While governing politicians and officials at the Ministry of Education and Science try to dodge the question with vague statements about the need for reform and optimization, experts interviewed by LRT all agree that Lithuania must radically cut the number of higher education institutions in order to focus resources and raise the quality of instruction.
Moreover, the government has all the tools it needs to implement the reforms, but no governing party or politician has the will to take on the responsibility.
President Dalia Grybauskaitė has said that Lithuania cannot afford the luxury of funding 45 higher education institutions and 1,800 study programmes. The EU average, she added, was five universities per population of one million.
"We risk becoming an illiterate nation with university diplomas," Grybauskaitė said.
In her annual state of the nation address this year, the president pointed out two important problems: the poor quality of secondary education and students studying in sub-standard universities.
The problem receives its five minutes of spotlight each year, when universities and colleges announce their admission results. This year, 82 study programmes failed to attract a single student - either because none applied or those who did apply did not meet basic entry requirements.
Back in 2009, the previous government of conservatives and liberals implemented a higher education reform which was meant to introduce more market-like competition into the system. Funding for public universities and schools was linked to the number of students via the so-called student basket system. Each student would bring her "basket" of money to the school she enrolled at.
This, the Ministry of Education led at the time by liberal Gintaras Steponavičius thought, would relieve the government of the duty to decide which universities should close and which ones should stay. Students themselves would pick best schools and those that enrolled few - and, consequently, received less funding - would be forced to close down or merge.
Seven years after the reform, the number of students went down - mostly because the country's population has contracted - but not colleges and universities. In 2010, 45,000 students graduated from secondary schools and is going down each year, with estimates putting the number at a little over 20,000 in 2020. Meanwhile there are still 45 colleges and universities.
Lithuania spends a bigger share of its GDP on education than most other EU countries, but employers constantly complain about shortages of skilled labour and not a single Lithuanian university is ranked among the top schools in Europe. Public funds spent on education are used inefficiently and instead of being an investment into the country's future are merely a drain on its resources.
"Weak students, weak lecturers, uncompetitive environment - all this leads to the situation where schools are slowly going bankrupt. Does the state benefit from the slow bankruptcy? I don't think so. It's simply a sign of the lack of political will and sense," says Professor Paulius Subačius of Vilnius University's Faculty of Philology.
After Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union and was laying institutional foundations of the state, it agreed to grant wide autonomy to universities which were to provide an important public service.
Over the years, however, interests of public higher education institutions diverged from the public interest. The state is interested in quality education and an optimal use of resources, which are better spent on fewer universities and, perhaps, fewer students. Meanwhile the interest of the education institutions is to survive.
"The state has all the tools in its hands to make sure that public universities function normally, that diplomas issued by them have some value," Subačius says.
The problem, he continues, is that the schools still receive a big chunk of their funding irrespectively of whether they teach any students or not.
"Over the last five or six years, some universities lost half or even more of their students, but the state still gives them the same funding for property maintenance and administration. So we end up with universities supported by taxpayer money with walls, rector and dean offices, but without any students or teachers," Subačius says.
Rokas Grajauskas, chief analyst at Danske Bank, says that the 2009 reform was a step in the right direction, but did not go far enough.
"The reform in 2009, when we introduced the principle of student baskets, was essentially a step in the right direction, since it introduced some competition and universities had to compete for students.
"Lately, however, we have moved away from the system, both because of generous EU money and fixed state funding as well as money intended for administration and property maintenance. The latter, in fact, has grown considerably in recent years, universities have effectively lobbied the state to give them public money.
"The parliament and the government have finally grasped the difficulty of the situation and, on June 29, adopted a new law on education which does away with the funding specifically for administration and maintenance," Grajauskas says.
Rolandas Zuoza, deputy Minister of Education and Science, confirms that, under the new law, there will no longer be any funding for universities independent from student enrolment.
Another upset for the universities that survive on money other than from the "student baskets" will be the end of the EU's current financial period in 2020, after which Lithuania expects funding from Brussels to dry up significantly.
In some schools, funding from the EU and state grants for property maintenance and administration make up more than half of their budget. This will no longer be possible under the new law, Zuoza says.
"Starting on January 1 next year, funding for universities for property maintenance and administration will be indexed to the number of students. It will not be possible for a university to have several hundred students and an administration staff of 300 or 400," according to the deputy minister.
However, the law does not clearly define the new funding formula, other than specifying that part of the current basic funding will be added to the "student baskets". How big a part will be up to the government and the minister of education who will specify it in a decree. The new scheme should come into effect with the new financial year, in January 2017.
The changes, experts say, could have been adopted long ago, since there have long been ample evidence that Lithuania does not need as many universities to educate its dwindling young generation. Essentially, the state was not funding education, but heating empty lecture halls.
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