‘It is very easy to close and wind up a university in Russia’
Sociologist Pavel Sorokin on how foreign students study in Russia, how to choose a university and the set-up of the education market
There is a lasting tendency for a reduction in the number of universities and their enlargement in Russia, notes Docent of HSE NRU Institute of Education, head of Laboratory for Human Capital and Education Research Pavel Sorokin. In this respect, we should understand that small universities can end up merging with a big university or even close, and it will become a problem for students. Such fundamental risks must be taken into account, especially by those who don’t want to enter leading universities and want something simpler. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, Sorokin also explained how foreign students studied in Russia, how to choose a university and the set-up of the education market.
“The majority of foreign students in Russia study at the expense of our state or for the lowest price”
It feels like when you pass by the entrance to big universities, you turn out in a crowd of peoples from all over the world. How many foreign students study in Russia now? Is this number grows year after year?
As things stand, the number of foreign students in Russia grows year after year. As of 2018, the share of foreign students in Russia accounts for 7% of all university students. They total over 200,000 people. The flow of foreign students around the world in general has increased 2,5 times since 2000, while the growth in Russia has been a bit bigger. The specifics of Russia are that a big part of students come here from post-Soviet countries and China. The majority of students in Russia are from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and China. As for China, it is important to consider that in the absolute number of students China ranks first, but this can’t be said about the level of its students. The main flow of the best students from China goes to universities in America, England and Australia. The most talented students go there. If rather the best students come here from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, those who don’t have money and expertise to study in the best universities of the world, in America or England come from China here, as a rule.
In general there are two channels people can use to come to Russia from other countries. The first channel is state agreements, the second channel is private mobility when students move here at their expense and study. Australia is the world’s leader in the private student market who pay for themselves. The total number of foreign students in Russia is approximately like in Australia, but our incomes are at least ten times lower. African countries aren’t the wealthiest, people come from there according to state agreements, for instance, from same Ethiopia.
Australia, England and the USA use higher education to make money from foreigners. At the moment the majority of foreign students in Russia study at the expense of our state or for the lowest price, this is why we can’t earn much. As for the quality of students, I can judge by my subjective experience at HSE that Russian students significantly exceed foreigners in terms of training, competence. Not the English language is the case but simply a general ability to study, learn information and so on.
As for China, it is important to consider that in the absolute number of students China ranks first, but this can’t be said about the level of its students. The main flow of the best students from China goes to universities in America, England and Australia
Because our education in schools is better?
I think because top Russian students study here, while not the best foreigners arrive. Here there is also such a moment that higher education is based on the school programme. Our education differs from other countries a lot, for instance, we have a specific block of Russian literature and the Russian language. It is popular knowledge to study social areas and humanities in Russia’s universities.
How do thousands of students arrive in Russia from abroad? Are there special organisations that help students to choose a foreign university?
The system of marketing promotion of Russian education abroad has tried to be established in the last three-four years, but this is so far more or less successful only in Kazakhstan. Students come mainly through state agreements. For instance, Russia signs an agreement with Turkmenistan on training of 1,000 students from this country at the expense of the Russian or Turkmenistan budget in some areas that are important for them. Historically, quite many students from Cuba in particular studied in Russia.
I have read that students from 80 countries study in one of our universities, students from 100 countries of the world study in another one.
Yes, but at national level, this is not that much. Global university ratings are the main tool to attract students.
“The top 10 universities rarely change”
How does the sale of higher education operate around the world?
Some families submit applications to study abroad without intermediaries. There are also special companies, private or semi-public, that organise the process of students’ relocation. These companies look at global ratings, education quality indicators. They look at how detailed information about this university is, the experience they have in working with these universities. Intermediaries play a decisive role between a student and a foreign university in China.
HSE ranks high in ratings, and the image of our liberal institute going by western standards positively influences the choice of foreign students. Another factor is that HSE is a university than understands Russian state policy, consults representatives of the government, this is why countries of the post-Soviet bloc want their students to study here because they access to primary information, how experts really work in the Russian state field.
How do universities find out if foreign students have a sufficient level to start studying there or not?
There are special systems of control when students enter a university. Most HSE students pursue a master’s degree. There is a rule for them, they must hold a bachelor’s degree or another master’s degree. In this respect everything is simple. As for students who enter to study for bachelor’s degree, there are intergovernmental agreements that define that, for instance, if a person speaks English fluently and graduated from an educational establishment of a certain level in India, he may study in Russia. It is a story about special agreements between counties on recognition of diplomas, certificate of school education of different countries of the world with Russia.
Do we also steadily go up towards the USA and Great Britain in international university and higher education ratings?
The top 10 universities rarely change. HSE fights to enter the top 100 in all subjects in total, but as I understand only Moscow State University has a chance. The rating registers scientific accomplishments in some spheres of knowledge quite well, but they register the quality of education itself worse. They register a university’s contribution to the development of society in general bad, the so-called “third mission” of a university. In this situation, I would trust ratings in specific subjects, for instance, ratings for sociology or management.
The rating register scientific accomplishments in some spheres of knowledge quite well, but they register the quality of education itself worse. They register a university’s contribution to the development of society in general bad
Another important moment is that they depend on a university’s reputation, which is gained for long. More people abroad know about universities with a big history like MSU or St Petersburg State University, this is why experts mention them more often. Ratings certainly single out the top 10 best universities of the world. But when choosing a university for a child, I could certainly be careful about ratings. If I want to study sociology in a western university in the top 10 best sociology universities, it doesn’t guarantee a teacher who publishes research in the best magazines, does the most popular research will work with me. I will likely work with a junior teacher who has ambitions, tries to find his place and doesn’t care about teaching students.
If a person is oriented to development only in science, it is important for him to enter a university that ranks first in the area chosen. But a person wants to acquire knowledge for the labour market, here ratings in subjects are relative. We just can say for sure that in universities that occupy some places in some subject-related ratings, the rest will be fine give or take. But one shouldn’t except real advantages in terms of knowledge when one graduates from the university if one looked only at the rating when choosing it.
“I’d advise senior students to look for comments and opinions of students who are now studying in the universities they are interested in”
How should a graduate choose a university if he performs well? Should he stay in Russia or move abroad?
A schoolchild should understand not only the general training because this is quite an abstract thing. He should choose an area that interests him, what he would like to deal with. It is clear that in life he will have to deal with different things and change jobs. But the more areas this university has, the higher the chance this university will suit you. In a big university, you can study in one faculty, go to courses in another faculty (so-called minors). You can also participate in projects and obtain credits for projects in any spheres in this university. In this case, the restriction on one area is the lowest.
More traditional and academic universities such SPSU and MSU probably suit those who don’t go by western standards, don’t want to read literature in the English language, don’t want to work with our classics and clearly know their area of interests in a specific area, which is traditionally well represented in this university. Ratings can also be taken account, but among other things. But I’d advise senior students to look for comments and opinions of students who are studying in the universities they are interested in now. However, only ratings aren’t enough.
A schoolchild should understand not only the general training because this is quite an abstract thing. He should choose an area that interests him, what he would like to deal with
Though on the one hand, if we are talking about the world in general, higher education from private providers, small private universities, is now very actively developing. It is a true story in America because universities don’t obey the state directly there, universities operate according to the law of the market. Universities in Russia are very obedient to the state centralised management, this is why it is very easy to close and wind up a university. And I would be cautious about small universities, especially during a crisis.
Doesn’t the state in Russia consider handing higher education over to private hands like in America?
I haven’t seen such initiatives. Neither does Russia need it. More than half of students even in public universities pay for education. Public universities can earn in the market, this is why it is quite complicated to give them to private hands. And precisely private universities have been severely hit in the last 15-20 years. They have closed, they have not managed to attract students because many think that it is better to enter a public university and pay for education than enter a private one: you understand that some resources you get access to (the library, professors) are provided partly with state support, and they are obviously better there than in a private university that buys and provides everything on its own.
There is a standard: a student must earn 120 or 140 credits. And nowadays everybody in most universities earns these credits at usual lectures, seminars, plus a term paper and thesis. But it seems to me that most credits in the future will be a student’s independent activity
What trends does Russian higher education have now? What future awaits us?
The main trend is unpacking when different practices and formats of activity of a student will be considered as part of his educational trajectory. There is a standard: a student must earn 120 or 140 credits. And nowadays everybody in most universities earns these credits at usual lectures, seminars, plus a term paper and thesis. But it seems to me that most credits in the future will be a student’s independent activity: volunteer projects, entrepreneurial initiatives, research. Practice will take more time: try your hand as freelancer, entrepreneur and so on.
This trend has two reasons. Firstly, during a crisis the country simply doesn’t have money to provide such a big system of mass higher education with strict standardised traditional activities when everybody sits in the classroom. It is obvious this needs more money, for instance, to pay to teachers. It is cheaper when a student does something on his own. The second reason is that the gap between the elective and diverse environment and higher education out of reality increases. And in these conditions, which is called practice, complete archaism, a deeper immersion into the real world is needed. Employees will put marks not only for practice but also if a student, for instance, distinguished himself in real activity.