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Baltic students storm Britain

  • 2006-02-08
  • By Alec Charles
LUTON - Welcome to Luton, a former center of the British motor industry (in the days when Great Britain had a motor industry), and of the British hat industry (in the days when Great Britain had a hat industry). Its a place famous for its valiant yet luckless football team and for its airport 's the home of easyJet and Ryanair, the two great budget airlines that connect Great Britain with the Baltic states.

But it's also a place that's busy reinventing itself, with a staggering 3 billion pounds set to be invested in this little town in the next few years.

And now there's another thing that's putting Luton on the map 's the increasing number of people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania who've chosen to study at the town's university. The University of Luton's 14,000 staff and students make up nearly 10 percent of the town's population 's and quite a few of them are now from the Baltic states. In fact, this reporter moved from Estonia to Luton to teach journalism at the university.

This year alone, more than 250 new Baltic students have joined the university. Indeed it seems that more than half the Lithuanians studying in the UK are currently studying at Luton.

"I think it's because our teaching is focused on future employment opportunities," says Suzanne Gillard, the university's European recruitment coordinator. "And because we're so close to London. The students tend to pop down there at weekends.

"I'm sure they're going for the art galleries and the museums," she adds.

With the British government's plan to provide loans to cover tuition fees for all EU students from next September, and with universities also offering generous scholarships to help with students' living expenses, the trend looks like it will continue.

Les Ebdon, the university's Vice Chancellor, welcomes the growing number of students from the Baltic states.

"They're highly talented, highly motivated and highly intelligent young people," he says. "I think we offer them some unique opportunities, and in return they enrich the academic, social and cultural life of our community."

Work and play

A British newspaper recently reported that the arrival of students from the EU's new member countries has changed the face of British higher education 's transforming its traditional party-culture into an energetic study-culture.

"Most people say students drink too much but this is just our way of being sociable," says Leonti Fjodorov.

Leonti came to England from Estonia last September. He studies IT, plays for the university's rugby team, and is also the women's rugby coach.

"Every week there are student parties or sports," he says. "You can meet people from all over the world and that's what makes our lives here special."

"We're all in the EU and that makes everything easier," says Edgars Ziverts, a media student from Latvia. "Even though it's another country, it feels like being at home."

"I like English people," says Diana Simkauskaite from Lithuania. "They are very polite and friendly."

The winner of a competition for young journalists in her native Lithuania, and a former trainee radio reporter in her hometown of Kaunas, Diana is now studying journalism in the UK. On top of her studies, she has two part-time jobs 's waitressing in a nightclub and in an Asian restaurant.

"The staff are friendly and it's easy work," she says. "And compared with wages in Lithuania, it's really big money!"

Andy Gordon, the proprietor of the Brewery Tap, a pub popular with university students and staff alike, agrees that there's a synergy developing between Baltic students and local employers.

"We currently have a Lithuanian and an Estonian working here, and last year we had a Latvian," he says. "They're very good workers and are excellent with the customers 's and they seem to enjoy the job!"

Marju Tonisson, a PR student from Estonia, who turned down a place at Tartu University in order to study in the UK, is on Gordon's staff.

"I've always wanted to study in Western Europe," she says. "Students at Estonian universities learn what 'wise men have said.' but, when it comes to actual work, they might get stuck. Studying in England, the group work and independent research actually teach us how to work."

This view is echoed by Mante Petrauskaite, who quit Vilnius University in order to study in England. After her first year of Business Studies, she is now on a work placement in the university's finance office.

"In Lithuanian universities, you get a lot of information which you don't actually need when you graduate," she says. "Here they provide knowledge that's very useful and very close to what you'll do in your future."

Education that works

It's not just that Baltic students are coming to Great Britain 's British universities are also getting involved in the Baltics. One such scheme is a training programme for aspiring young journalists created by Latvia's biggest newspaper, Diena, sponsored by the British Council, and featuring lecturers from Luton, who also helped to design the course.

"It's very important for us to have British lecturers as this ensures we can give our students the latest knowledge 's because unfortunately we don't have such good professional education in Latvia," says Sarmite Elerte, editor-in-chief of Diena.

This view is echoed by the renowned Latvian broadcaster Karlis Streips, who also participates in the program.

"International training for journalists in Latvia is extremely important because the essential principles of Western journalism haven't taken root here automatically," he says.

James Anslow, formerly chief production editor on Britain's biggest selling newspaper, The News of the World, and now a lecturer at the University of Luton, realized the importance of this international training programme when Helena Demakova, Latvia's Minister of Culture, recently volunteered to take part in his class.

"Her involvement shows how seriously modern media ideas are being taken in Latvia today," he says.

So, whether it's in Britain or the Baltics, the educational cooperation between these two ends of the European Union seems likely to continue, grow and prosper in the years to come.