Whenever a government official from the Baltic States talks to a potential foreign investor, they stress three things about the region: the geographic position, the financial benefits and the quality of the workforce.
They wax lyrical over the level of education achieved by the population, and point out that this is amongst the highest in the world, and over double the EU average. Statistically, I don’t doubt this; however, having worked in and around Baltic universities for the past ten years (albeit in a commercial capacity), I have to say the quality of some of the education on offer is questionable.
I come from Scotland. In Scotland we have long held that education is the most important thing a young person can receive; we have a different education system to England, and spend more money on education than the English. The best example of how seriously we as a people consider education is that we still deliver university education for free to Scottish and EU students.
The Baltic attitude to education is very similar to the Scots, indeed, I would say that the students are more focused on doing well in their studies, and there is a genuine desire to successfully complete many levels of higher education. So in many ways, when the governments talk about an educated workforce, they are correct; however, if the quality of the education is poor, then there is a real danger that the full potential of these bright young people will not be realized.
Before going further I would like to stress that I know there are some excellent universities in the Baltics; indeed, some, like SSE Riga, are as good as any in Europe; however, there are also a lot of poor ones.
I had representatives of a well known English university with me in Latvia and Lithuania last week to hold discussions with a range of potential academic partners. Their impression was there was a huge gulf between the private and public universities they visited. This gulf was not in academic areas, but rather in the attitude of the senior staff, and the way they were looking to develop their institutions. The private universities understood the need to develop relevant courses, partner internationally, and offer the most dynamic learning experience possible. The state universities saw no reason to change what they have been doing for the past 50 or 60 years.
Unless this attitude changes, the Baltic States are in danger of losing one of the few real international assets they have. In Lithuania in particular, Gintaras Steponavicius, the Minister of Education, seems to realize this and has led the way in developing new and radical policies aimed at modernizing and improving the education system. Last week he announced further changes to state regulations which will allow a foreign university to set up a branch in Lithuania and receive state financial support. This change in legislation will lead to UK- and other EU-based universities coming to Lithuania to develop campuses and offerings for the Lithuanian market.
The hope must be that this will then encourage the local state universities to look again at what they offer, and make that offering more relevant for potential students. Competition should dramatically improve the overall standard, and the introduction of international universities should also be very attractive to Russian and CIS students looking to study within the EU. It will also hopefully lead to a reduction in Lithuanians leaving the country to pursue their education abroad, and then staying away to develop their careers.
The ministry is also leading the way in developing an agenda to support state universities in developing other streams of income. Last week there was a seminar introducing the model of employer engagement, where the universities look to offer a range of training services to private industry, and the Valley program is already recognized as the best commercialization initiative in the Baltics.
The other Baltic governments should look to the reforms being developed in Lithuania, and develop their own, which will challenge the post-Soviet mentality that still seems to pervade many of the state educational establishments. Unless they do, there is a real danger that what could potentially be the jewel in the Baltic crown becomes another wasted opportunity.