Journalists and education experts criticise the trends in Lithuania‘s institutions of higher education, which in turn criticise journalists and experts who talk about the bad aspects only, but never see the good ones.
© DELFI (R. Achmedovo nuotr.)

Today I am going to try and take a look at a really positive, albeit small aspect, yet one one I‘d like to see get much bigger. I‘m talking about the number of foreign students who are studying in Lithuania, a number that is slowly, but visibly growing.

In 2003, the number of foreign students amounted to half the percentage of students in Lithuania. Today they make up almost 4,5%. In simple terms, there are about five thousand foreign students in Lithuania‘s higher education institutions and in the last two years, their number has increased by one thousand. What‘s more, Lithuanian universities and colleges offer almost 400 study programmes taught in English and Russian.

Universities most popular with foreign students are the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences, where 10 percent of the student body are international students. Then follows Kaunas University of Technology which has about 500 foreign students. The third is Vilnius Gediminas Technical University with approximately 400 foreign students.

What‘s noticeable when looking at the statistics is that Vilnius University has a very small number of foreign students. This is not something very positive, because foreign students are of huge benefit to each university; they make each university extend their university community, prevent higher education institutions from becoming provincial and broaden considerably the perspectives of Lithuanain students.

There are changes in the geography of students, too. If ten years ago there were a lot of young people from Azerbaijan, Russia, Nigeria and Lebanon studying in Lithuanian universities and colleges, then the proportions have changed significantly. At least in our major universities there are now quite a few students from Sweden, Germany, Israel, Spain or India. That shows that on an international scale, several of our institutes of higher education or at least their study programmes are highly rated.

What's important is that these days foreign students could most certainly be the salvation of our colleges and universities. Given the dismal demographic situation we are in and realising that the number of our graduates has been dropping successively for five years now, it would be wise to increase the foreign student contingent both in our universities and vocational schools. That would kill several birds with one stone, because foreign students would give some dignity to these institutions in that they wouldn‘t have to accept mediocre applicants just to fill the spots.

Second, foreign students would allow our colleges and universities to earn some money, because the vast majority of these students pay full fees and do not think that they are paying a lot. In other words, the quality of eduction in relation to the fees is very much in their favour. Third, most foreign students would enrich each higher education institution with a sense of a wider outlook, would be of value to Lithuanian students and introduce a new circle of people to know.

That's why some of our universities and colleges have already wisely set themselves the goal of having foreign student share of 15 or even 20 percent. This would be of great benefit to these institutions and maybe even elevate them to a higher level. The universities and colleges of the Netherlands and Denmark have managed to achieve this, and so can ours.

What‘s needed then is great effort and hard work. Just sitting around and waiting for foreign students to come to us will mean that we and our universities and colleges will see much fewer of them. Yet by promoting and advertising our universities and colleges abroad, promoting their merits at international educational exhibitions and by sending specialists in international relations who excel to the actual universities and colleges, a breakthough and astoundingly good results can be achieved. And in ten years time, 15 to 20 percent contingent of foreign students in some of our universities can no longer seem like pipe dream.

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Gintaras Sarafinas is chief editor of the magazine Reitingai. The commentary was read out on the Žinių Radijas radio.

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