After fleeing war in Ukraine, many African and Asian students are relocating to Georgia

After fleeing war in Ukraine, many African and Asian students are relocating to Georgia

Ahammed Nashath, photographed here outside the Abo of Tbilisi monument in the Georgian capital on 2 March 2023, is one of over 25,000 international students currently studying in the South Caucasian nation.

(Jobin Koshy)

Megha Krishna, a 23-year-old student from India, was in her third year at Ternopil National Medical University in Ukraine, when on 24 February 2022, Russia invaded the country. “The war started the day before my birthday. This was very unfortunate. Every day before my birthday, I’ll remember that traumatic event,” she says.

Krishna is one of the approximately 18,000 Indian students (according to Ukrainian government data from 2021) who had chosen Ukraine for their undergraduate studies before the war broke out. “The first option for me was Ukraine,” she tells Equal Times. “The study [programme] was very good, and I felt really comfortable there.”

Krishna never imagined that one day she would have to flee the country due to a war. Even though there were warnings about a possible Russian invasion in early 2022, Krishna says that she didn’t fully grasp the seriousness of the situation.

“My friends and I were in our apartment, and we didn’t know what was happening outside. Our families called us and that’s when we came to know that there was shelling and moved to bunkers,” she recounts.

Fearing that she would not survive the war if she stayed in Ukraine, Krishna immediately headed to the Romanian border. “We had to stay at the border for three days in really cold weather.” Unlike a number of African and Asian students who have spoken out about their experiences of racism while trying to flee Ukraine, Krishna says that her main issue was the sheer volume of people trying to reach safety: “ We had a hard time crossing the border because it was extremely crowded.”

Eventually Krishna was able to enter Romania, where she spent a few days in a shelter, before being repatriated to her home state of Kerala in India. From there, she started exploring alternative options to continue her studies abroad.

“I took a one year break and then I heard that Georgia was inviting transfer students. I knew that the education quality there was really good so I didn’t hesitate about moving here,” says Krishna, who enrolled at Caucasus University (CU) this March.

CU is one of the leading private universities in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Kakha Shengelia, the president of the CU says that the latest developments in Ukraine have been a game-changer for higher education in Georgia.
“More than 500 students have transferred to our university from Ukraine following the war. They mainly come to our medical school, but there are students in other faculties such as business, international relations, IT and psychology,” Shengelia tells Equal Times.

According to data published in 2023 by the National Statistics Office of Georgia, the number of foreign students in Georgia’s both public and private universities has almost doubled from around 14,000 from before the war to just over 25,000 today.

Ukraine: a long history of international students

Ukraine was home to some of the leading universities in the former USSR. Renowned for its high-quality science programmes in particular, many African and Asian students have chosen to study in Ukraine since the 1960s.
Promoting Ukraine’s higher education at an international level remained a key priority for the country’s Ministry of Education and Science following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The government made significant investments in the sector and offered flexible terms to those who could not afford expensive European and American universities.

According to Ukrainian government data from 2021, Ukraine was home to over 76,000 foreign students out of a total student population of just over 1.1 million. The majority, about 24 per cent, came from India, followed by Morocco at 12 per cent. Ukraine was also increasingly popular among students from countries like Nigeria and Algeria, as well as maintaining its popularity with students from other post-Soviet nations, such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

Chinenye Ejikeme, a 21-year-old student from Nigeria, arrived in Georgia this March, but in 2019 she decided to earn her undergraduate medical degree in Ukraine. With low course prices and an affordable environment, Ukraine proved to be the most suitable option for her.

“I wanted to study in the US, but I was denied a student visa. So, my parents told me they knew some people in Ukraine who studied medicine there. The prices were low, the quality of education was really good, and so I said: ‘Alright, I will study in Ukraine,’” Chinenye says.

Ukraine’s affordable prices (an estimated three to four times cheaper than the average EU course cost for international students) were also the main reason why 22-year-old Ahammed Nashath from India decided to go to Ukraine. “Ukraine was the best option for me due to the cost,” he says.

In addition to offering affordable courses and a high standard of education in various fields, Ukraine’s favourable location had a special appeal to international students. Ukraine’s proximity to both Europe and parts of Asia opened up opportunities for students to travel and explore diverse cultures.

Georgia: affordable fees and high-quality education

While Ukraine’s universities have remained open since the Russian invasion, there has been significant disruption, with many courses moving to online learning and some faculties transferring to other sites and universities in safer parts of the country. As a result, thousands of foreign students have sought to continue their studies elsewhere, with a significant number of international students formerly based in Ukraine opting to make their way to Georgia.

“Georgia is extremely attractive for its low prices,” says Shengelia from the CU. “It is not just the courses that are relatively inexpensive, but also the cost of living is low. The climate is good, people are hospitable here, and the food is delicious,” he says.
There are currently 62 universities in Georgia, 43 of which are private. While prices in Georgia vary according to universities, foreign students at CU pay between US$5 000 to US$6,500 depending on the programme, which is four and five times lower than fees at European universities.

Giorgi Svanidze is the manager of the international department at David Tvildiani Medical University, the leading medical school in Georgia. Currently, over 50 per cent of their students come from different countries, mostly from India and Nigeria.

“Our university is attractive because the quality of education is very high. Upon graduation, students must pass licensing exams in their home countries. Our graduates have a 99 per cent success rate in these exams. They tell each other about it, and that’s how our university has become so popular,” Svanidze says.

Georgia was also quick to offer flexible visa terms and entrance procedures for students who desperately needed a place to continue their studies after fleeing Ukraine. Chinenye says it was difficult to apply to other universities due to the unavailability of some documents.

“We had to expel ourselves from Ukrainian universities to get transcripts. Since we weren’t sure if we could get into another university, we didn’t want to do this. This university in Georgia didn’t require transcripts, they allowed us to show electronic journals. This was very helpful,” she says.

Initially it was not so easy for foreign students to get into Georgian universities. Many had to go through a long and arduous process to get a visa. “In the beginning, there were some barriers and unfortunately, we lost many students because of this. Initially, it took 3-4 months to get a visa, but now they can finish these procedures in a few weeks,” Shengelia says.

Low rankings

Although foreign students from various developing countries are increasingly interested in Georgian higher education, local universities are far from being considered amongst the world’s best. Only two Georgian universities made the most recent Times Higher Education World University Rankings of 1799 universities across 104 countries, and neither one is amongst the top 1,000.

Some education experts say that the reason that Georgian universities don’t appear in top global rankings is not because of low quality but because of limited research. “Our universities are weak in this regard. They do not conduct as much research as many Western universities,” says Siko Janashia, a Georgia-based education researcher. But as Janashia points out: “Georgia’s higher education system is involved in the Bologna Process [an intergovernmental higher education reform process, that harmonises various systems of European higher education]. Students can move up to a higher level in the West, making it easier for them to continue their professional journey there.”

However, Ghia Nodia, a former minister of education and science in Georgia, isn’t as positive. “The majority of Georgian universities are quite weak. There are a few universities with modern systems, but this does not mean higher education in Georgia is of high quality,” he says. Nodia argues that while Western universities have established standards, in Georgia “a lot depends on the personality of the lecturer,” with some performing better than others.