RIGA - Take a walk down Pilies Street in Vilnius, Viru Street in Tallinn or Brivibas Boulevard in Riga and multi-cultural diversity isn’t hard to miss. There’s a fusion of ethnicities converging at the countries’ capitals, with a common goal – higher education. The question is, though, why are such a great number of foreigners coming to study in the Baltic States?
Sedat Yildirim, 22, a Kurd from Turkey, arrived in Latvia just over six months ago. This is his first year of two, completing a Masters in English Philology at the University of Latvia (UL).
He said, “Studying here as a foreigner, there are many opportunities right now. This is an international environment I can’t find back home.”
Sedat’s father was the driving force behind his on-going university education. “It was 1978, I think, and he had gone to see his brother in Sweden. He was ashamed because he couldn’t speak English at the airport.”
He told Sedat he needed to study English because it would give him career prospects that reached further than the small city where he grew up in Turkey. “The more languages you speak, the more analytically you think. It’s like the Internet. The more data you have, the more accessible everything becomes.”
In April 2011 he was considering several universities around Europe for his Masters, having browsed their Web sites. The reciprocal study agreement between Latvia and Turkey’s governments helped Sedat’s decision to apply to UL. Within a week he had an acceptance letter.
“If you write to the international office, they are very good at getting back to you quickly. They sent me all the guidelines about what I was supposed to do. It was quite easy.”
Since starting his course, the philologist is impressed with the level of study expected of the students from lecturers. “I didn’t get such a good education in my BA studies. Comparing my university in Turkey with the University of Latvia, I can say the professors here study more than us. They don’t let us have any free time, but they don’t have any, either.
“The courses are very well organized. It is what makes it fancy, I would say. For instance, our professors will have a list for us of the whole semester’s work, even to the final essay. We know what we are required to do and what we have to hand in. They are very professional in their fields. I really understand that I am learning here.”
Not only is the curriculum structure a positive in Sedat’s books, but course fees at UL were a deciding factor too. Sedat’s master’s program costs around 2,600 lats per year (3,700 euros). Other European universities charge three times as much, dependant on whether you are a European Union citizen or not.
Sakeella Meiyanathan, a fourth year medical student at UL, from the United Kingdom, said: “Quite honestly, I applied to Latvia after all my applications got rejected from medical schools in England, even though I had higher grades than what was required. However, I got a second chance to pursue my dream in Latvia, which I don’t think many people get. It is also not very popular for British students to go to Eastern European countries to get a degree.
“But when I got here I could see a vast number of students from Norway, Sweden and Germany who were also in a similar position to mine, as well as those who graduate from UL returning back to their home countries to work without any difficulty. In short, the education here is as good as any reputed medical school.”
All three Baltic States are experiencing a surge in international students enquiring about, and applying for, courses, and, according to Vilnius University’s statistics, there’s seems to be no sign it will plateau any time soon.
Located in Lithuania, Vilnius University has more than 21,000 students enrolled this academic year. From that number 655 are foreign, 458 non-degree and 197 degree.
Rita Vienazindiene, International Students Coordinator for Vilnius University, said: “I have the impression that degree students come mostly because they have roots in Lithuania, because of business here, or love. Some students think that it is cheap to live in Lithuania. Students from third [world] countries come to Lithuania seeking the EU higher education. Non-degree students usually come for the new environment.”
Lithuanian institutions in particular place great emphasis on marketing campaigns promoting higher education. Using the Internet, harnessing the influence of social networks and accessing various media channels help spread the message that Lithuania is a country researching and implementing ways to continue bettering the level of tertiary education found there.
A study conducted by the Lithuanian Education Foundation looked into the effects of international publicity for their universities. It found, according to the Higher Education Law 2000, that: “The objective of higher education is to develop an educated personality and society, susceptible to science, new technologies and cultural values, to create, compile and disseminate scientific knowledge and cultural values, to establish a national cultural identity. As an essential background for the future of the country’s spiritual and material prosperity, higher education, by means of studies, research or artistic creation promotes creation of new knowledge and cultural values.”
Statistics reveal from 2005 to 2009 the number of international students in Lithuania rose 3.5 times. Incoming students are mainly from neighboring countries such as Latvia, Russia, Belarus and Poland, and Asian and Middle Eastern countries also, like Lebanon, Israel, Pakistan, China, Turkey and Jordan.
The most popular studies among international students at Lithuanian universities are medical, teacher training and technical education programs.
Head north and Estonia varies only slightly.
Ulle Tensing, senior specialist for International Studies at the University of Tartu, said the fields most attractive for international students are Bachelor’s level medicine, Master’s level semiotics, software engineering, EU and Russian studies, and PhD level natural sciences, humanities and Information Technology.
“We have, based on data, at December 31, 2011, 484 international degree-seeking students. As for short term students, we can provide you with the last year’s data, since the current academic year is still running and no conclusive figures can be given. At 2010 to 2011 we had 380 short-term students. An overall estimate of international students for this academic year is about 860. We are predicting the same number of short term students for this academic year, if not more.”
Comparing 2009 with 2010, there has been an 11.8 percent increase with short-term students and 10.5 percent with degree-seeking international students at the University of Tartu.
“Why they have chosen Tartu – reasons differ of course. By large, the feedback shows because of good research groups at the PhD level, academically motivating programs taught in English (Master’s level mostly, although the same applies for medicine), and good scholarship schemes in Estonia.”
The same rings true for the University of Latvia, where 17,790 students enrolled in the academic year from 2011 to 2012. From these, 403 are foreign nationals representing a staggering 56 countries.
Most international students are from Germany, Spain and Italy; however, the university has students from Albania, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Brazil, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Estonia, France, Herzegovina, Hungary, Kosovo, Lithuania, Mauritius, Moldova, Montenegro, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, and Sweden as well.
The majority of foreign pupils are in the Medicine Higher Professional, Medicine Residency and the Business Administration Doctoral study programs.
After six years of medical school, Doctor George Jabbour, 28, is specializing in Vascular Surgery at the University of Latvia. He is in his third year of four.
He initially chose UL because his friends were studying there, and it gave him the chance to travel. When deciding on where to specialize, he said there were “many ideas I had to think about.” France, the United Kingdom and Sweden were all desirable places, but he acknowledged that learning another language while studying full-time would be wasting time better spent on his training.
Originating from Lebanon, a country not in the EU, George has paid for his studies and said he actually finds Latvia’s cost of living higher. “I find it expensive compared to other EU countries. The salary is not as high. In Lebanon the doctors are higher paid and more respected.”
He added, “I’ve learned practical things in Latvia and I don’t regret doing my residency here,” but he is concerned at the number of people being accepted into medical studies. “I think it is because you will not be rejected. I’ve never heard that someone got rejected.”
It is not the standard of teaching that worries him, but the commitment shown by students, through his experience. He thinks there should be firmer measures regarding applications and the number of students allowed to study medicine. “I think [Latvia] could be stricter with their students, but since their introduction into the EU it’s getting better and better. I think there are still things that can be done, though.”
He has been in many hospitals and completed aspects of his training in France. He said in many European hospitals a doctor must have a practicing certificate to do surgery, but in Latvia students can perform operations under the guidance of a qualified practitioner. This makes a big difference coming out of study and into the workforce – something he is thankful for.
The famous professor Albert Einstein is quoted as saying: “The sole function of education is to open the way to thinking and knowing, and university, as the outstanding organ for people’s education, must serve that end exclusively.”
It appears the Baltic States are fulfilling their part, providing higher education to applicants arriving from around the globe, aware that Eastern Europe could be the one place which holds the key to their future through study, whatever their reason for coming.