Foreign students caught in the crosshairs of the Russian-Ukrainian war

Written by Volodymyr Solovian, Head of HWAG/UCMC

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, has resulted in significant losses for Ukraine’s higher education system as well as other aspects of the country’s life. The main challenges faced by the Ukrainian higher education system as a result of Russian aggression are the loss of human capital, the destruction of educational infrastructure, the severance of educational ties with the occupied territories, and the difficulties in resuming the educational process under martial law.

Ukraine in the international education market

Prior to the full-scale invasion, Ukrainian higher education institutions were a relatively inexpensive and easily accessible source of quality education for developing-country citizens. According to the State Enterprise “Ukrainian State Center for International Education” (USCIE), the number of foreign students in the Ukrainian higher education system has increased year after year since the 2016/2017 academic year, except for in 2020/2021, when global restrictions were imposed due to the rapid spread of COVID-19. In 2021, Ukraine accounted for 1.5% of the global market for foreign education services. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine had 84.600 foreign students enrolled in its universities.

As of 2021, India has the largest representation of foreign students in Ukraine, with 22.000 (26% of all foreign students). Ukraine was often chosen by young people from Morocco, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, China, Turkey, and Egypt to get an education.

Foreign students primarily pursue medical specialities (medicine and general medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and industrial pharmacy). Medical universities account for nine of the top ten institutions with the most foreign students. The most popular universities in Ukraine among foreign students are V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, Kharkiv National Medical University, Bogomolets National Medical University, Odesa National Medical University, and Zaporizhzhia State Medical University.

Given that foreigners generally study on a contract basis, one foreign student in Ukraine spent approximately 7.000 USD per year. As a result, foreign students’ total annual study-related expenses (accommodation, insurance, paperwork, food, transportation, and so on) exceeded USD 590 million. For comparison, due to the reduction in funding for education caused by the reallocation of funds for military needs, UAH 18.4 billion (USD 460 million) was allocated from the state budget to finance the education sector in 2023. Furthermore, the need to compete in the international market for educational services has prompted Ukrainian higher education institutions to modernize their equipment, logistics, and dormitories. As a result, foreign students not only had the opportunity to receive a high-quality education at a lower cost than domestic students, but they also became an important part of Ukraine’s national education system. 

Higher education in Ukraine for foreigners: consequences of the war

Today, Ukrainian higher education institutions are seeing a decrease in the number of applicants, not only due to the departure of young people and school-age children from Ukraine (according to the UNHCR, more than a third of all Ukrainian refugees abroad are minors), but also due to foreigners’ reluctance to study in a country where their personal safety is not guaranteed due to the war. As of the beginning of 2024, the number of foreign students enrolled in Ukrainian higher education institutions had decreased by 40%. As a result, the Ukrainian higher education system is losing additional revenue streams for university budgets. At the same time, due to the length of the war, Ukraine will be forced to rely on a military budget for the next few years. Unfortunately, educational underfunding may, in the medium term, reduce the level of technological and material support, as well as other services provided by Ukrainian state-owned universities. As a result, regardless of the security situation, interest in the Ukrainian education market could decline.

One of the most overlooked aspects of Russia’s humanitarian aggression is the elimination of Ukraine as a competitor in the global education market. Before the full-scale invasion, Russia had 4.2 times more foreign students than Ukraine. However, in certain specialities, such as medicine, Ukrainian universities were just as popular as Russian ones. This is evidenced by the number of Indian students in both countries’ universities as of the beginning of 2022: 22.000 in Ukraine and 18.500 in Russia. As a result of Moscow’s aggression, students all over the world are losing out on the opportunity to receive a relatively inexpensive (compared to prices at home or in Western countries) but high-quality education in Ukraine.

The War’s impact on foreign students’ education at Ukrainian universities

According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Education, over 60.000 foreign students have left the country since the war began. In early spring 2022, a number of states organized the evacuation of their citizens; for example, India evacuated 16.000 students from Ukraine. The majority of them continued their studies online. Some foreign students took advantage of the opportunity to continue their education at European universities, where they were treated equally with citizens of EU member states as Ukrainian refugees. In Hungary, for example, the vast majority of refugee students from Ukraine are not Ukrainians but have third-country citizenship.

However, because the majority of foreign students in Ukraine pursue medical specialities, long-term distance learning is not an option. They are mostly unable to return to Ukraine and continue their education due to financial or security constraints. For example, if Sumy State University had around 2,100 foreign students before the war, approximately 30 returned to full-time education a year later. The largest community of foreign students in Ukraine, the Indian community, has shrunk significantly. 

As of today, just over a thousand Indian citizens live in Ukraine, which is more than 20 times lower than the country’s “pre-war” student population. According to statistics, less than 10% of foreign students who left the war earlier returned to full-time education in Ukraine. Most people prefer distance learning; however, for a large number of such students, the cost of the contract is frequently a barrier to continuing their studies, despite their inability to do so offline.

This causes a gradual outflow of foreign students. As of the beginning of 2023, 51.600 foreign students were studying in Ukraine, nearly 40% fewer than prior to the outbreak of the full-scale war. Ukrainian universities enrolled five times fewer applicants in the 2022/2023 academic year than in 2021. As a result, the decline in the number of foreign students at Ukrainian universities will only continue its fall in the coming years.

March 2022. Evacuation of foreign students from the city of Sumy, Ukraine

Hostages of Russian aggression

Tens of thousands of foreign students became hostages as a result of Russia’s attack on the country where they were studying early on February 24, 2022. The majority of them had to endure a difficult journey to the border, including hiding in bomb shelters, going without Internet or communication with their families for extended periods of time, and occasionally fleeing under the occupiers’ fire. There were casualties; for example, on March 1, an Indian student was killed by Russian shelling of Kharkiv.

Another significant story involved seven Sri Lankan students studying at Kupyansk Medical College. The Russians apprehended them during an attempted evacuation in March 2022. The students were imprisoned in Vovchansk and, as it later emerged, tortured and ill-treated. They were only released after the Armed Forces of Ukraine launched a successful counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region in September 2022.

Students from Sri Lanka were tortured by the Russian army

It is worth noting that the Russian invasion has caused significant damage to foreign students, as the majority of popular medical universities in Ukraine are located in the country’s eastern and southern regions, which were the most devastated during the war. Higher education institutions in Kharkiv, for example, have been the most severely impacted. In March 2022, Russian missiles destroyed the V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University Faculty of Economics building. In the fall of 2022, missile fragments damaged the main building of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, and on December 31, 2022, another missile attack severely damaged the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv Exhibition Campus buildings.

As of February 2024, bombing and shelling had affected approximately 3.800 educational institutions. According to UNESCO, more than 1.400 buildings of Ukraine’s scientific institutions have been destroyed or damaged as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion, with the restoration of the state’s scientific infrastructure costing 1.26 billion US dollars. 

V. Karazin Kharkiv University Following the Russian Attack

The issue of foreign students has also become one of Russia’s propaganda tools against Ukraine. For example, in March 2022, Russia actively disseminated unverified reports of intolerant attitudes toward foreign students in Ukraine and racism. According to reports, thousands of African students stranded in Ukraine as a result of the hostilities were subjected to selective treatment at Ukrainian railway stations. These reports contradict the testimony of foreign students who have left Ukraine. Instead, Russian propaganda attempted to escalate individual cases of domestic conflict to discredit Ukrainians.

A tool of the Kremlin’s soft power

As part of its soft power strategy, Russia focuses heavily on attracting foreign students to its educational system. Moscow adopted this approach from the Soviet Union. Founded in 1960, the Peoples’ Friendship University (PFU) served as the primary source of Soviet propaganda in the Third World during the Cold War. In addition to their speciality, students studied communist disciplines to promote a positive image of the USSR in their home country.

Many of the university’s graduates have led countries (Guyana, Guinea, Honduras, Namibia, Nicaragua, and the State of Palestine) or held senior government positions in national and international organizations. It is worth noting that throughout the twentieth century, Western countries sought to gain influence in the Third World by educating their future elites. However, Moscow used foreign student education to expand its geopolitical influence. According to Timur Boyarsky, a Soviet historian, “many graduates of the People’s Friendship University were armed not only with the world’s most advanced education but also with the world’s best small arms, the Kalashnikov rifle.” During those years, there was widespread belief in the West that the Soviet secret services were recruiting agents among students at the PFU. 

Peoples’ Friendship University (PFU)  at Soviet times

Today, amid a global narrative war with the West, Moscow is attempting to expand the practices tested at the UND during the Cold War to other Russian universities that are popular among foreign applicants.

Representatives from the Global South receive special attention. Moscow is attempting to leverage the Soviet legacy to expand its influence in countries that, for historical reasons, sympathize with Russia. For example, the name of the pro-Soviet Congolese politician Patrice Lumumba was returned to the Peoples’ Friendship University in March 2023 (the educational institution had this name from 1961 to 1992).

The Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation oversees the Kremlin’s science diplomacy. The government agency establishes a network of science attachés in Russian embassies. Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation – the primary institution involved in promoting Russian “soft power” abroad) is another important tool used by the Kremlin to attract foreigners to Russian educational institutions. The organization is present in 62 countries and operates 73 foreign missions (“Russian Houses”) to promote Russian language and culture.

Since 2013, Rossotrudnichestvo has been given the authority to select students from abroad. Every year, Rossotrudnichestvo issues approximately 3.000 referrals for free education in the Russian Federation and the countries in which it operates. Leading Russian state corporations, such as Rosatom, the country’s flagship nuclear energy company, are also recruiting students for international education programs. Scholarship programs are typically used to provide this type of support.

At the same time, Moscow increases the number of foreign students eligible for free education in Russia each year. Russia has significantly increased quotas for free education for students from other countries following the breakdown of scientific and academic cooperation with Western countries in 2022. The number of quotas in 2023–24 is 30.000 places per year, compared to almost half that in 2021 (18.000).

Overall, Russia ranks sixth in the world in terms of foreign student enrollment, attracting 6% of the world’s “mobile students” to its universities. Russian universities are most popular among students from Kazakhstan (62.400 as of 2022), China (39.900), and Uzbekistan (39.800). The total number of foreign students in the Russian Federation is approximately 351.000.

Education is a universal tool for strengthening horizontal ties between professional fields in various countries. Today, Russia cannot provide the Global South with an appealing ideology (as socialism did for the USSR). As a result, foreigners in the Russian Federation prefer medical and technical specialities, while humanitarian professions that provide media skills are the least in demand. Thus, the challenge lies in the Kremlin’s attempt to use education to achieve geopolitical goals through hybrid actions.

Of course, graduating from a Russian university does not automatically qualify a student as an agent of the Kremlin’s information influence. However, given Moscow’s protracted confrontation with the West, the risk of Russian special services recruiting foreign students for technological espionage and intellectual property theft is increasing. Furthermore, through Russian university graduates, Moscow has traditionally lobbied for investment projects in African and Asian countries in the fields of security services and mining, replenishing the regime’s shadow cash register on a regular basis. 

From the classroom to the trenches

In the face of a shortage of human resources at the front in 2022, Russia threw hundreds of citizens of other countries onto the deadly conveyor belt of war, mostly by fraudulently forcing them to sign a contract with the Russian army. However, the main argument in favour of participating in hostilities is financial, as for many it is an opportunity to earn money for further education and living in Russia.  For example, in early 2024, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Narayan Prakash Saud said that Russia had recruited 200 Nepalese citizens to participate in the war against Ukraine. At least 14 of them were killed.

The Ukrainian side attests that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have recently been capturing foreigners who had joined the Russian army quite frequently. A special category among them are yesterday’s foreign students, whom the Kremlin turned into mercenaries.

In Rostov-on-Don, pressure was exerted on African students from Nigeria, with the aim of inducing them to participate in the war on the side of the Russian Federation

According to the Center for National Resistance (CNR), “During the communication of prisoners of war, several factors were revealed that point to an organized scheme of persuading foreign students to sign a contract with the Russian Armed Forces.” In particular, around Moscow universities where foreigners study, including the People’s Friendship University, there are many advertisements about the “charms and prospects” of military service in Russia.

“Group supervisors and Russian students who are supposed to help such foreigners acclimate and successfully complete the program by suggestion talk about financial support in the Russian army. When they identify people who have financial problems or an urgent need for large sums of money (tuition fees, medical treatment, etc.), they refer them to local military enlistment offices. Often, such students are sent to steal money from them to create a sense of hopelessness and despair,” the experts of the Center document. There are also cases of blackmail with the threat of deportation.

The attitude towards foreigners in the occupiers’ army is traditionally dismissive. The level of coordination is also extremely low due to the lack of knowledge of the Russian language. The situation of units staffed by mercenaries can be compared to units of prisoners used to attack the most fortified positions of Ukrainian defenders. Therefore, such “interbrigades” have virtually no chance of survival. 

How can we bring foreign students back to Ukraine?

Even during wartime, there is hope. First, the adaptation of Ukrainian higher education institutions to the educational process under quarantine restrictions has provided valuable distance learning experience. As the experience of 2022–23 demonstrates, the skills acquired during the pandemic, despite the destruction of institutions’ infrastructure, enabled them to continue their activities during the war. That is why Ukrainian higher education institutions are already working on the concept of a cyber university, which will allow them to offer educational services in an uninterrupted online format.

Second, relocating educational institutions to the country’s western regions will help to restore international demand for Ukrainian university services. Because of their distance from the Russian border, the cities of Western Ukraine can provide adequate security for the educational process. It is worth noting that Ukraine has had experience relocating entire universities since 2014 when Russia launched its invasion of Donbas. In 2022 alone, 131 institutions of higher education (colleges) and higher education with 91.000 students (6.7% of the total number of students in Ukraine) and more than 11.000 teachers were successfully relocated within the country.

Third, due to urgent security concerns, Ukraine’s national education system will prioritize specialities that are critical to the development of the military-industrial complex. These changes necessitate modernization in education. However, the experience gained and investments made in the relevant field of technical education will enable Ukrainian universities to introduce new specialities that will be in high demand in the international education market.

Fourth, in countries where education in the Russian Federation remains popular, it is critical to conduct explanatory work among young people. A potential applicant to a Russian university should be aware of the personal risks associated with living in a country where total military censorship reigns and the authorities do not shy away from any means of replenishing their occupation army, including by recruiting foreigners. Low-income foreigners in today’s Russia are always at risk of being blackmailed into signing a contract with the Russian army. 

Finally, a foreigner in Putin’s Russia is always at risk of becoming a political hostage of the Kremlin due to fabricated charges (this is true for Westerners, as happened, for example, with The Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich). Both national governments and the context of global information campaigns should carry out the pertinent explanatory work.