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Why are international students still choosing Russia?

Russian scholarships will continue to attract international students despite the ongoing conflict, one academic predicts, as reports circulate of attempts to recruit foreign students into the country’s army. 

A Russian university has been accused of attempting to recruit international students into the army. Photo: Unsplash.

Russia has recently increased state-funded spots for international students

A Vietnamese undergraduate student (who spoke on the condition of anonymity) said she had never considered leaving Russia, even when the invasion of Ukraine happened at the end of her first year, because she received a scholarship that covered her tuition and living costs. 

“Every year, there are hundreds of students from that kind of scholarship that come here,” she said. “And I also know people who work in the embassy and they just told me to stay put. So I was not too worried.” 

But one Russian university has now been accused of attempting to recruit international students into the army. Three Nigerian students from Southern Federal University, which is close to the Ukraine border, told the Daily Beast that university officials had tried to persuade them to accept an offer of up to $5,000 to join the Russian army. 

“These reports serve as another indication that most Russian universities support the invasion not just at the level of declarations but as active participants,” said Igor Chirikov, senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley. 

“Russian universities’ engagement in the war creates additional risks for international students. Current Russian laws do not allow to draft or mobilise international students but as Russia retreats in Ukraine and looks to expand its presence on the occupied territories, such protections can go away overnight.” 

In recent years, the Russian government has invested in attracting foreign students to its universities. There were 315,000 international students in Russia in 2019/20, according to the government. 

When the conflict broke out, some international students did leave, including Erasmus students and those on short-term exchanges. Universities in other countries urged their students to return and exchange organisations cancelled their future programs.

But Putin’s government is continuing its recruitment drive, despite the war. Russia has recently increased state-funded spots for international students, renewed efforts to recruit students from Africa and planned exchanges with Iran.

A Russian diplomat also reportedly promised Indian students who had been forced to abandon their medical studies in Ukraine that they could resume their education in Russia. 

“These students are attracted by tuition-free education and relatively low costs of living,” said Chirikov. 

“In some of these countries, their national elites were educated in the Soviet Union. Alumni included the presidents of Honduras, Angola and Mongolia and, at one time, much of China’s political elite. 

“So a degree from a Russian university has been considered prestigious in these countries. 

“I expect that Russia will get much more students from the countries that supported Russia’s invasion, for example from Syria or Iran.”

But the rising cost of living is making life harder for international students in the country as the impact of sanctions and international isolation hits. The Vietnamese student said that, while everyday costs are rising significantly, her scholarship amount has stayed the same meaning she has less to live on. 

“I have my Vietnamese card here and I cannot pay with that,” the student said, explaining that sanctions make it difficult to send money in and out of the country. “Some banks you cannot transfer money into your account anymore… Most of my friends that I know, they started to use crypto to exchange currencies.” 

Meanwhile, travel options in and out of Russia are both limited and expensive. 

“Russia continues to partially subsidise the education of most international students with the goal of formation of pro-Russian elites abroad”

“Before, we can take a direct flight from Hanoi to Moscow, but now we cannot do that anymore. We have to go through Dubai or Bangkok and it’s just way more expensive,” the student said.  

“Western sanctions complicate admission process, travel arrangements, and job prospects for students considering education in Russia,” said Chirikov. “Russian universities also experience significant brain drain of faculty fleeing the country to avoid military draft or to protest against the invasion in Ukraine.

“On the other hand, unlike some Western countries that view international students as a source of additional funding for universities, Russia continues to partially subsidise the education of most international students with the goal of formation of pro-Russian elites abroad.

“About one-third of international students in Russia are fully funded by the state. Tuition-free education could be quite attractive for some students, especially from developing countries.”

The student said that hundreds of others continue to flood into Russia from Vietnam, enticed by the same scholarship as her. And, for now, her studies continue uninterrupted.

“I wouldn’t say it’s normal, people just got used to it,” she said of life in a war-embroiled country.   

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