By Liudmila Kopecka
Studying abroad has become a worldwide trend, with more and more people migrating to obtain a foreign diploma. Education is one of the major drivers of migration, and the global competition on the labour market and internationalisation of higher education has led to a rise in the number of international student migrants throughout the world.
Recently, the Czech Republic became a popular destination for educational migration and over the last 15 years the number of international students has intensified. According to data from the Czech Statistical Office, 41.179 foreign students were studying in Czech universities during the 2015/2016 academic year. Compared to the amount of foreign students in the 2003/2004 academic year (13.136 people) the number has tripled.
In the 2015/2016 academic year there were 5.672 students from Russia and 1.485 from Kazakhstan, as stated by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. Ten years back, only 432 Russian-born students and 77 Kazakh students were studying in the Czech Republic.
In my anthropological research, I focus on educational migration and examine the life of Russian speaking students from Russia and Kazakhstan, who come to the Czech Republic in order to obtain a university degree. Here, I will present some findings and focus on the following question: “How are decisions to come to the Czech Republic taken?” My study is based on long term ethnographic research and formal and informal interviews with 55 research participants.
Student accomodation in Prague
The decision to study abroad
For my research participants the reasons for obtaining an education abroad were diverse and very often it was a combination of various factors in the person’s life. There was some curiosity about life in Europe, and an opportunity to live and study in the Czech Republic seemed an interesting experience. Other students were enticed by the prestige of a European diploma and saw studying in the Czech Republic as a way to eventually get a better job back in Russia or Kazakhstan.
“My father told me that we didn’t have the kind of money needed to study there and that it would be easier to send me abroad than to apply to our university…” (Polina from Russia)
Again other research participants, especially right after finishing high school, faced dilemmas concerning which university to apply to and the possibility of free education in the Czech Republic simply had more advantages than other options. Some students didn’t believe in fair competition for the budget places – placements in Russia and Kazakhstan for low-income students who then receive free education –, claiming that the corruption in education is very widespread.
Even with quite serious investments in education abroad, the research participants claimed that it would still be less expensive than paying for higher education in Russia or Kazakhstan.
In the research participants’ narratives it becomes obvious that their parents played a large role in the decision making process. In some cases, the initiative to study abroad came directly from the parents, while in other cases parents just supported their children’s decision. For these parents their studies in the Czech Republic meant to fulfil their own past ambitions through their children as they hadn’t had such opportunities to travel behind the iron curtain, or it served as an opportunity to join their children and settle down abroad after having retired.
For some students, following their education abroad was part of a long-term plan, and the first step in opening other doors and possibilities in the Czech Republic, such as gaining permanent residency in the future. Immigration to the Czech Republic (or emigration from Russia and Kazakhstan) had been their dream and studying at a Czech university was part of a plan for better inclusion in the Czech labour market or, alternatively, the international labour market.
Leaving their native Russian or Kazakh city was in some cases a huge desire. Some of my research participants even had quite stable jobs in Russia or Kazakhstan, some were in a long-term relationship or even married, but they wanted to change something and were not satisfied with how their life was unfolding. Hence, in these cases educational migration was “a good excuse to leave”. In a few cases, the young migrants ran away from a partner or husband, a mother that is “too interfering” or just from their social surroundings, declaring “that they have never felt on the same wave-length as other people”.
Right after graduating basic school in Russia, Alexander’s mother sent him to study in the Czech Republic as she feared he wouldn’t pass the entrance exams to university in Russia and would therefore have to participate in compulsory military service. In the Czech Republic her only son was safe. (Alexander from Russia)
Some research participants were very negative about their country of origin. Research participants from Russia said that they wanted to escape from the “Russian winter”, “Russian roads and Russian fools”. Places abroad were then imagined as being better in many respects than Russia. Some students from Kazakhstan were also quite critical towards their country of origin, pointing out the high level of corruption or problems with housing. They also complained about language reforms and restrictions on the usage of the Russian language. Still, a majority of the Kazakh students that I interviewed were very patriotic and proud to be citizens of Kazakhstan. These research participants saw more possibilities for self-realisation and a career in Kazakhstan and were planning to return to their home country as soon as possible.
There were also some gender aspects in the decision making process. For example, for some young males educational migration was a family strategy to dodge compulsory military service in Russia. For some Russian women educational migration to the Czech Republic was a sort of strategy to meet a life partner, as the demographic situation in Russia isn’t balanced with approximately 11 million more women than men in the country; as Tatyana expressed: “I think all girls come here to get married”.
Where to go?
Research participants chose the Czech Republic as an immigration country is that Russian speaking students usually see it as a culturally and linguistically similar country. As Egor from Russia concluded: “For me, it was easier to learn Czech and study in it than, for example, in German or in Spanish”. Another reason why people choose the Czech Republic for migration in particular was the relatively low costs for living, especially in comparison with Western European countries and in some cases with Russia and Kazakhstan.
“Rich youngsters go to London or to the USA, but the middle class goes to the Czech Republic”. (Boris from Kazachstan)
Students also chose the Czech Republic because they already had some relatives, friends or classmates there. They could gain first-hand information about the Czech Republic and get advice as to which language school they should enrol in. Research on international migration has shown that social networks are the most trusted source of potential migrants and which helps people to perform the actual act of migration. Take, for example, Veronica, who had a classmate that was writing a blog about his life as a student in the Czech Republic. He advised her to come to Poděbrady in order to learn the Czech language and helped her at the beginning of her stay. Boyfriends and girlfriends also followed the student migrants to the same language schools and were applying for student visas rather than family reunification, even though the Czech Republic allows family reunification with a civil partner.
In the end, the reasons and factors for educational migration to the Czech Republic that appeared in my research were mixed. These reasons were often linked with the “right time” to migrate. However, future attention should be devoted to the role of an imagined-Europe in the decision, as it was an important topic in most of my research participant’s narratives. This however is a theme for a separate future article.
 Every man from age 18 has an obligation to complete military service and this obligation lasts until the age of 27. In Russia, the military service is still a threat to many young Russians and their parents, most of all because of widespread hazing. One of the legal opportunities to avoid the military service is emigration; amongst illegal options are bribes in order to obtain a medical certificate that attests the person’s inability to fulfil this duty.
Liudmila Kopecka is a PhD candidate and lecturer at i.a. the Faculty of Humanities, Charles Univeristy in Prague. Her research focuses on the migration of students from Russia and Kazakhstan to the Czech Republic. Furthermore Liudmila is a documentary maker and freelance journalist, writing and making radio-documentaries mainly about migration issues. Within the IMISCOE PhD network she was one of the initiators and organizers of the first IMISCOE PhD workshop in 2015.