VILNIUS - Lithuanian parents should start saving up for their children's college and university education because, as of 2008, there will no longer be any free higher education in the country. This was one of the key principles set out in an agreement on higher education reform that Lithuanian parliamentary parties signed on June 14.
"We are starting a very important reform, which I hope will be continued by future governments. This is the future of our country, the future of our youth," Prime Minister and Chairman of the Social Democrat Party Gediminas Kirkilas told journalists after the signing procedure.
The document, laid down on two pages, does not give all the details of the reforms, but it provides for some basic principles, one of them being the provision that, from 2008, all studies are to be fee-based.
The concrete fees are not spelled out in the agreement, however, it stipulates that fee limits will be set by the government. Education institutions will have the right to decide what fees to charge within the framework of those limits.
Preliminary estimates by the Education and Science Ministry showed that the study fees might range from 2,000 to 5,000 litas (579 - 1,448 euros) per semester, depending on subject studied.
Currently Lithuanian students pay 500 litas (144.8 euros) per semester, but these fees are waived for those who have the best grades, usually some 30 percent of all the students.
The reform also provides for performance-based exemptions, but they will come in the form of compensation that will be available only after graduation, such as tax privileges or the canceling of student loan debts.
Under the new plan, interest free loans will be available for all students and they will only have to be paid back once the person's salary reaches a defined amount. The graduate's employer will also be able to take over the loan.
"I hope that the higher fees for education will increase the motivation of students and their responsibility as well," Roma Zakaitiene, Minister of Education and Science, told journalists.
"I am convinced that the issue of quality very much depends on students. If you pay for something, you will demand that the lecturer is at the lecture, and that the lecture itself has quality," the minister added.
But students don't agree. The National Union of Student Representations of Lithuania said on its website that the reform looks hasty and does not provide answers to many questions.
"The proposed reform model does not have a clear strategy demand for specialists and does not provide for a long-term vision of higher education," the statement said.
"It is not clear what the state's contribution to the reform will be. We propose defining the obligations of the government to increase funds for higher education from the state budget," it added.
Students also raised doubts about the loan system, which they say is very ill-defined, and the limits of fees for different subjects. They also proposed installing the new model only after taking into account the possible growth of emigration, which is already a key problem for Lithuania.
Some politicians also shared the students' worries. Three parliamentary parties 's the Labour Party, the Order and Justice Party and the Social Liberal Party 's refused to sign the agreement, saying the planned reform would not bring about the desired benefits.
The National Farmers Union, a party that agreed to sign onto the agreement just minutes before the official signing procedure, also expressed some doubts about it.
"The agreement is a declaratory document, which allows the start of preparations for higher education reform. The fact that we signed it does not at all rule out the possibility of sticking to our positions and having influence during future debates," Aldona Staponkiene, chairperson of National Farmers Union, said after the document was signed.
She also stressed the party's doubts about having the same study fee for all students.
"We believe that higher education should remain a right for everybody rather than becoming a privilege. Access to higher education should depend on abilities and not on social status," Staponkiene said.
The agreement provides that the new legislation should be ready for parliamentary debates in five months.