Plans for a major shake-up of Lithuanian higher education are underway as the country struggles to stem the tide of talent leaving the Baltic state to study and work abroad.
The ‘brain drain’ is a common factor for many of the ‘newer’ European Union member states as more and more students take advantage of the free movement of labour in the region and move to countries offering better job prospects.
Figures from UNESCO's Global Flow of Tertiary-level Students data, published at the end of 2012, show that 8,230 Lithuanian students were studying abroad, with nearly half at British and German universities.
In contrast, just 2,973 foreign students were studying in Lithuania – and 2,113 of those were from neighbouring Belarus, with many at the exiled European Humanities University, which moved to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius after it was closed down by Belarusian authorities in 2004.
“Retaining talent is one of our most pressing problems along with demographic changes”, said Nijole Bulotaite, spokesperson for Vilnius University – the country’s oldest seat of learning, which dates back to 1579 when it was one of the strongest universities in Medieval Europe.
“Competition is growing from foreign universities for the best students; and we’re not attracting talent from outside, partly because the quality of our higher education system is unknown to the rest of the world and also because third country students have to leave the country after graduation. They are not given time to find a job.”
Between 2002 and 2012 outward mobility of Lithuanian students doubled and many feel it will go on rising as the weak economy and low wages at home encourage the brightest to consider moving abroad.
Politicians and academic and business leaders are increasingly aware of the need to act. At the end of last year they came together for a round table discussion on the future of higher education in Lithuania initiated by the European Investment Bank Institute.
Dr Margarita Starkeviciute, a former member of the European Parliament (2004-09), was among the key organisers.
Now carrying out research into managing imbalances, global governance reform and EU economic policy, Starkeviciute said: “Experts agreed that Lithuanian higher education needs tighter quality control combined with greater flexibility to react to change and new teaching technology.”
But that’s just for starters, the country’s Vice-Minister of Education and Science Dr Rimantas Vaitkus told University World News.
He is promoting major reforms to Lithuanian higher education, which will include re-focusing the sector’s priorities to support economic recovery and the needs of the labour market – with the likelihood of mergers between higher education institutions to create what he hopes will be stronger universities able to compete globally.
“Right now we are working on revision to the Law on Higher Education. The main idea is to change the governance model by introducing performance-based agreements to ensure better management of public funding and the strategic development of the higher educational system in Lithuania.
“We also want higher education institutions to focus their activities and profiles to strengthen development in advanced areas and to guarantee better access to higher education by reducing the number of fee-paying students through more students being subsidised by the state,” said the vice-minister.
With nearly 160,000 students, Lithuania moved to a mass higher education system over the last 15 years and now has one of the highest participation and graduation rates in Europe.
Business concerns of a ‘mismatch’
But Lithuania’s business community has publicly expressed its concerns about the mismatch between the quality of the skills provided by universities and the requirements of a highly competitive economy.
In a report from the round table discussions last year, Starkeviciute pointed out that historically Lithuania’s industry was based on the mechanical, chemical, electronic and biological sectors and universities had well established technical science and engineering programmes interlinked with research centres and the requirements of industry, and were able to deliver high quality knowledge to students.
“But during the transition from a centralised economy to a market economy, structural changes and insufficient investment in education and research meant the significance of these programmes was diminished,” Starkeviciute told University World News.
New generic courses were launched mainly related to business administration, and today almost 47% of Lithuanian students study social science, business and law – compared to the EU average of 34% – and maths and computing only attract 5% and 10% respectively.
“It is generally accepted that programmes in technical science should be expanded as professors and research facilities are still available, while the number of business administration programmes should be scaled back. But technical science programmes are not so popular among students.
“It is also difficult to predict future developments in the labour market with the rapidly changing economy. The growth of digitalisation, new technologies and global competition creates a lot of uncertainty,” said Starkeviciute.
Vaitkus largely agrees with the analysis, and said: “We have some fields of study and research that are world-class, such as biotechnology, biochemistry, laser physics, informatics and medicine and many of our university professors have had training outside Lithuania through study grants, research grants, post-docs, or even had their education in Western universities.”
But despite these strengths, and having one of the largest number of students per thousand inhabitants in Europe, Vaitkus said Lithuania’s 14 state universities and 13 state colleges (polytechnics) are far too many for a small nation of three million inhabitants.
Mergers are expected to be a key part of the reform package, Vaitkus told University World News, saying: “Due to the demographic situation, for some universities the merger process will be unavoidable.”
An external expert review group formed several years ago to look at the Vilnius and Kaunas universities network has already recommended that there should be one university in the capital Vilnius and one in Lithuania’s second city Kaunas by 2017.
Vaitkus said: “This proposal was broadly and actively discussed in public, but so far no action has been taken. But Kaunas Medical University and the Academy of Veterinary have already merged, and it’s working quite well. That merger was done with financial support from the European Social Fund.”
While encouraging Lithuanian higher education to play to its traditional strengths and the needs of the economy, Vaitkus also wants more to be done to widen access. At present 50% of young people without tertiary education do not have jobs compared with a graduate employment rate of 82%.
Chief among his proposals is to expand fee-waivers. The state already pays the fees for the brightest school-leavers, but tuition fees paid by home (and EU) students vary between €1,000 and €5,300 (US$1,350 and US$7,200) per year for bachelor studies – with the average fee equivalent of three months wages in Lithuania.
Vaitkus is proposing that more students should be granted fee-waivers by the state – providing that higher education institutions rationalise the large number of programmes that have been developed in recent years, which he feels is not an effective use of resources.
“At present, around 48% of first cycle students are paying fees, mostly students from social sciences,” he told University World News.
The vice-minister also wants more international collaboration and says: “More needs to be done to encourage foreign students to Lithuanian universities. We have some financial schemes to support non-EU students, usually based on agreements between countries.
“Universities and colleges also have their own funding for developing bilateral cooperation. But taking into consideration our plans for increasing the number of international students we should introduce more friendly financial support schemes.”
He said there were no plans to increase fees for non-EU students and expected a “positive influence” from the new Erasmus+ programme.
More study programmes are being taught in either English or Russian and new joint study programmes are being introduced. Lithuanian universities are also marketing themselves at international study fairs.
Since 2011, there has also been support from Lithuania’s Ministry of Education and Science for masters degree studies for students from Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Ukraine.
Vaitkus said the ministry was also proposing changes to the Law on Legal Status of Foreigners and discussing changes to residence permits to create “better possibilities to find a job after graduation”.
The EUPRIO blog ‘Spotlight on Lithuania’:
* Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant who regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He was runner-up in the UK Education Journalism 2013 Awards for Outstanding Online Education Commentary.
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