIS countries, and 22 come from other countries. The data was collected from September 2016 to February 2017.

Pushes and Pulls for Students

Most international students come to Russia from CIS countries. Kazakhstan is traditionally Russia’s largest provider of foreign students, with about 68,000 Kazakhstani students coming to study in Russia in 2018-2019. Far behind Kazakhstan are Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Ukraine.

Number of international students by home country (2018-2019)

Nefedova looked at the results of two specific groups – students from post-Soviet countries (the CIS and Baltic countries), and from other countries, since they demonstrate considerable differences in terms of motivation to study in Russia. The study employed the theoretical push-pull model.

The push-pull model is used to study migration patterns. The ‘push factors’ that push migrants from their home country are, for example, employment or low living standards. Some examples of ‘pull factors’ are economic stability, comfortable climate, and political conditions.

Nefedova found that one of the push factors for students from the CIS is a lack of jobs and a low quality of higher education in their home countries. These factors were mentioned more often than the problems of access to higher education or the lack of necessary specializations. There are many universities in the CIS countries, she points out, including branches of international and Russian universities.

With regard to push factors, Nefedova found that the main push for CIS students is the market situation and the quality of education in their countries. In some cases, the lack of access to Russian-taught university courses at home (Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan) or political instability (Ukraine) play a major role.

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One of the obstacles faced by young people from Russian-speaking families in CIS countries is the language barrier. That’s why they have difficulty finding employment and choose to move to Russia. ‘I’m going to stay in Russia. It is impossible or hardly possible to find a job in Turkmenistan without a perfect command of Turkmen,’ said a student of ITMO (St. Petersburg), who came from a Russian-speaking family in Turkmenistan.

In terms of costs, it is cheaper for students from CIS countries to study at home, mostly because the costs for food and accommodation are lower there. Tuition fees in their home countries can be comparable to those in Russia or lower. In some cases, international students get special scholarships for university education in Russia.

The respondents mentioned a lot of pull factors that influenced their choice to study in Russia. Some of the most popular were:

 A general awareness about Russia (including recognition of Russian degrees and the quality of Russian education in their home countries);

 Personal recommendations by family and friends;

 Social links to Russia.

In the CIS, the awareness about Russia and Russian universities is promoted by Russian research and cultural centres, which are operated by Rossotrudnichestvo in different countries. School teachers who maintain connections with Russian universities also play a role.

Often, education in Russia is considered an opportunity for further migration following the student’s parents, who have already migrated. ‘My father lives here. He came here three years ago and asked me to come,’ said a student of the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University from Kazakhstan. ‘That’s why I decided to stay here.’

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Some students choose Russian cities because they are conveniently located close to their home country. For example, Tomsk has traditionally attracted students from Kazakhstan, since it is close to the border with the country. For young people from the CIS countries, the Russian climate is not a problem, and they do not feel like foreigners in Russia.

In terms of choosing a university, the important factors are that the university is well-known and well-presented online. Not all Russian universities have a good internet presence, Nefedova said. ‘I can say that there is HSE University and there are all the other universities, because I immediately liked HSE’s well-developed website, where you can find all the information you need,’ said one HSE University student from Moldova. ‘Not all students care about this. But I took a really close look at the schedule and the courses in order to understand what I need and how I will be able to organize my studies.’

Some other factors that play an important role in university choice are its ranking, impressions after visiting the admissions office, the availability of double degrees, tuition costs, and the university’s infrastructure.

Backup Option

International students from countries outside Russia and CIS most often choose to study in Moscow and St. Petersburg. One of the important factors here, in addition to infrastructure and presence of renowned universities, is the command of English among the locals. In addition, other Russian cities are not well-known to international students.

The study revealed that students from countries beyond the post-Soviet space do not face the problem of access to education in their home countries. Only a few of the respondents mentioned it.

Unlike young people from CIS countries, those from other countries do not know much about Russia and reported that they had had difficulties finding objective information about Russia, Russians, and local life. Many of them mentioned that they saw a lot of negative information.

Russian State University for the Humanities


A master’s student of Novosibirsk State University from Venezuela shared his impressions: ‘I was looking for information in Spanish or English, and found some, but it was politically biased. You can learn that Russia is a horrible place for living, or, on the contrary, that it is a great place for living […] I couldn’t find any objective stories about what it’s really like live in Russia as an international student.’

As they looked at the available information, the respondents said that Russia seemed like an unsafe and politically aggressive country. But in some cases, Russia is perceived as a close, friendly country – thanks to past connections (such as for students from China) or existing state-level agreements.

‘Russia and Nigeria are allies and friends. There is an exchange agreement between our countries,’ said a Nigerian student who studies at a university in Samara. ‘This year, even more Nigerian students are coming to Russia. This happens every year.’

From Weather to Prejudice

According to the researcher, international students see their studies in Russia as ‘a new experience and a departure from their comfort zone’. One of the things they see as a challenge is the Russian winter. ‘Oh, yes, I did a whole mini-study on things in Russia and Russia in general in terms of the weather,’ laughed a RUDN student from Jamaica. ‘My mother was very worried about the weather.’

Students from beyond the former-Soviet bloc have far fewer opportunities to get information about Russia from their friends and family than young people from the CIS. There are exceptions when they meet graduates of Soviet universities among teachers, senior family members etc.

Respondents often cited the USA, Great Britain, and Germany as alternatives. Russia is often seen more as a backup option.

One of the factors promoting the choice of Russian universities is the level of costs, which is lower. It is also easier to put together the package of required documents. Meanwhile, the respondents believe that the social costs of studying in Russia are higher. For example, they often believe that Russia has higher levels of racism, and that there are no guarantees that they would get legal defence in the event they fall victim to any conflicts that could arise in connection with this. ‘Many Russians don’t like black people. We have heard a lot of stories: you come to Russia, a white person sees a black person, and they immediately move away from you. It was hard to get used to it. There are a lot of black people in countries like the USA, Canada, and Great Britain, so it will be easier for me if I go there,’ said an HSE University master’s student from Ghana.

Another problem faced by international students is searching for employment during their studies and after graduation. According to Nefedova, the job market in Russia offers very limited opportunities for students who do not speak Russian.

When it comes to choosing a university, students from beyond the CIS take it more seriously than CIS applicants, particularly those who pay for their studies themselves. Academic reputation, online presence, and accessibility are often the only factors that really motivate them to choose Russia.

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The results of the study confirm that Russia is often just a backup option for students from non-CIS countries. The author says that this conclusion is similar to that of a Turkish study, which revealed a ‘second option choice’ phenomenon among international students in Turkey. This phenomenon is still understudied. Nevertheless, the problem of ‘second choice phenomenon’ is already obvious: the lack of satisfaction with the forced compromise negatively impacts the study results and the involvement in the educational process.

How Can Russia Attract More International Students?

While many international students already study in Russia, more effort is needed to further develop this field and make Russian universities more attractive for applicants from other countries, Alena Nefedova believes.

She suggests the following recommendations following her research:

 More attention should be paid to the country’s international image at the state level. The existing sources of information do not promote an objective picture of studies at Russian universities.

 It is necessary to increase state funding of public organizations that promote Russian education abroad (such as Russian research and cultural centres).

 It is important to develop support programmes for Russian-speaking secondary school teachers, who often are the only link between a Russian university and an international applicant.

 Considerable changes should be made to migration law, since today, it is an important barrier for universities’ export policies. In particular, official part-time employment should be allowed for international students and a special visa policy should be elaborated.

  At the institutional level, universities need to pay special attention to the adaptation of first-year students. Support associations should be created, which do not exist at many Russian universities.

 Universities should develop English-taught programmes, since the global interest in Russian has seriously decreased after the fall of the Soviet Union. This negatively impacts Russia’s prospects to remain an influential actor on the global educational market.

 International students’ quality of life should be improved; feedback should be collected and used; alumni relations should be developed.

 Universities should make sure their students have adequate expectations. Quite often, an obstacle to this is the lack of good English versions of university websites.