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Spotlight on Lithuania

Lithuania’s capital Vilnius holds a soft spot in the folklore of EUPRIO members for we held our 2006 annual conference there, the first in Eastern Europe. Now, having just played a key role in plotting the future path of the EU, it is timely for our latest blog from Nic Mitchell to shine the spotlight on trends in Lithuania’s higher education system.

Lithuanian flagLITHUANIA has been at the heart of the action recently, chairing vital talks as the European Union edged step by step towards approving its budget for the next six years.

Holding the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union, Lithuania was responsible for the functioning of the Council of the European Union – the upper house of the EU legislature from July to December 2013 – and helped to steer the Multiannual Financial Framework, or budget for 2014-2020, through to European Parliamentary approval in November.

Thankfully funds are flowing again for vital European higher education and research projects such as the Erasmus+ student mobility scheme and the all-important Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

So, well done Lithuania, a country of three million across the Baltic Sea from Sweden, with Latvia to the north, Belarus to the east; and Poland and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to the south and west.

Moving to a mass HE system

Delegates to EUPRIO's 2006 conference at Vilnius University

Delegates to EUPRIO’s 2006 conference at Vilnius University

With most of its 160,000 students at 14 state and nine private universities, Lithuania has moved to a mass higher education over the last 15 years. More than 60% of high school leavers now go on to higher education, making it one of the leaders in Europe in terms of higher education participation – and the graduation rate is one of the highest in the EU.

There are also 13 state research institutions and five integrated science and business centres. Public expenditure on research and development accounts for 0.92% of GDP, and Lithuania has already met the EU’s Strategy for Growth 2020 target with 49% of 30 to 34 year-olds having completed tertiary education, compared with an European Union average of only 37%.

Tuition fees are very low for home and EU-students, and the brightest can study for free at public universities. However, the Ministry of Education is looking again at the financing of higher education in the New Year.
Non-EU students and those having to pay are currently charged between €1,150 to €5,200 a year, with the most expensive courses being odontology, design, music and pilot-training.

So all’s well, is it?

Not really, despite 82% of graduates having jobs, compared with less than 50% of young Lithuanians with only secondary education.

The economy is still struggling to recover from the economic turndown and many of the country’s brightest talent are heading abroad.

Brain drain

According to UNESCO’s Global Flow of Tertiary-level Students, published at the end of 2012, Lithuania had 8,230 mobile students studying abroad while it hosted just 2,973 students from other countries, with the largest number crossing the border from Belarus.

Nearly half of the outbound students head for the UK or Germany, but sizeable numbers are studying in Russia, Poland and Denmark.

“Retaining talent is one of our most pressing problems along with demographical changes. Competition is growing from foreign universities for the best students”, said Nijole Bulotaite, head of the information and press office at Vilnius University – the country’s oldest seat of learning – and the Lithuanian representative on EUPRIO’s Steering Committee.

“We’re not attracting talent from outside, partly because the quality of its 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 2002-2012 the mobility of Lithuanian students doubled; and many observers believe the number of Lithuanians studying abroad will go on rising as the economic situation, lower salaries and high percentage of unemployment are not strengthening the country’s competitiveness.

Facing-up to problems

But it appears that academics and political leaders are starting to face-up to the problems facing the country’s higher education system, with calls for tighter quality control and greater flexibility.

Dr Margarita Starkeviciute, a Lithuanian politician and former member of the European Parliament (2004-09), is among the more vocal.

She has returned to academia to teach macroeconomic analysis at Vilnius University and carry out research into managing imbalances, global governance reform and EU economic policy and recently helped to stage a round table debate on the future of Higher Education in Lithuania initiated by the European Investment Bank Institute. Experts from across the sector came together and the results of their deliberations have just been published. (A)

Quality control

The round table discussions highlighted quality control as a major factor holding back the sector, with many experts saying that despite a centralised evaluation system ‘there is no common definition of quality’ and the HE system is not flexible enough to react to change or new teaching technology.

The report said: “Quality control and management systems at a national and university level are opaque and complex. Debate on reform and a long-term strategy is well advanced and there are solid proposals (on) how to improve the situation. Problems arise with implementation.

“A permanent discussion forum involving parents, teachers, civic society, businessmen, academic society and so (on) is needed to discuss new challenges and developments.”

Dr Starkeviciute said many academic leaders also want a discussion about the relevance and social value of mass higher education compared to the previous elite system.

“We need to ensure higher quality in the medium term, including looking at a differentiated system of higher education and the need for matching/selectivity between students and courses.”

Encouraging entrepreneurship to further innovation and developing problem solving skills in graduates are also seen as important.

Human capital

Clearly, for a small country like Lithuania, with few natural resources, developing human capital is vital to improving its economic competitiveness.

But Lithuania’s business community has already publicly expressed its concerns about the mismatch between the quality of the skills provided by universities and the requirements of highly competitive economy.

Dr Starkeviciute’s report points 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 there was under investment and the significance of these programmes was diminished. 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 34% in EU27, and maths and computing only attracts 5% and 10% respectively.

“There is a generally accepted opinion 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 labour market with the rapidly changing economy. The growth of digitalization, new technologies and global competition creates a lot of uncertainty,” said Dr Starkeviciute.

Her report also acknowledges that the sector is being urged to invest in people already in the workforce through an expansion of lifelong learning opportunities and to attract private funds to improve the skills, qualifications and competencies required by Lithuanian companies. At present, only 7% of employees aged 25-64 are participating in lifelong learning, compared with 33% in Denmark, 26% in Finland and 24% in Sweden.

Strengths

Trakai Castle, former capital of Lithuania

Trakai Castle, former capital of Lithuania

Despite the challenges, Lithuania has a number of clear strengths which, to date, it has not shouted about. Vilnius University is one of the oldest higher education establishments in Eastern and Central Europe, dating back to 1579, and the country is a relatively cheap place to be an international student, with nearly 90% of students housed in reasonably priced student halls.

As mentioned, Lithuania still retains considerable strengths in terms of professors and research facilities in scientific areas, even if home demand for these has decreased in recent times – and tuition is free for the best home and EU students (at least for the moment).

Rankings

But globally only four Lithuanian institutions are currently in the top 800 best universities in the world rankings – Vilnius University, Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, Vytautas Magnus University and Kaunas University of Technology (KTU). Vilnius University achieved the best spot, being listed in the 601-650 bracket!

While investment in education overall is better than the EU average, the large number of young people going into higher education – 54 students per 1,000 inhabitants – means that public investment per student is modest at €2,000 (half the EU27 average).

So, how can Lithuanian universities improve their brand in the middle of an economic crisis that is hitting every part of the EU?
One idea suggested in Dr Starkeviciute’s report is by streamlining and ‘promoting specialisation’.

Higher education is being encouraged to review quality measurement systems to take account of the requirements of the international rankings, which up to now have been largely ignored, and to take more account of “business community opinion and labour market needs”, says Dr Starkeviciute.

Communications

EUPRIO members will be interested to hear that university experts interviewed by Dr Starkeviciute also felt that a better designed communication strategy was needed to maintain and enhance trust in the quality of Lithuanian higher education among young people and help to retain talent in the country.

Nijole Bulotaite agrees, and says: “Improving communications and making Lithuanian universities better known to foreign students are clearly part of the answer. But so far attempts have been fragmented, with each university marketing itself more or less separately.

“However, a recent successful project ‘Study in Lithuania’ might make it easier to market our country’s higher education as a brand. Lithuanian universities are also planning to increase the number of courses taught in English and will be highlighting the country’s leading position in fields, such as laser physics and biotechnology, to try to attract more foreign talent.

“There is also a need to improve the post-study working environment for international students who want to stay and work in Lithuania after they graduate.”

So does this mean more money will be invested in branding and communications?

We’ll have to wait and see, but at least Lithuania is facing-up to the challenges of competing in the increasingly competitive international HE environment.

Links:

UNESCO Institute for Statistics Global Flow of Tertiary-Level Students: http://www.uis.unesco.org/EDUCATION/Pages/international-student-flow-viz.aspx
Study in Lithuania: http://www.studyinlithuania.com/faq-study-in-lithuania

Reference

(A) ‘Future of Higher Education in Lithuania’ – Dr Margarita Starkeviciute, October 2013.

Words: Nic Mitchell
Photographs from Vilnius University