Breakneck economic development, a demanding job market and pressures from abroad have reshaped the Baltic states' educational landscape in recent years. Dorian Ziedonis took a look at how the region's universities are meeting the new challenges and what changes they need to make to compete at a Europe-wide level. Whether it's naval engineering in Klaipeda, actuarial mathematics in Tartu, or solid state physics in Daugavpils, the choice of studies at the university level is proliferating in the Baltics.
State universities are expanding and modernizing their programs, removing the shackles from the Soviet years that limited independent studies. Private schools, especially those focusing on business and economics, already started opening in the early 90s as the need for professional managers and economists erupted. Baltic emigres returned in teaching roles and set up new schools with links to Western institutions.
Today, one is just as likely to meet an Israeli, Lebanese or foreign student of any nationality studying here, especially at the medical schools and in the natural sciences, as they take advantage of the region's strong educational opportunities and its lower cost.
In an era of tuition-based education, students are speaking up and demanding more from the curriculum.
Leaving the old methods behind, there is now a "more interdisciplinary nature to the studies, and more attention to the context at the school," says Kestutis Zaleckis, Head of the Department of Architecture and Land Mana-gement at Kaunas University of Technology.
Veiko Spolitis, doctoral student in political science and currently teaching at Riga Stradins University, says that "the system has improved in most universities and SSE and Banku Augstskola in Riga, Tartu and Kaunas universities are competitive" at the EU level.
"Estonia is among the signatories of the 'Bologna process,' which aims to harmonize higher education across Europe and beyond," says Jaan Korgesaar, Head of the Higher Education Department in Tartu. Estonian schools have followed a vigorous process of accreditation and self-evaluation in building up their system.
A liberally well-educated population is an indicator of civil society; the purpose of higher education today also is to produce individuals who will contribute to the community.
Self-made business owners in the 90s many times didn't appreciate the skills of newly minted business school graduates. Now, says Greg Mathers, professor at Riga Business School's MBA program, his students are receiving "significant salary increases upon graduation."
Universities are getting a bigger cut from state budgets, and EU funds are expected to support individual programs at all levels.
Problems remain, however, ranging from the need for structural reform to still more money, resources and ideas.
There's less political will at the top in Latvia for giving education a high priority in state affairs. Latvian facilities face neglect and languish in a sorry state, and though Estonian universities lack resources for expensive infrastructure projects, new buildings are clearly sprouting on campuses as a result of strong spending on education.
On faculty staffing, "The traditional system in Latvia prevails where one must have connections in the higher echelons of power," says Spolitis. "We need new teachers," as many of the teaching slots are still occupied with Soviet era faculty, says Henrik Mjoman, director of PRIME Recruitment employment agency in Riga.
Korgesaar concurs, saying that "for public universities, a little more accountability might be added along with more entrepreneurial management structures." Problems also include the lack of enough young people going into engineering and natural sciences, and that financial aid is insufficient for allowing more students better access to higher education.
As enrollment grows each year, many maintain that for some subjects, better education can only be found abroad.
Freshman student Diana, at the University of Latvia says that her studies include a semester in Brussels as part of the second year curriculum. "It's just not possible to get the required international communications experience in Latvia."
For Spolitis, the reasons to study abroad were "quality and credibility, there was no better way to study social sciences than in the West," commenting on the situation that there was no social science education in the Soviet Union. He mentions that "M.A. studies abroad in social sciences is a must because professors here are too busy and underpaid."
Exchange programs such as ERASMUS and scholarships afford students the opportunity to study practically anywhere in the world today, though barriers exist for most. Says Mathers, "students can't afford to go abroad, it's a cost issue, even with the perception that it's a higher quality education."
To work at the EU level, explains Mjoman, graduates need very good degrees. There has to be a much higher level of English, the written language, not just speaking but understanding the context; this isn't here yet. Today one needs four languages, not counting Russian.
Without a change in public attitudes on issues such as cheating, many will face a harsh reality when competing in an international job market. Cheating in schools "is a problem," agrees Mathers, suggesting that it's a part of the culture. After one or two years working, he adds, students realize they are competing on the European level, and that they have to be more competitive.
Says one critic in Riga, "There needs to be tougher demands on students, they have no clue on what they studied when they graduate. People tend to overestimate what they know, and this shows in their work," adding "the issue for many students is that they are not present in class, and many of these degrees are worth nothing."
He sees that "People tend to overestimate what they know. It's all about just having the paper. In Latvia there is an inability for self-criticism," an essential ingredient to a strong educational and research environment.
It's more than the faculty that determines academic achievement. Zaleckis says that "students expect to gain a professional and deep knowledge," though at the same time they "are not conscious enough about the need to gain a base for life-long self-learning, but are more interested in the immediate result 's a diploma and employment."
Will students who have studied abroad return home? According to Spolitis, "We live in a globalized world, and if I get a better proposal in Australia or South Africa, why not?" In the immediate term, he notes that "There is a lack of trust in Latvian society, and questions about the Latvian government being able to govern in the long run."
Executive Director Girts Greiskalns at Foreign Investors Council in Latvia says that government needs to do more on the assessment of schools, to work with institutions and industry together to find solutions. It should improve spending, identify skills needed today, to look in more detail and evaluate the quality coming out of the schools.
For the university system to remain competitive, "a major multi-institutional EU-sponsored teacher training program is running, targeting curriculum design, practice arrangements and e-learning," says Korgesaar.
Zaleckis stresses the need for turning out "open-minded specialists that can work in various fields of architecture, not narrowly specialized professionals. Faculty brings in the latest teaching materials, theories, together with the integration of different studied disciplines in studio projects," and adds that "there is need for greater integration of practical training into the studies, and a need for more international competitions."
Managers today complain that employees lack loyalty and reliability, attributable to the rapidly changing job market. Regardless, Mjoman feels that schools should do their part in stressing moral lessons, "that people need to start taking responsibility for their efforts. Schools need to ensure that graduates are useful to society, and schools must be responsible to the student."
Nonetheless, he reckons that "people, the teachers, are trying. They need more resources." He suggests a change of methods, for business schools to use case studies, students to support their own academics through fund-raising activities. Companies should support schools with financial aid, offset by tax breaks.
Education is a global industry, where the best students will find the best schools, then on to the most rewarding job opportunities. It's a moving target.
Institutions of higher education in the Baltics have achieved impressive results over a short time, building upon or discarding what was left of the old guard, and bringing in the new. The proof is in today's graduates, an increasingly competent and confident bunch that's having an impact on both the local and international stage.