Russian students and British education – status quo and a brief review of the market

Historic records show that Russian students were studying in the UK as far back as the XVII century, though these records are evidenced by a rather peculiar story. In 1602, the Russian Tsar Boris Godunov decided to send a group of promising young Russian men from aristocratic families to study abroad. All four of them were sent to the UK to learn “languages and sciences” on “English land”. They were assigned to Eton College, Westminster School and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Whilst they studied in the UK, the so-called “Time of Troubles” descended on Russia and for some time the students were forgotten. However, when none of them returned home 10 years later, an entire diplomatic mission was sent to the UK to retrieve them, alas to no avail. The students may best be remembered for their disappearance, but they should also be recognised as the first in a long line of Russians that arrived in the UK to study over the last 400 years.

Thankfully, Russian students in the UK are less prone to disappearing nowadays, and a British education remains one of the most sought-after amongst the Russian population.

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The education sector makes a substantial contribution to the UK economy. According to the 2017 Oxford Economics report, the higher education sector alone generates £95 billion for the UK economy and supports almost 1 million jobs across the country. The contribution of international students is not limited to their tuition fees, but also includes their (and their visitors’) substantial off-campus spending. Leaving aside the economic factor, international students also contribute to the UK in helping to develop cultural and business links between countries. Foreign graduates of UK educational institutions often establish joint business ventures and other initiatives, and help local students to develop their own global outlook and to acquire useful international links. Russian students in the UK undoubtedly play a huge role in nurturing the continued economic ties between their homeland and their new host country.

UK boarding schools remain the preferred option for Russian parents who are considering a British education for their children: their quality and prestige has been indisputable for centuries and parents can be sure that their children are in safe hands abroad, without uprooting the whole family. From the late nineties/early noughties, we have seen a distinct increase in Russian students wanting to pursue their education in the UK. These students were predominantly children of the political and economic Russian elite; however, the demographic has now widened to include those from all backgrounds.

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The number of Russian students in secondary education in the UK varies from source to source, but it is estimated by the Independent Schools Council that, as of January 2018, there were 1,699 Russian students in British boarding schools with parents living abroad. This puts Russia in fifth place out of all countries sending their pupils to British boarding schools, following China, EU countries, Hong Kong and the USA. This makes Russia a key market for the UK independent school sector, despite a more recent decline in the number of new pupils coming to the UK from Russia over the past couple of years.

There is also a Russian presence in British universities. As well as the large percentage of Russian secondary school pupils staying on for their university studies, Russian students who have not been through the British school system are also attracted to British higher education. However, this is not just true of Russian students, there were 442,475 international students studying in UK universities in the 2016-2017 academic year, which makes for an impressive 19% of all students in higher education.

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Russia is not one of the countries that send the largest number of young people to the UK for university. Leading the way are China, Malaysia, USA, India, Hong Kong and, of course, countries in the EU. Why is Russia not among these countries? For one thing, the cost of education for non-EU students in the UK can sometimes triple, depending on the university and the course. We have seen that Russian parents who can afford the costs of independent boarding schools in the UK can usually also afford university tuition fees. Yet those who can afford only one stage of the education system opt out of further study in the UK in favour of other countries that offer a high level of tuition for substantially lower fees, such as Finland, the Czech Republic, France or Germany. Other parents prefer countries like Canada due to its favourable immigration policies or even China due to its geographical proximity and economic ties, giving enhanced job and career prospects.

Of course, it is not just full time education that brings international students of all ages to the UK. English language courses across Britain are very popular; a quick walk around the block in most areas of London will bring you across one or more language schools.

However, over the past few years the education sector has seen some decline in the number of Russian students coming to the UK for language schools, undoubtedly due to economic conditions - the changing oil price and volatility of the rouble in particular. Many parents who could previously afford an annual English language programme in the UK have had to put their plans on hold. Only now are we seeing the situation start to improve again and this summer brought thousands of Russian nationals to language schools across the country. A great choice of schools, a variety of high-quality academic and cultural programmes, and superior student care all ensure that the UK remains one of the world leaders in the English tuition sector.

This is why Russians, amongst many other nationalities, continue to seek out places in British educational institutions, making the private education sector a valid contributor to the country’s economy, even if the benefits are, at present, most commonly enjoyed by the wealthy. Yet, aside from its economic value, Russo-British relations in the education sector hold significant historical and cultural value. Behind the figures and data, there are thousands of students who have had their lives transformed by a British education. It has allowed people to grow, develop and achieve their career goals, opening a new world of opportunity and allowing for the leaders of both countries’ futures to see the world from an alternative perspective and to cooperate internationally. We hope to see these positive developments continue and ties further strengthened between these two great nations in the years to come.



Bulletin Online

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Date Published:

03 June 2019

Author:

Aizhan Tampayeva, UK Study Centre