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Analysis & Opinion
15.12.09 Educated Exiles
By Svetlana Kononova

Studying abroad has been popular among Russians ever since Peter the Great opened his “window to Europe.” And even though the revolution of 1917 put a stop to the tradition for several long decades, as soon as the Iron Curtain fell, Western schools and universities again began to accept students from Russia and former Soviet republics. But for many young people educated abroad, readapting to Russian life can be a challenge.

More than 15,000 Russians, both children and adults, leave the country every year to study, figures from Russian educational agencies show. In comparison with Russia’s overall population, however, that figure is a drop in the ocean. Who are these people, and why do they prefer to study abroad?

Many Russians are unhappy with the quality of secondary education in their country, a recent poll conducted by the state-owned All Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) found. Forty-nine percent of respondents were concerned about the current situation with the Russian secondary education system. Most of those who assessed secondary education negatively were Moscow or St. Petersburg residents.

Despite this, the quality of education in Russia is probably not the main reason why studying abroad is so popular. The first priority of many parents who put their children in schools in Western Europe, the United States and Canada is to place them in a safe and secure environment protected from typical Russian problems such a crime, a hostile atmosphere and social conflicts.

The motivations for adult students are different. “We have several basic types of clients,” said Tatiana Akulova, the head of the foreign education department at International European Agency, which arranges study programs for Russian students in 15 countries. “The first group might be defined as ‘careerists.’ These people want to make a successful career at international companies. Therefore they make efforts to learn foreign languages, value degrees from Western universities and business schools and try to build as many new personal and business contacts as possible while studying abroad.”

The second group of customers is made up of families who go abroad together and choose several different programs for children and parents. “Sometimes it is not clear why housewives need to learn a foreign language,” Akulova continued, “possibly, the education itself is not as important for these families as the opportunity to live abroad together.”

The other big group is Russia’s “golden youth.” Boys and girls aged 18 to 22 from rich families often consider studying abroad as a way to explore the world and have fun.

The choice of educational opportunities is wide. The most popular country for Russian students to go to is the UK. It accepts a third of both child and adult students from post-Soviet countries. “We can see Russian pupils at most British boarding schools in many towns,” Akulova noted. The other popular countries for Russian students are Switzerland, the United States, Germany, and Malta. Comparatively few students want to study in France, Italy or Spain.

But a new trend is also emerging: studying in Asian countries. “The number of people who want to receive a degree from a Chinese or Japanese university is growing,” said Yuri Baker, the director of the Kanzler language center that specializes in foreign language educational programs, university preparation programs and business school education.

Expenses for education abroad depend on the country and the program’s duration. As a rule the cost of education is high. The cheapest annual programs cost ?7,000 to ?10,000, and the upper margin might be several times higher. However, the ability to pay does not guarantee either a place at a school or a visa. Candidates must pass several tests and go through a succession of interviews. Even after receiving a letter of acceptance from a school or university, about seven to ten percent of candidates apply for a visa unsuccessfully, educational agencies say.

Once equipped with an offer and a visa, successful candidates are ready to buy airplane tickets and start a new life. However, the assimilation process is not always easy. “The education system in the UK is totally different from the traditional education system in Russia,” said Irina Bogdanova, a Russian student at Greenwich University. “Nobody controls you and nobody tells you what to do. The tutors expect you to be self-motivated and be able to solve all problems by yourself. Probably, the main value of the British education is not knowledge itself, but the ability to find information and sort out problems independently.”

Irina, who ran her own business before studying in the UK, said adapting to a new lifestyle and new demands had been quite difficult for her. “Maybe it is because of my age,” she said. “Young children adapt to studying and living abroad much more easily than adult students,” Akulova agreed. “The ideal age to start studying abroad is probably 12 to 13 years.”

However, many teenagers who study abroad soon become “foreigners” themselves, and are reluctant to return to Russia even for vacations. “The typical example is a child or teenager who lives in a boarding school and misses his relatives, but can stand no more than several days at home during vacation and asks to be sent back to the UK or Switzerland,” Akulova said.

Most children who start studying abroad at an early age continue their education in a university in the same country. Only a few return to Russia or other former Soviet republics. But experts differ in their opinions regarding these students’ future careers. Akulova believes that a Western education gives graduates good prospects. “Most of them work abroad or work for Russia-based branches of large international companies,” she said. However, Baker disagrees. “Many graduates of Western universities are forced to come back to Russia because they cannot find a job in the country where they were studying,” he said. “They do not make enough effort and do not understand how to plan a career. They still have a traditional Russian mentality and they are not ready to send CVs to thousands of companies and sit through hundreds of job interviews.” Moreover, immigration rules are often quite strict for foreign graduates.

But Bogdanova believes that career prospects for graduates all come down to where, not what, they study. “If you study at a top-rated university, your job prospects should be great,” she said.
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