Educating Russians abroad

In 2014, the Russian government launched the ‘Global Education’ programme of postgraduate education abroad. But the reaction in Russia has been obstructive and hostile.

In October 2014, Russia withdrew from the American Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) educational programme. At almost exactly the same time a new programme called ‘Global Education’ was launched in Russia to enable young Russians to study abroad at government expense. On completing a course of postgraduate study abroad – masters or doctorate (undergraduates are excluded from the scheme) – the grantee has to return to Russia and work for three years in one of four priority areas: the civil service or local government; high-tech companies; leading higher education or scientific organisations; or in the social sphere, most notably medicine.  Similar initiatives in Brazil or China offer many more places than the Russian programme: over the next few years the Brazilian scheme ‘Science without borders’ will send 100,000 students to study abroad, and the number of Chinese students doing the same will be more than 20,000 a year (some years the figure was closer to 40,000). The Russian programme plans to offer 1,500 places over three years.

‘Global Education’ was in the pipeline for a long time. The first version was presented in the Kremlin by the discussion club ‘Economics and Politics’ and the ‘Harvard University Graduates’ Club’. According to Valentin Preobrazhensky, co-chairman of the discussion club, the members of these two clubs told officials that all countries, which had recently experienced a strong growth in GDP, have programmes providing students with government grants to study abroad. Soon after this 2010 Kremlin meeting, President Medvedev announced the launch of ‘Global Education’.


This initiative unexpectedly provoked heated arguments among officials and experts. Many deemed the programme unnecessary: a source of information close to the people who had worked on it said the Russian Finance Ministry was of the opinion that, in launching the programme, Russia would be acknowledging the inferiority of its higher education institutions.

Russia’s place in world rankings of higher education institutions over recent years has not been very impressive. In the 2014 QS University Subject Rankings, Russia’s leading higher education institution, Moscow State University, was in 114th place. The next Russian universities after that were in 233rd and 322nd places. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings ranked Moscow State University 196th. Academic Ranking of World Universities placed it 84th. One of the main factors, which enable foreign institutions to outstrip Russian universities, is the body of publications in leading world journals.

The rectors of some of the biggest Russian universities came out against the programme: they feel that the government should be investing money in improving their universities, rather than funding foreign study. But the Education Ministry correctly pointed out that higher education in Russia has problems in ‘some of the areas of study on offer’, so the programme development was given the go-ahead. Agreeing the finer points, however, took nearly four years, not least because so many leaders in the educational field were against it.

Study and return

Initially, the Harvard graduates imagined that there would be no obligation to return home when students had finished their course. In 1978 Deng Xiaoping launched a similar programme in China: over almost 40 years approximately 1.3m Chinese have studied abroad, of which only one third have returned. But in the ’80s or the mid ’00s those Chinese who studied abroad, and went back, often managed to secure high-ranking civil service posts. In Russia, the civil service, the Presidential Administration and the government were unanimous in their view that it would be completely unacceptable for Russians to refuse to return home. This was the view held in President Medvedev’s time and is still the case now. The Harvard graduates’ idea was described as ‘too romantic’ and the decision was taken that a participant in the programme would be obliged to work in Russia for three years on his/her return.

The second obstacle to the ‘Global Education’ programme was the question of what courses should be paid for by the state. The Harvard graduates once more hinted at what happens in China and Kazakhstan: students returning from a course of foreign study could become civil servants, and make use of their international experience at management level. After this was rolled out in China, the proportion of civil servants with foreign degrees rose to 15%, and to 90% in Singapore.

The idea was discussed for a long time by the Russian government and the expert community: the final upshot of these discussions, according to the Education Ministry, was that Russia has no need of officials with degrees from Western universities. ‘Highly qualified, exceptional specialists should be employed in real production and the services industries,’ explained the ministry. The decision was taken that the people who could study abroad at government expense were ‘scientists, teachers, doctors and engineers’ as well as ‘managers in the social sphere.’ On their return to Russia they would work in higher education laboratories, centres of high-tech medicine, Russian Academy of Sciences laboratories and state corporations like Rosatom or Rosnano – so most of them would be working for the state, but not for the government. Another restriction was introduced: returning students would have to work in the regions rather than in Moscow or St Petersburg. Regional higher education institutes are in need of specialists in biology, chemistry, nanotechnology (in recent years a priority area in Russia), and energy.

The Education Ministry hotly denies that the relatively small number of students going abroad (1,500 over three years) is a very small percentage of the total number of Russian students. They maintain that returning students will be able to pass on their knowledge to colleagues in higher education, state companies, and medical centres, making good use of their recently acquired international experience, and teaching. But experts fear that graduates of the ‘Global Education’ will encounter the same problems as home-produced postgraduates and undergraduates: local bureaucracy, rigidly controlled science, and the conservative approach of most Russian leaders to any innovation. In the opinion of the head of the Institute of Education at the Higher School of Economics, there is another problem: returning students could be offered low-ranking posts and spread out very thinly across the whole of Russia. If the young are not given an opportunity to spread their wings, even with the degree of risk that this presupposes, and those in post are not compelled to listen to their advice, then there will be little benefit from their studies.

The rectors of several Siberian and Far East universities told me in conversation that graduates of foreign universities would not immediately be able to head up laboratories because they lack experience, but they would be guaranteed a decent salary by regional standards. They give an example: in 2014 the average salary for a member of the professorial teaching staff at the Federal Far Eastern University was 50,000 roubles a month (in the region of £547 at the current unstable exchange rate), whereas in the Vyatka University on the Volga, someone with a masters would earn 30,000 roubles (about £328) and a doctorate 40,000 roubles (approximately £438).

Getting out for good

Independent experts fear that Russians deciding to study abroad will find it easier to do this by paying for themselves, rather than relying on the state. There is simply not enough money in the budget to pay for courses of study in some Western universities or other educational institutes. The ‘Global Education’ budget for three years is almost 4.5 billion roubles (£49 million at today’s exchange rate). The state is prepared to pay no more than 1.38m roubles (£15,100) per student. This includes all expenses e.g. maintenance, books and insurance etc. Applicants have to have been accepted by a foreign university and to have filled in a form on the website for ‘Global Education’. Given the current state of the rouble, would-be students will not be able to study in just any foreign university: a course at MIT, for instance, costs £44,525 a year, whereas at Singapore National University the cost would be £18,989.

Officially, the ‘Global Education’ programme began in June 2014, when it was signed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Education Ministry figures for early December show that, to date, over 100 applications have been lodged. Ministry officials confirm that money for Russians to study abroad has been allocated in the budget. But increasing international tension and Western sanctions mean that questions are once more being asked. In the State Duma recently a deputy expressed the view that Russians studying abroad could be recruited by foreign intelligence services, so the programme should be closed down. Replying, Education Minister Dmitry Livanov once more repeated that this would not happen, though the programme could be amended in the light of recent political developments. Ministry sources explained what he meant by this: the programme’s supervisory committee, which decides which of the applicants should receive a grant could ‘amend their list of preferred areas of study’.

In spring 2014, when the first sanctions had been introduced, an Education Ministry representative told me that young Russians were re-directing themselves towards Asian universities, rather than just aiming for study in the USA and Europe. He also said that Russian applications for Western universities were more to do with wanting to leave the country for ever, than education. Universities I approached in USA and Europe (including Oxford, Boston, and California at Berkeley) told me that there would be no obstacles for Russians who came to them to study at government expense. It was of little interest to them who was paying the money for the course. Given the worries about the programme expressed by Russian officials and deputies, and the increasing costs of foreign study related to the exchange rate, it cannot be ruled out that government-funded study abroad for Russians will be mainly in Asian universities. The experts’ predictions will be confirmed one way or another after the closing date for applications, which is quite soon, according to the Russian Education Ministry.

This article was written by Polina Nikolskaya and originally appeared on Homepage photo by Alexander Konovalenko /Wikimedia Commons. 


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