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Student migration from Cental Asia to Russia: the case of Tomsk

Scientific organization
National Reseach Tomsk State University
Academic degree
Scientific discipline
Humanities & Social sciences
Student migration from Cental Asia to Russia: the case of Tomsk
Tomsk is–one of the leading scientific and educational centers of Russia,which attracts international foreign youth and that is what makes of consideration the study of student migration from the Central Asia republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the city relevant.It is also of relevance due to the fact that students from these Republics take leading positions among foreign students.Youth represents a mobile group of migrants that, can easily adapt to to the host society and yet communicate with home society which is, in our opinion, indicative of "transmigration" taking place.
Central Asia, student migration, transmigration

Studying student migration can ensure a broad understanding of various processes and mechanisms associated with it such as support for and interaction with international students, study programmes of interest to these students and learning process, economic benefits from student migration for the state, strategies of adaptation and integration of migrant students which is closely connected with the host society’s demographic issues. 

For the first time, the notion of ‘educational migration’, which is largely a synonym of the term ‘student migration’, has been introduced at a state level in the Concept of Russian Federation Migration Policy Development until 2025. It should be noted, though, that these two terms do differ to a degree. According to the typology of migration developed by L.L. Rybakovskiy, which is based on specific characteristics such as geography, structure, period of stay and purposes, ‘educational migration’ is different from ‘student migration’ in the sense that it is a broader term used for migration for educational purposes in general including – apart from undergraduate and graduate students – postgraduate students (doctoral students), post-doctoral researchers, and visitors for other educational purposes. In turn, ‘student migration’ is used to denote a migration flow that emerges based on the preconditions created for students willing to get a bachelor, master, or specialist degree in a given country.        

In legal terms, student migration is regulated, with no mention of that particular term, however, by a number of legislative documents, namely ‘On the terms of entry to and departure from the Russian Federation’, ‘On the legal status of foreign citizens in the Russian Federation’, and ‘On citizenship of the Russian Federation’.   

The processes referred to above have by now been quite well studied. Worth noting in this regard are works by L.L. Rybakovskiy, A.L. Arefiev, F.E. Sheregi, G.S. Vitkovskaya, A.P. Katrovskiy, L.I. Ledenyov, E.V. Tyuryukanova, D.V. Poletaev, S.V. Dementieva, etc. Along with quantitative methods, which most modern research builds upon, qualitative methods used chiefly in socio-anthropological research are believed to be of much importance as well.  Qualitative methods, for example, were used by analyst of the Centre for Institutional Research at Higher School of Economics (Moscow) D.S. Drozhzhina in a case study of international students of Tomsk. We agree with the key methodological point made by her, namely ‘it is important to get an idea of how adaptation process is developing rather than to get a result indicative of a certain moment in time’.

Having analyzed the body of work mentioned above, we came to a conclusion that no one of the authors, apart from B.I. Rakisheva and D.V. Poletaev, has studied migrant students coming from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan as a separate category of migrants. Thus, our objective was to look at student migration from these two countries to Tomsk, with a particular emphasis on communities of Kazakh and Kyrgyz students as a part of the city space, namely to study their adaptation practices and self-identification. 

The city of Tomsk is one of the largest centres of science and education in Russia. It attracts a lot of international students from the CIS (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) and other countries of the world which makes it a unique ‘field’ for researching student migration.

The anthropology and sociology of migration tend to pay greater attention to labour migration whereas Russian researchers study student migration largely with regard to secondary education which is, again, associated with research on labour migration where labour migrants’ children are in focus but from a slightly different perspective. Yet, there has recently been a proliferation of theories dealing with intensely globalized realities and of the notion of transnationalism aiming to bridge the gap between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ which are of great interest in the context of our research.  

Our view is that student migration in higher education, with all the specificities of this kind of migration due to regional and local contexts of the two countries under study and the city of Tomsk, and cultural characteristics of migrants themselves – all taken into account, constitutes a phenomenon which can be studied through the lens of transnationalism. We believe that the two concepts mentioned above are comparable and in many respects equivalent and this is what we tried to reflect in our work. We, thus, drew on the body of literature on transnationalism studied within the anthropology of migration.    

It is noteworthy that Nina Glick Schiller’s theoretical framework for ‘transnationalism’ as a mobile category with ‘flexible’ adaptation background has not been applied to studying student migration before and, in our view, it is of great interest with regard to studying migrant students from an anthropological perspective.

Moreover, the very term ‘migration’ needs to be looked at. The International Organization for Migration Glossary defines migration as “the movement of a person or a group of persons, either across an international border, or within a State...for different purposes”. Student migration from the already independent republics, undoubtedly, meets the ‘conventional’ criteria of migration set in the study of this phenomenon. Many people can be called migrants whereas student migration involves a specific group of migrants. Thus, one could assume that student migration outside the context of communities which create a certain discourse about it does not exist. And if we erase all the boundaries and frames concerning student migration, migrant students themselves as a community will cease to exist. However, we know that every year flows of students enter Russia from the CIS countries to study at Russian universities. It is for this reason, as was found out earlier, that among international students from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in Tomsk there are those who do not identify themselves with migrant students at the levels at which they are defined as such by academia or the host society’s legislation. This has driven us into looking at these people through the prism of transnationalism. 

Apart from sources and literature, of great importance for an anthropological study is empirical, field material itself. Over the last two years, from 2014 to 2016, there was fieldwork carried out by us in the Republic of Kazakhstan which included collection of information in the form of expert interviews, interviews with prospective students who had been planning to study at Tomsk, and of some relevant photo materials. In parallel, the fieldwork was being done in the city of Tomsk where a number of interviews were taken with students from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan studying at Tomsk and with graduates of Tomsk universities who after graduation have stayed in the city, as well as with employees at organizations responsible for registering foreign citizens at the place of stay in Russia and with representatives of university divisions dealing with international students. There were also expert interviews taken with the leaders of Tomsk national-cultural organization ‘Kyrgyzstan’ for a multifaceted analysis of factors of identity transformation in students from different ethnic backgrounds through transnational networks. We also collected material in the form of thematic structured interviews with Kyrgyz students. To search for possible transnational networks, 100 social media ‘VKontakte’ accounts of migrant students were analyzed. Apart from interviewing, in the first half of 2015 fieldwork was carried out at student dormitories in Tomsk focused on the phenomenon of student parcel and building of migrant students’ community, drawing on the Actor-Network Theory (ANT).      

As a result, we concluded that CIS students, namely from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, that study at Tomsk constitute ‘transnational’ communities which form networks of students – ‘transmigrants’. This approach allows analyze the ‘new’ type of migrants that encapsulates life motivations, values and rules of behaviour received from both the host and home countries without being assimilated in the recipient society or losing connection to the donor society which is facilitated by modern technology development and the Internet and which can be applied in the study of adaptation and integration processes among international students of Tomsk through the prism of transnational networks.