On March 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at the International Parliamentary Conference Russia – Africa in a Multipolar World, held in Moscow under the auspices of the State Duma of the Russian Federal Assembly. “This conference is undoubtedly important in the context of the continued development of Russia’s multifaceted cooperation with the countries of the African continent. We also consider this event a key part of the preparations for the upcoming second Russia-Africa summit scheduled to be held in St Petersburg in July,” he said.
Concerning education and training, Putin indicated that “cooperation between Russia and African countries in education is at a traditionally high level. Today about 27,000 African students are studying in Russia, including 5,000 whose education is covered by the federal budget. At the same time, the annual quota for state-funded scholarships at Russian universities will be more than doubled.”
Russia’s Ministry of Higher Education has confirmed these statistical figures with this author in an interview. It said that there are currently about 5,000 African students on state scholarship in the Russian Federation. It, therefore, implies that more than 22,000 African students are on contract, their parents and guardians make full payment for their tuition and living in the Russian Federation. Average tuition is $5,000 per year.
It further implies that Russia targets these students to boost its image and public perceptions in Africa. The growing contribution of Russian institutes and universities for training qualified personnel for African countries as part of the current relations is gaining momentum in the emerging new world. This would, in practical terms, serve as a driver for diverse sectors in Africa. Understandably, Russian education could be an exportable service and/or unique product, and has great market potential if strategically tapped especially for Africa.
In various ways, Russian educational institutions could open their doors to the growing number of African elites, estimated at 350 million, almost the same size of the United States and double the population size of Russia. As part of the renewed interest in Africa, Russia has been working on opportunities and diverse ways to increase the number of students, especially tuition paying agreements for children of the growing elite families and middle-class from African countries at Russian universities.
Chairman of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, was convinced that cultural and educational cooperation could be equally important areas needed to be developed and intensified in Russian-African relations. That Russia could sustain noticeably close relations with African countries by promoting cooperation between ministries and departments and expanding scientic research and engage in exchanges.
Volodin further suggested to continue discussing issues of harmonizing legislation in the scientific and educational spheres, and reminded that hundreds of thousands of African students studied in the Soviet Union and Russia. “There is a rare need to develop Russian education export opportunities, take progressive measures to raise interest in Russian education among foreignersWe can achieve more in these areas, to know each other better and be more open to one another,” he stressed in his speech.
The system of higher education has always been and remains the powerful intellectual resource, generating new ideas and – this is what it was designed for, of course – to offer systematic training of labour for all areas of life in society. This serves as an investment into the achievement of the main target – training professionals that are in demand on the labour market.
Nevertheless, the Russian government is aware of the importance of international recognition of the Russian education system. Russian universities could inculcate diversified cultural tolerance, take advantage of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism – aspects of modern life – which are necessary prerequisites for any success in the now globalized world.
Taking steps in strengthening the Russia-African multifaceted relations in the education and cultural sphere, Russia’s Ministry of Higher Education has already launched a large-scale educational campaign abroad targeting Africa. The program, which seeks to boost the popularity and improve the position of Russian universities international ratings, will be implemented until 2025.
The federal government scholarships are highly limited, educational institutions are ready to enrol more private students on tuition paying basis from Africa. There are plans to boost the number of African students, but currently, approximately 80% (that is four-fifths) of the total African students are on private contracts in the Russian Federation.
“The present and the future of Russia-Africa relations is not about charity, it’s about co-development,” stated Evgeny Primakov, Head of the Russian Federal Agency for International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) and also a member of the Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum.
The Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum was created and works under the Russian Foreign Ministry. It has, under its aegis, three coordination councils namely business, public and scientific councils. Primakov heads the humanitarian council that deals with education and humanitarian questions for the Foreign Ministry.
While talking about initiatives especially the sphere of education in the relationship between Russia and Africa, and that there are difficulties with air-tickets and financing scholarships allocation to be covered in the budget, Primakov explicitly underlined the changing state of affairs in education and added might be increased in future.
Gordey Yastrebov, a Postdoctoral Researcher and Lecturer at the Institute for Sociology and Social Psychology at the University of Cologne (Germany), argued in an email interview discussion that “education can be a tool for geopolitical influence in general, and for changing perceptions specifically, and Russia (just like any other country) could use it for that same purpose. However, Russia isn’t doing anything substantial on this front, at least there is no consistent effort with obvious outcomes that would make me think so. There are no large-scale investment programmes in education focusing on this.”
Western educational and scientific paradigm embraces cooperation and critical independent thinking, whereas this is not the case with the Russian paradigm, which is becoming more isolationist and authoritarian. Obviously by now, Africa should look up to more successful examples elsewhere, perhaps in the United States and Europe.
In an interview with this author, the representative of Federal Migration Service, Alexander Tolstobrov, has informed that his department has been supporting foreign students from different countries under the new legislative amendment and has since taken adequate measures to make the Russian higher education system more accessible for foreigners.
Now foreign students, by law, have the right to employment and can extend their visas at the request of the university without leaving Russia. These questions relating to student employment and especially simplifying the procedures of issuing educational visas for foreign students were earlier discussed by the State Duma deputies and with Ministry of Higher Education and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a widely circulated Russian daily newspaper, reported as far back in April 2011, a new law passed by both houses of parliament allows the employment of foreign experts as teachers at Russian universities. The law is an attempt to boost scientific, research and cultural exchanges and turn the country into a research hub and a centre of academic excellence. But still, in practice, school authorities are still hesitant in hiring foreign teaching specialists.
Experts from the Center for Strategic Research have remarked that the percentage of Russian Universities on the world market is quite considerably low. Due to this, there’s a need to develop Russian education export opportunities. All these measures will lead to enhanced interest in Russian education among foreigners.
“We are setting some very difficult tasks for Russian universities and expect they will be improving their performance and competitiveness, getting rid of outdated and moribund approaches and be future-oriented. We can achieve a breakthrough and raise the international rating among comity of world universities,” Putin argued during his speech, as far back in May 2019, at the Russian Rectors’ Association, a national public organization that unites more than 700 heads of higher education institutions, in Moscow.
According to 2021 World Education Review, there are currently only five Russian universities rated among the top 100 best higher educational institutions around the world. These are the Moscow State University, Moscow State University of International Affairs, Plekhanov University of Finance and Economics, St Petersburg State University and Baumanskiy Polytechnical University.
Currently, U.S. and U.K. universities are the most highly rated and popular for foreign nationals, so also France and Germany. China’s Peking University took the 25th place. Moscow State University, established by Mikhail Lomonosov, and St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University came 23rd and 61st position respectively among the global university rating, according World Education Rating Review.