Fellowship: Why African students decide to connect their lives with Russia
Educational cooperation is one of the key elements in Russia-Africa relations: As the successor to the USSR, Russia remains one of the main destinations for African students to study in the world. The foundation for cooperation in education and the training of highly qualified professionals between the two sides, laid during the Soviet period, remains a crucial element of the attractiveness of Russian higher education to Africans today. While the early period after the collapse of the Soviet Union showed a significant decline in the number of African students in Russia, recent years have shown a reversal of the trend: an increase in the number of Africans in Russian universities and the development of multilateral university ties.
Africans in Russian universities: how many and where
The number of African students in Russian universities throughout the 1990s was approximately 4,000 per year, which was a significant decline from the Soviet period: as of the 1991/1992 academic year, over 15,000 students from Africa were studying in the USSR, with 8,000 of them at universities in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. This drop was attributed both to economic and political reasons. The collapse of the USSR led to a decline in state funding and the transition to a paying tuition system for foreigners, which was a significant obstacle for African students, and to a decline in the priority of the African direction in Russian foreign policy during that period.
Gradually, however, the priority of exporting education as an important driver of stronger cooperation with African countries has started to rise, which led to an increase in the number of African students in Russian universities to 7,000 in 2006/2007. In the following years, this number increased annually, reaching 15,000 in 2014/2015 and outperforming the Soviet level in 2015/2016 (16,900).
A notable difference between the Russian and the Soviet periods was the expansion of the geographical placement of African students in Russian cities. Whereas previously more than half of all Africans were concentrated in the two largest cities in the country, Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg), today they account for only around 26% of African students. Africans are enrolled in nearly 300 universities in Russia, in more than 90 cities. Important centers of study for Africans in Russia today are the universities in the cities of Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Kazan, Tambov, Voronezh, Kursk, Belgorod and Krasnodar, due to the lower cost of living along with a high quality of education.
Traditionally, the most popular fields of study for African students are medical (up to 30% of Africans study medical specialties), engineering and technology (about 20%), as well as management, finance and economics. African students are considering applied fields of study in order to graduate as work-ready professionals. These majors are also related to vital areas for the development of Africa itself.
Growing numbers of African students: what’s already achieved
Students from Africa have traditionally made up about 6% of all international students in Russia. However, in recent years, especially after the Russia-Africa summits, which have prioritized the strengthening of educational cooperation, the percentage of Africans studying in Russian universities has been increasing.
For example, in the year of the first Russia-Africa Summit (October 2019), 17,600 African students were studying in Russia, and already in 2020/2021 there were more than 27,000.
In the 2022/23 academic year, there were already more than 34,000 African students in Russia, which is 10% of all international students in the country (and about 5% of all African students studying abroad) – and which is more than double the Soviet maximum of 15,000 annually. It is therefore not surprising that the second Russia-Africa summit, held in July 2023, resulted in the release of an action plan for 2023-2026, where a significant number of provisions were devoted to the development of educational cooperation.
Attracting Africans to its universities, the Russian government has in recent years regularly increased the number of scholarships for African nationals at state expense. The largest number of state scholarships allocated by Russia in the 2022/2023 academic year went to Guinea (450 scholarships), Angola (300), Mali (290), Republic of Congo (250), Egypt (250), and Nigeria (250). In 2023/2024, the number of federally funded places totaled 4,700, doubling from the previous academic year (2,300 scholarships).
Komi Amewunou from Togo, who graduated in sociology from Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad (IKBFU), a distinguished alumnus of the Russian Open Doors program and assistant editor at a pan-African research network, told RT how and why he had applied for a scholarship: “In my quest for an opportunity to pursue a master’s degree, I stumbled upon a Russian Open Doors scholarship. This Olympiad has been organized for several years by the Association of Global Universities, in collaboration with the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education, the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo). Recognizing the high standards of the education system in Russia, I perceived this scholarship as a good opportunity to achieve two milestones at once: graduating from a university in Russia, one of the most influential countries globally, and acquiring proficiency in a new international language presented a chance that any ambitious young individual would seize eagerly.”
According to him, these are the specific benefits that African students get studying in Russia: a flexible and streamlined visa procedure, an affordable cost of living, relatively low tuition fees, consistent support for international students from the special office, and a wide range of extracurricular activities.
What to expect, and what needs to be done
Against the background of the development of political and economic ties between Russia and African countries, as well as the increase in special educational quotas, the number of African students in the next few years may reach 50,000 people. This is proved by the great interest and high competition for the opportunity to study in Russia. According to the latest open data for 2022/2023, more than 11,000 applications from African candidates were submitted for scholarships, and the average competition was about five people per place.
Today, students from Egypt (more than 15,000 or almost half of all African students) are studying in Russia, followed in numbers by Morocco, Nigeria, Algeria, and Ghana. According to Russian Minister of Higher Education Valery Falkov, over 310,000 qualified specialists from the continent have been trained in Russia throughout the history of cooperation with Africa. This is also shown by the fact that in many African countries (Angola, Egypt, Tanzania, etc.) national associations of graduates of Soviet and Russian universities have been established and operate.
What still needs to be done to make study opportunities in Russia more appealing and accessible to a broader spectrum of African students? It would help to diversify the language options, Komi Amewunou thinks. In addition to English, incorporating French and other official languages spoken across the continent is crucial. Currently, English serves as the sole language for the written phase of scholarship competitions like Russian Open Doors and the Ministry of Education scholarship. This linguistic limitation poses a challenge for many proficient and motivated French-speaking African students who wish to pursue higher education in the Russian Federation. However, it is noteworthy that the French-speaking student population in Africa is substantial and should not be overlooked.
Another crucial aspect, according to Amewunou, is broadening the scope of scholarship opportunities to include the undergraduate cycle. Presently these opportunities are primarily tailored to master’s and doctoral programs. Nonetheless, there exists a pool of highly talented young graduates aspiring to delve into cutting-edge fields after their bachelor’s degree.
It’s interesting though, that African students usually do not expect to come across such a diverse international community at Russian universities. “To my immense surprise, my sojourn in Kaliningrad provided a unique opportunity to meet and engage with individuals from no fewer than twenty different nationalities. This serves as a testament to the immense allure of Russia as a destination, particularly for young students. Consequently, I expanded my social network, which had previously been confined to acquaintances from the African continent and a handful of Western countries. Presently, my contacts encompass individuals from diverse backgrounds, including Russians, Chinese, Germans, Bulgarians, Indians, Indonesians, Uzbeks, Canadians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and many more”, Amewunou said.
Networks, pre-university training, knowledge sharing, new branches and more
Meanwhile, educational cooperation is not limited to the recruitment of more and more African students in Russia. There are a growing number of initiatives aimed at strengthening ties between African and Russian universities. This demonstrates a desire not only to train personnel, but also to invest in the development of infrastructure on the continent, engaging in mutually beneficial exchanges of specialists and knowledge.
In 2021, the Russian-African Network University was established, consisting of 48 universities (and two research institutions) from Russia and African countries. Its educational model is a unified system of courses for members of the consortium, in Russian, English, and French.
In July 2023, an agreement was signed to create a professional community of universities that train specialists for the natural resources sector. The agreement was signed by representatives of nine African countries (Ghana, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mali, Namibia, Zambia, Nigeria, and South Africa) and Russia’s oldest technical university, the Saint Petersburg Mining University. As a result, the Russian-African consortium of universities ‘Nedra’ (“Suboil of Africa”) was established in December, involving more than 30 African universities.
In June 2023, the Russian Education Ministry began coordinating a project to open Russian-language education centers in African countries, which is being implemented jointly with more than ten Russian pedagogical universities. As of 2024, such centers and classes have opened and are operating in Cameroon, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Uganda, Mali, Zambia, Namibia, Nigeria, DR Congo, Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire). It is planned to open similar centers in South Africa, and Botswana. This project is especially important to improve the quality of education for African students, who can learn the language without leaving their country. Such pre-university training before arrival in the country of study reduces the difficulties of adapting to life in an unfamiliar environment.
This is what Amewunou believes was most difficult: “Personally, my main linguistic challenge involved adapting to the pace and colloquial style of communication among young people, which may not strictly adhere to the rules learned in language classes. Participating in class discussions was particularly daunting in the initial stages. Nevertheless, the teachers exhibited patience and understanding, underscoring the importance of addressing language barriers, a prevalent obstacle preventing many foreign students from realizing their dream of studying in Russia.”
Russian universities are increasingly taking part in educational fairs and promoting their programs in African countries. For example, the Center for African Studies at HSE University, together with the Innopraktika Foundation, is implementing the Russia-Africa e-Governance Knowledge Sharing Programme in public administration.
Russian universities also want to start providing education in African partner countries. In October 2023, it was announced that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had approved the opening of branches of St. Petersburg University and Kazan Federal University in the country. In the coming years, branches of Russian universities will also appear in other African states. These initiatives are based on the opportunity to further work with interested African companies and to develop bilateral and multilateral mutually beneficial cooperation.
Russian business is also showing interest in the development of educational programs. A number of Russian companies (RUSAL, ALROSA, Rosatom) operating in Africa regularly provide funding for African students at Russian universities. These companies are interested in training specialists who will be able to work on major projects. Moreover, in April 2023, the possibility of opening a branch in Egypt was announced by the National Research Nuclear University, MEPhI, which began to consider the idea in response to an appeal from the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education to provide training of local personnel for Rosatom’s El-Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant project.
Cooperation in education is one of the most important factors for the formation of long-term, mutually beneficial relations between Russia and Africa. Recent years have not only increased interaction in this area to the highest level in history, but have also opened up new areas of cooperation between Russian universities and African states to provide quality education and to strengthen each other.