Brexit and coronavirus: a chance for Lithuanian universities – opinion
2020-07-09

Lithuanian university enrolment has dropped by a third in recent years. Now, with the coronavirus and Brexit restricting student mobility and families’ budgets, Lithuanian universities have an opportunity to recruit local students in far greater numbers, writes Jonathan Boyd from ISM University.

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Lithuania’s university administrators have largely resigned themselves to a sobering fact – demographic changes have been significantly shrinking the supply of Lithuanian students.

Between 2014 and 2018, the number of students enrolling in Lithuanian bachelor programmes fell by a third.

Demographics are only one part of the story, however. A remarkably high number of Lithuanian students – over 10,000 in any given year – are studying abroad.

Coronavirus, costs, and borders

This time of year, thousands of Lithuanian students and their parents are traditionally asking themselves whether they should study abroad, and if so, where.

The customary weighing of pros and cons, however, has changed considerably over the past two months and will continue to do so.

For one, the coronavirus pandemic and the impact of Europe’s various national quarantine measures are undermining the two conditions that are necessary for studying abroad: mobility and affordability.

Mobility – students’ ability to travel to and from their foreign destinations – has been severely limited and is unlikely to return to normal by the fall semester, and travel restrictions in one form or another could last into next year.

“The coronavirus pandemic is […] ndermining the two conditions that are necessary for studying abroad: mobility and affordability.”

There are also additional risks associated with foreign travel, for example, being forced to self-isolate upon entry into a foreign country or when returning to Lithuania.

Moreover, the future availability of low-cost airline routes that Lithuanians have taken for granted is now uncertain, and in their stead, only a few regional airlines will be operating only some of these routes, which are unlikely to be direct flights and with significantly more expensive fares.

Alongside mobility, the economic impact of the pandemic is also worrying. Unemployment in Lithuania is rising at an alarming rate, GDP growth is slowing, and the economy and labour market will take some time to recover fully.

Such economic conditions work to decrease consumer confidence and tighten budget constraints. This effectively means that the high costs of a foreign education will be felt more acutely.

These factors will most certainly influence decisions of whether to study abroad; but there is also the even more critical question of where to study.

Brexit and quality education

Lithuanians have traditionally shown a strong preference for the UK. It is by far the most popular destination country, attracting nearly 40 percent of Lithuanian students who study abroad.

The number of Lithuanian undergraduate students in Britain has grown by nearly 12 percent over the past four years, reaching nearly 4,000 Lithuanian students last year, according to the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

This represents about 8 percent of the total number of Lithuanian students enrolled in an undergraduate degree here in Lithuania.

However, the future attraction of UK universities is highly questionable for two reasons.

First, Lithuanian students have hoped to leverage their UK diploma for a job and career in the UK. However, due to Brexit at the end of the year, their right to work in the UK is likely to be seriously curtailed.

Second, many Lithuanians chose to study in the UK, or elsewhere in Europe, because they believed these foreign universities provided a higher-quality education than that provided in Lithuania.

Quality is very important to students – the 2019 QS International Student Survey, for example, revealed that the most important influence in choosing where to study was whether a university had high quality teaching.

Unfortunately, many Lithuanians learned the hard way that the quality of their studies in the UK was considerably lower than their expectations.

Why? Because many Lithuanians were led to believe that what mattered most was simply that you study in the UK. In reality, though, what matters most is which university you study at.

To understand why Lithuanians students’ satisfaction with their experience in Britain may have been below their expectations I explored data collected by the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and discovered that just ten UK universities – Coventry, Middlesex, Greenwich, Manchester, Newcastle, Northumbria, Westminster, West London, Essex, De Montfort – account for nearly 40 percent of all Lithuanian students in the UK.

” Unfortunately, many Lithuanians learned the hard way that the quality of their studies in the UK was considerably lower than their expectations. “

Looking at the National Student Satisfaction survey, and the UK government’s Teaching Excellence Framework, the universities with such a large proportion of Lithuanian students generally have low entrance requirements and teaching standards that are of average or below-average quality relative to other UK universities.

While these may be fine choices for some students, they very often do not represent the best option for others who are consequently likely to come away from their UK studies dissatisfied.

But the satisfaction of Lithuanian students has not been the priority for local recruiters operating in Lithuania on behalf of these universities, aggressively recruiting students to whichever university is offering them the highest fee.

Opportunity

All of these factors lead to one conclusion – Lithuanian universities have been presented with a golden opportunity.

Despite the demographic and fiscal challenges, Lithuanian universities have proven to be remarkably resilient.

Over the past decade, the study quality of Lithuanian universities has improved considerably, in large part because they have become more outward-looking.

Local lecturers have increasingly gained experience teaching abroad through programmes like Erasmus+ exchanges, while Lithuanians with PhDs from prestigious universities abroad have come home to contribute to Lithuania’s teaching and research excellence.

International lecturers keen to make a local difference are frequently visiting, some even being recruited to take up permanent positions.

Meanwhile, Lithuania’s universities are being awarded international accreditations and bringing their teaching standards into line with best global practices.

Researchers at Lithuanian universities have also sought and been awarded international research grants and have increasingly collaborated with foreign scholars.

”Over the past decade, the study quality of Lithuanian universities has improved considerably, in large part because they have become more outward looking. ”

To all my colleagues throughout Lithuania’s universities, then, I say we have a chance to turn our fortunes around and secure our future.

We must first admit to ourselves that Lithuanian students have been leaving Lithuania for a perfectly justifiable reason – they have thought foreign universities offered them a higher quality of education.

Although – gvien our limited resources – we may never be able to compete with the very top UK universities, we can most certainly compete with many of the universities that Lithuanians are attending.

To that end, the value propositions we communicate to Lithuanian students this recruitment season must emphasise not only our quality relative to each other, but relative to our international competitors.

We must demonstrate that we are of comparable quality to international universities.

We should display the international character of our teaching staff and resources, and present a case for why Lithuania’s universities are a perfectly good substitute for the foreign universities prospective students may be considering.

Nor can we afford to be bashful. It is imperative that we stress our remarkable improvements in teaching quality over the past decade. We have plenty to be proud of and we should tout it.

We must also communicate to prospective Lithuanian students that our improvements have always been intended to benefit them.

We need to inform prospective students of how we are able to better serve the needs of Lithuania’s students and Lithuania’s employers than our international competitors.

Above all, Lithuanian universities must acknowledge that it is our responsibility – not foreign institutions’ – to educate Lithuania’s youth to the highest international standards.

We owe it to them, we have become capable of it, and now we have been given an opportunity to demonstrate it.

Jonathan Boyd is an associate professor at ISM University of Management and Economics, and the director of its Industrial Technology Management programme.