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A Dark Horse in the Race for International Students

According to March data, the number of international students in Ukraine reflected a 13 perccnt increase over the previous year.

May 12, 2019
 
 

With the number of new international students in the US declining by 6,6% in 2018 and European Higher Education Area pondering over the impact of Brexit on mobility trends in higher education, the potential for changes in mobility patterns is a growing concern for a significant number of stakeholders. While major players in the global market of higher education set ambitious goals of attracting more international students, a country like Ukraine is not considered a serious competitor. Nevertheless, according to March data from the Ukrainian State Center for International Education, the number of international students reflected a 13% increase over the previous year with 75,605 international students currently enrolled.

 

Source countries and mobility patterns

The government of Ukraine promotes the recruitment of international students and makes efforts to ensure the progress continues. Not surprisingly then, the enrollment of international students has grown steadily in recent decades, reaching the highest number to date in 2018. 

International students in Ukraine are from 154 countries. In 2018 the top five sending countries included India (14,958), Morocco (7,390), Azerbaijan (6,228), Turkmenistan (5,033) and Nigeria (3,552). During the last five years, there have been changes in mobility patterns. While in the past post-Soviet states were primary sending countries accounting for almost half of incoming students, their share decreased to 25% by 2018. New sending countries diversified international enrollment with greater numbers of students coming from India, the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. 

 

Motivation and popular fields of study

The major factors for choosing Ukraine as a destination are the comparatively low tuition and cost of living with the promise of quality education. Therefore, institutions in Ukraine are attractive to students from low-income countries who would not be able to afford study in the U.S., Australia or other European countries. 

Joining the Bologna process has had positive impact on the development of higher education in Ukraine, including making it more attractive to international students. The necessity of adapting quality to European standards and demonstrating greater accountability to European organizations motivated the government and institutions to improve mechanisms for quality assurance. Various initiatives have been introduced such as national testing that measure learning outcomes for students in medicine and new foreign language requirements for faculty.

Nevertheless, concerns about the quality of education persist due to issues of corruption that, despite the dedication of resources and efforts to eliminate it, still remains a problem. The system of higher education quality assurance is undergoing reform with the hope of improvement in this area.

The most popular fields of study for international students in Ukraine are medicine, healthcare, dentistry and pharmacy; they account for almost half of international enrollment. Other popular options include management, computer sciences, oil and gas engineering, secondary education. The majority of students are enrolled in bachelor and master programs with fewer than 1% studying in doctoral programs. 

As a rule, study programs are offered in English, Russian and Ukrainian languages. The universities assess language proficiency and applicants whose language skills are not sufficient to study in the selected program are required to take a preparatory course that includes learning English or Ukrainian as well as introductory courses for the program they plan to study in the corresponding language. During 2018-2019 academic year about 10% of international students were enrolled in preparatory courses.

 

The recruitment of international students

Efforts at the national level. As a rule, tuition fees for international students at Ukrainian universities are two-three times higher than Ukrainian citizens would pay. The government recognizes the impact of international students on the economy and therefore supports and promotes international student recruitment.

Despite the fact there is no comprehensive national strategy for international student recruitment, several initiatives were introduced to facilitate the process. They include establishing international cooperation in education with other countries, creating national agencies to facilitate and manage recruitment, setting quality standards for universities in order for them to be licensed to provide educational services to foreign citizens. Ukrainian State Center for International Education, the source of the data cited in this article, is one of the organizations that aim to promote the brand “Study in Ukraine” internationally. Such organizations participate in international recruitment fairs and represent higher educational opportunities in Ukraine as individual institutions lack funding to promote themselves. In addition, there are organizations that cultivate relations with other countries, assist with evaluation of previously obtained credentials, migration, information to prospective students etc.

Recruitment agencies. Another way to recruit students is through the services of third-party agents in Ukraine and abroad. Private independent recruiting agencies are responsible for the majority of incoming international students. Students pay fees for these services. A specific feature of these organization is that their involvement does not end after enrollment; most of the time they support students during the whole period of their stay in Ukraine. Students sign a contract with a university and an agency that outlines rights and responsibilities for each of the parties. The activity of these organizations is not regulated by the government and their ethical practices can be questionable at times. However, it is not uncommon for the universities to only work with students that come via an agency since they help to share responsibility for taking care of student needs.

Word of mouth. Ukraine has maintained a reputation as a provider of quality higher education since the time of the Soviet Union. Indeed, graduates of the programs in computer sciences and engineering have achieved successful careers with international companies. This helps to attract a significant number of students who learn about the opportunity to study in Ukraine from friends, relatives or even parents who have studied in Ukraine and had a positive experience. Being aware of the benefit of referrals some Ukrainian universities make extra effort to cater to current student needs.

 

Better service or isolation?

International students experience many challenges in adapting to life in Ukraine and a new learning context. To provide support new special departments have emerged at the universities. Their structure and functions vary at different institutions. These departments take care of legal and immigration issues, housing, student engagement, academic advising, healthcare and so on. 

Many universities prefer to form separate academic groups that include only international students. While this approach allows faculty to pay special attention to international student needs—to take into consideration language challenges while explaining material, use different methods of instruction, prepare special learning aids—it isolates international students and limits their interaction with Ukrainian students at the university.

Since international students are paying more for their study programs, universities attempt to provide better accommodation and facilities for them. This often means students live in a separate building or section in the university housing, thus, isolating them further from Ukrainians. 

 

Conclusion

Ukraine’s share of globally mobile students is tiny compared to that of titans like the USA, Australia, the UK or Germany. Nonetheless, despite evidence of corruption, political instability and sometimes questionable quality of education, more and more international students believe that a degree from a Ukrainian university is good option. 

 

Viktoriia Donchenko, PhD, is a visiting researcher at George Washington University

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