Piecing Together Russian Student Mobility Trends: Research Data and Russian Practitioner Perspectives

A recent discussion on student mobility and the higher education landscape from a Russian higher education practitioner’s perspective had my research wheels turning. Meeting with the 2014 Fulbright Russian International Education Administrators (RIEA) Program cohort was an educational experience for me: specifically it taught me that mobility data doesn’t always tell us the full story, and that one has to always speak to colleagues in the field to fully understand the context of student mobility.

Each year, the RIEA fellows wrap up their immersive and intensive three-month training in the United States with a debrief seminar at IIE’s headquarters in New York on their experiences and knowledge gained through the program. I had the opportunity to present and discuss global student mobility trends based on data from the Project Atlas® and Open Doors® research initiatives, both supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.

Here are my top five takeaways from my conversation with the fellows:

1. High costs are driving Russian students to seek higher education closer to home.

Russian international students’ mobility to the United States has witnessed a decline over the last decade. The last time Russian students placed among the top 25 places of origin for international students in the United States was during the 2011/12 academic year. In the 1990’s, Russians perceived higher education in the United States to be a unique and valuable asset that would open many doors for those who returned back to work in Russia. However, due to the rising cost of education in the United States, more and more Russian students are turning to neighboring countries in Europe and Asia for cheaper and competitive education alternatives. These perceptions are supported by findings of IIE’s recent study of What International Students Think About U.S. Higher Education, where almost 70 percent of international students viewed education in the United States to be more expensive than studying abroad in Australia, Canada, or the United Kingdom.

2. Destinations for full degree and short-term education abroad differ.

When discussing the top destinations for outbound Russian students using UNESCO tertiary-level data, the fellows observed that the reported trends did not reflect the reality of outbound mobility patterns at their institutions. While Germany and the United States are long-time popular education hosts for Russian students, they found it surprising that Ukraine and Belarus placed among the top ten destinations for students while China was absent from the list. Since UNESCO data mostly reflects degree mobility or students who pursue education for a year or more outside of their home countries, the fellows noted that degree mobility destinations may differ from those of short-term or academic exchange mobility—the type of programs they facilitate at their universities. Indeed, according to Project Atlas figures, Russian students comprised almost five percent of international students in China making Russia the fifth most common place of origin in China in 2013.

3. Gender disparity in study abroad is in part a result of students’ education pathways at their home institution.

About 59 percent of Russian students in the United States are female. The fact that more women than men study abroad may be due to the differences in the fields of study that males and females tend to typically pursue. The fellows pointed out that in Russia, generally more female students are enrolled in liberal arts and foreign languages, which prepare them for study overseas. The students’ personal inclinations towards language and cultural studies coupled with the foreign language proficiency requirements for study abroad programs may account for relatively high proportions of Russian women studying abroad. This insight corresponds with Open Doors counts which showed that in 2013/14, more Russian females than males were enrolled in social science, fine and applied arts, humanities and education degrees. The higher participation of Russian women in study abroad is similar to the trends seen for the United States, where a much larger number of women have always studied abroad as compared with men.

4. Social adaptation is a factor in study abroad destination choices.

In comparison to other English-speaking countries like the United Kingdom, the United States may be highly favored as a study abroad destination due to the belief that it can provide an easier “social adaptation” process. The RIEAs explained social adaptation as ease in social integration within the host country and the higher probability for international students to find and secure jobs upon graduation. Findings from the IIE’s student perceptions study reflect these observations, as the majority of respondents (71 percent) felt that the United States welcomes international students.

5. There is a balanced emphasis by Russia on both inbound and outbound academic mobility.

In April 2015, several Russian ministries proposed a plan to raise the quota of state-sponsored loans and scholarships currently granted to 15,000 foreign students to 20,000 students in 2016. This idea is a move by Russia to increase goodwill with existing allied countries as well as new ones. This “State Quota System” makes available free education spaces for both domestic and international students using federal budget allocations (Ministry of Education and Science of Russian Federation 2014). The current quota budget for all higher education students is 460,000 spaces. The 2016 initiative plans to grant almost half of the 5,000 additional spaces to Asian prospective international students.

On the outbound mobility front, new government-sponsored study abroad scholarships such as the Global Education Program (GEP) makes it possible for Russian graduate students to pursue study abroad on the basis that they return to work for at least three years in a Russian organization upon graduation.


Ministry of Education and Science of Russian Federation. (2014). Statement of admission for study for foreign citizen in 2014/2015 study year. Retrieved from http://en.russia.edu.ru/enter/2123/