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Can brain drain become brain gain for Lithuania?

Internationalisation is a key issue across European higher education. But it is often seen as a way to boost university revenue by attracting fee-paying students from abroad or recruiting foreign students to vital, but less popular science or engineering courses, writes NIC MITCHELL.

But what happens to countries exporting their talent, particularly countries like Lithuania which are struggling to enrol sufficient numbers of bright students because of high levels of migration and a falling birth rate.

It is an issue we briefly touched on in one of EUPRIO’s first ‘Spotlight on…’ blogs  about 15 months ago, see here. Then we looked at how Lithuania, and universities like Vilnius – where we held out 2006 conference (pictured) – were trying to adapt to increased competition from abroad for the best students.

'Worst predictions are a 40% fall in gradudates' - Ilona Kazlauskaite

‘Worst predictions are a 40% fall in gradudates’ – Ilona Kazlauskaite

We considered the challenges again during an  Innsbruck conference last year at a workshop led by Ilona Kazlauskaite from Lithuania’s Education Exchanges Support Foundation. This looked at the global challenges facing all three Baltic states.

I spoke to Ilona while doing research for the BBC’s Knowledge Economy series.  She told me: “The worst predictions are that the number of graduates will fall by 40% by 2023 compared to 2009 if nothing is done.”

For the BBC piece, I talked to students, politicians and academics and Lithuania’s long-serving Steering Committee member, Nijolė Bulotaitė, the spokeswoman at Vilnius University.

Nijolė said: “Retaining talent is one of our most pressing problems along with demographical changes.”

How to turn a brain drain into a brain gain?

Easing visa restrictions for graduates who want to stay and work in the country where they’ve studied is one obvious answer – and Lithuania is far from being alone in coming up with this one.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are also working together to market themselves to new countries as a Baltic brand; and they are having some success, albeit starting from a very low base.

In Lithuania’s case, the latest data shows them hosting 4,618 foreign students in 2014. This is up from 3,798 in 2012. Many students are from nearby Belarus and Russia, but growth markets include Ukraine, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Germany. Students from India rose from just 57 in 2012 to 357 last year.

More mobile students are heading abroad

UNESCO’s Global Flow of Tertiary-level Students shows 12,364 Lithuanians studying abroad out of a student population of 160,000. That’s one in every 14 students!

The UK is by far their favourite destination with just under 5,000 Lithuanian students. A further 1,573 are in Danish universities, where tuition is free for all EU students.

Lithuania saw high levels of emigration after it joined the European Union in 2004. Together with the halving of the birth rate from 1991 to 2004, it all means a lack of 19 and 20 year-olds today. This is hurting not just the universities but also efforts to boost economic recovery.

So, what is to be done?

Well apart from trying to recruit more international students, the Vice-Minister for Education and Sciences, Dr Rimantas Vaitkus, told me: “Despite falling student numbers more government money is going into higher education and better cooperation between universities is being encouraged to foster possible mergers.”

He also wants stop the brain drain and support brain gain by encouraging talented Lithuanians working abroad to return on a short-term basis to teach at Lithuanian universities.

“The ratio of brain drain and brain gain depends on the economic situation and now we’re part of the Euro we hope more of our graduates will come back and find jobs in Lithuania.”

Attracting talent back

I ended my investigation for the BBC talking to Marius Skuodis, 29, who moved to the UK with his wife, Rita, an accountant, for a two-year Master of Public Administration degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science, or LSE, in 2010.

Now he is back in Vilnius working as a senior specialist in the Bank of Lithuania’s international relations department.

He said: “I returned to pursue my PhD at Vilnius University and because Lithuania offered me career opportunities I could not expect in the UK. “

Since returning, I’ve had the chance to contribute during Lithuania’s Presidency of the Council of the EU and the introduction of the Euro.

“The choice to return was quite difficult, but I decided on the option that promised me a much lower salary in the short-term, but much more meaningful daily activities.”  

  • See my feature for BBC Knowledge Economy here.
  • Our earlier blog about Lithuania for the ‘Spotlight on’…series is here.

  MAIN IMAGE: EUPRIO delegates at our 2006 Vilnius conference