The number of international students around the world is on the increase (see UNESCO graph for growth from 2011-17), and has now reached five million people.
Whilst there are major disparities in the desinations chosen by international students (Anglophone/former colonial nations top the list) and the resources they need to get there (the more financial/social capital your family has, the easier it is for you to become internationally mobile), one remarkable trend is that international students are now drawn from every country in the world.
That includes the former Soviet space, where student mobility until 1991 allowed travel only as far as Moscow, Leningrad (St Petersburg), Novosibirsk and a handful of other academic centres in the Soviet Union. Students could travel between republics but the idea of getting a degree from outside the communist space was out of the question.
In the nearly 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, that picture has changed dramatically. Long term readers of my blog will remember the results of a survey I did of international students from Tajikistan who had ended up far and wide, from the UK to Uruguay, from Slovakia to Singapore.
In revisiting the survey data for a new paper I am working on and will present at CHER in August 2019, I took the opportunity to look at longitudinal trends across the former Soviet space. Using data from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistcs, the graph below shows how patterns have changed since 1998 (the point at which data starts to become more reliable) across 14 of the 15 Soviet republics (there’s no data for Moldova). There are three time points over roughly ten year periods – 1998, 2008 and 2017, the latest data that is available.
The overall picture is of dramatic growth: if there were 120,000 international students leaving this region in 1998, that number had leaped to almost half a million by 2017. That’s an impressive increase of 265%!
As the graph shows, Kazakhstan now sends nearly 100,000 students abroad, a much higher number than second placed Ukraine (coming up for 80,000). And both those countries send significantly more students to other countries than Russia (not quite 60,000) despite Russia’s population being more than three times bigger than Ukraine’s and about six times higher than in Kazakhstan.
The big picture inevitably hides the array of scenarios seen in different countries at different points. In the last 10 years, for example, the number of intenrational students leaving Uzbekistan has been relatively flat, increasing by just 5%. Compare that to much larger increases in other countries such as Azerbaijan (475%) and Turkmenistan (550%). Over the period since 1998, the lowest growth in the number of international students has been from Estonia (up 20%), dwarfed by enormous increases in Tajikistan which are over 1,400%!
That’s a very quick analysis of some extremely interesting similarities and differences between these 14 countries. The aim was to make these numbers available in an accessible format and hopefully to inspire some curiosity to ask why we see these trends, and to think about how these might change over the next ten years.
A great infographic published by Russian media agency Sputnik offers a visual breakdown of Kyrgyzstan’s 20,000 international students. I’ve reproduced the infographic below but it is Sputnik’s and the original post can be found here.
For non-Russian readers, here’s a summary:
- Kyrgyzstan’s educational ‘market’ is specific to its geographic and linguistic neighbours
- India is by far the biggest sender of international students to Kyrgyzstan – they make up almost half of the total international student population
- The next largest sending countries are former Soviet neighbours Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia
- Students also come from Pakistan (which sends almost as many students as Russia – around 1,500) and a small number from Turkey, China and Afghanistan
- Five higher education instutitions (HEI) host over 1,000 international students, three of which are medical institutes. South Asian students have long been attracted to Central Asia’s medical education and it is likely that the students from India and Pakistan make up the majority of international students at these institutions
- The most popular HEI for international students is Osh State University. This is interesting as it’s in the south of the country, far from the capital Bishkek (where the majority of Kyrgyzstan’s 50+ HEIs are located) and because it’s a multi-faculty university not a specialist institute (as per the medical institutes noted in the previous point)
- International students mainly head to HEIs where education is free (Manas Kyrgyz-Turkish University) or where fees are relatively low ($900 p/a at Osh State, around $1,700 p/a at other popular HEIs). The American University of Central Asia, which atttracts around 400 international students, charges significantly more – around $6,300 p/a.
And before you go, check out this 2015 infographic, also from Sputnik, for another well crafted visualization of Kyrgyzstan’s higher education sector.
The opportunity to study abroad is usually positioned as a life (and CV) enhancing experience. Among other benefits, studying abroad enables you to learn about different ways of teaching and learning, find out about new cultures, make new friends, and brush up on your language skills. Little wonder that the number of internationally mobile students is rapidly increasing – around five million currently and predicted to rise to eight million by 2025.
A recent series of meetings in Turkmenistan – a major sender of international students, primarily to Russia and Belarus – sought to put paid to any romantic ideas about studying abroad.
Parents of students currently studying abroad were summoned to attend meetings in which government officials informed them about the many dangers associated with these overseas stays.
Chief among the potential problems is religious (Islamic) radicalization – a concern shared by the Tajik government, which since 2010 has been clamping down on citizens with the temerity to study courses related to Islam abroad.
Other concerns raised by the officials included the prospect that Turkmen students would commit crimes while abroad, go to bars or visit brothels.
Despite ‘untrustworthy’ (outspoken?) parents not being invited to the meetings, Chronicles of Turkmenistan, an information resource run by the the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, nevertheless reported how frustrated some of the attendees became at one meeting:
One could overhear outraged exclamations from the audience:
– What bars are you talking about if they have no cash for food!?
– A student visa does not give the right to work and we are unable to transfer money to them. What is to be done?
– We hear that some students engage in thefts, robberies or drug trafficking but this should come as no surprise as they have no money!
There have been longstanding problems transferring money outside Turkmenistan and accessing funds from Turkmen banks in other countries, causing significant problems for students.
After these concerns were raised, the meeting was rapidly shut down after promises that the parents would get answers to their questions within 10 days.
Will they get their answers?
It doesn’t look promising. Chronicles of Turkmenistan goes on to note that parents at an earlier meeting had raised similar questions about the low money transfer limits in their province. They were told that:
…the restriction is related to the fact that “the region makes the smallest contribution to the country’s economy” and advised them to “resolve their problems on their own”.
The response to those parents who spoke up at the recent meeting may well be along the same lines.
Хотите знать по больше о моем исследовании на русском языке? Читайте дальше! Вышел на свет русский перевод статьи о нашем с руководителем проекте о глобалной конкуренции за международных студентов. Ну вот, статья на русском.
This blog post is letting Russian language readers know about a new Russian translation of an article my supervisor wrote about our project on the global competition for international students. Don’t read Russian? No problem: here’s the article in English!
И для тех, которые умеют читать на обеих languages, let me know ваши мнения about both versions!
The original article that this more recent version draws from is published as The great brain race: Public policy and international student recruitment in Australia, Canada, England and the USA. (In English only unless someone would like to volunteer to translate it…)
I realized I didn’t blog about a recently published article I co-authored with Prof Creso Sá, my supervisor at the University of Toronto. How remiss of me! (?!)
So, let me tell you about our article, The politics of the great brain race: Public policy and international student recruitment in Australia, Canada, England and the USA, which was published in leading journal Higher Education in February 2018.
For regular readers of the blog, the first thing you may notice is that this is not about Central Asia or indeed anywhere in the former Soviet space. Keep breathing!
The rationale for looking in depth at Australia, England, Canada and the US, four majority Anglophone jurisdictions, was based on their historic ability to attract significant numbers of international students – just under 40% of the world’s total in 2015. The fact that all have similar linguistic and cultural characteristics in their higher education systems was a deliberate choice to compare similar cases (take a look at this article by Chris Pickvance for more on types of comparative analysis).
We wanted to find out how governments in these four jurisdictions have used public policy to deal with (I wouldn’t go as far as to say ‘manage’) international students in the period 2000-2016. To do this, we looked at legislation that had been passed, new programmes, and other policy changes. Overall, I read somewhere around 200 articles, books, reports and other publications to learn more about student mobility in the four case study jurisdictions.
A nice addition to this was a comprehensive table I compiled that gives you a side-by-side comparison across the four jurisdictions in the policy areas of immigration, labour market, family and health, finance, education and quality assurance, and promotion/marketing. So if you want to know, for example, which is the only jurisdiction that has legislation protecting the (financial) rights of international students, check it out!
Creso has written up a very nice summary of our findings in the most recent issue of International Higher Education. This is open access and the article, with the excellent title, Forget the Competition Trope, can be downloaded here.
The title of his piece makes the key idea pretty clear. As he notes in the article (page 11):
we argue that none of these major countries have dealt coherently with international student attraction and retention. Furthermore, the long-term outlook required to cope with the assumed global competition for students is glaringly absent.
International student growth has been fairly consistent over the 16 years we studied (despite the odd dip e.g. after violence against a small number of students from South Asia studying in Australia).
That was a real surprise to us.
Not only is policy towards international students fragmented across a range of goverment ministries and agencies, but there were no clear patterns of governments facilitating international student mobility. This is not the kind of behaviour you would expect to see of a truly competitive jurisidiction engaging in the so-called ‘great brain race’.
This led us to the conclusion that international student enrolments are likely to continue to grow and that this happens despite not because of political and policy changes.
This article was the result of a nine month long project funded by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities under their OHCRIF scheme. Miigwetch / Thanks / Merci!
Sá, Creso M. 2018. “Forget the Competition Trope.” International Higher Education 0 (95): 11–12.
If you’re the Kazakh state, the answer is an obvious “yes”. No details have yet to emerge from the Centre for International Programmes, the government agency tasked with internationalizing Kazakh higher education, but you can bet that if the public policy agenda is leading in this direction, it won’t be long before the hub becomes a reality.
Higher education hubs have been successfully created in the Middle East (Dubai is a great example) and South-East Asia (Malaysia is another success story), and create special spaces for foreign universities to set up a branch campus or partner with a local university. Thus, students in the hub country and its neighbours can study for an overseas degree without leaving the region.
This has many advantages for students – hub-based campuses tend to offer a similar quality of education for a fraction of the regular tuition fee ticket, and with all the benefits of not having to travel far.
For the host country, acting as a hub can bring economic benefit by attracting more international students and staff/faculty, and enhance the country’s reputation through the legitimacy generated by the international universities. For Kazakhstan, reputation really matters and I imagine this would be seen by the state as a major benefit to creating an education hub.
This year, 14,000 international students are already studying in Kazakhstan, mainly coming from neighbouring countries. At the same time, 70,000 Kazakh students are studying abroad – not quite 10% of the total student population of a little under 650,000 – and there are plans to make the renowned Bolashak Scholarship more accessible in the coming years.
Interestingly, it was neighbouring Kyrgyzstan that until recently seemed the most likely Central Asian country to set up a regional education hub. In the 2000s, Kyrgyzstan was hosting up to ten times more international students each year than Kazakhstan, despite a population seven times smaller.
A 2012 study by Nurbek Jenish found that relatively low tuition fees and a low cost of living were the main reasons that international students head to Kyrgyzstan. International students – mainly from Central and South Asian countries – also perceived the quality of higher education and the opportunity to study in Russian or English to be beneficial, as well as the perception that admission requirements were soft.
But it is dynamic Kazakhstan that now appears to be running with the hub idea. This is not just because of the economic and reputational benefits, although those are evidently highly influential policy considerations. As Zhanbolat Meldeshov, President of the Centre for International Programs, pithily puts it:
«Студенческая и академическая мобильность, это мировой тренд в эпоху глобализации. Нельзя остановить этот процесс, можно только в нем активно участвовать.»
“Student and academic mobility is a global trend in the era of globalization. It’s impossible to stop this process, so you can only actively participate.”
This is another classic example of Kazakhstani policy pragmatism: if you can’t beat them, join them… and ultimately seek to beat them at their own game.
Who leaves Tajikistan to study abroad, and why?
Where do these students go, and what do they study?
What are their post-study destinations?
These are some of the questions I address in my new essay on Tajikistan’s international students, out today in Higher Education in Russia & Beyond (HERB).
As I conclude, studying abroad can be a profoundly transformational experience. Many of the people that participated in the research I am reporting on said they had changed greatly as a result of their experiences.
This feeling is neatly encapsulated by the words of one respondent:
“I am so much [a] different person now than I was back then. Education here has broadened my mind to the things that I had no idea of their existence and as I grow in possessing my knowledge I see the opportunities that I can get, and the things that I can do in my life and with my life. I am [a] much happier person now than I was before.”
This issue of HERB looks holistically at international students across the former Soviet space, and I encourage you to take a look at the other essays in this collection.
Higher Education in Russia & Beyond 2(12) – link to whole issue