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Between 2008 and 2013, enrolment in Lithuanian higher education decreased from about 210,000 to 159,000 - a drop of almost 25%. This is due to the country’s unfortunate demographics, which are aggravated by serious emigration, particularly of young people. At the same time, the higher education sector roughly kept its size. The number of higher education institutions dropped by only three - from 50 to 47 – the number of academic staff fell by a mere 6%. The worrying question is: for how much longer can the country afford its present higher education infrastructure?
Countering falling enrolment by attracting more foreign students is one of the hopes of Lithuanian universities and the country’s government. A series of measures funded by national sources and money from the European Social Fund, amongst them a ‘Study in Lithuania’ campaign aimed at young people of Lithuanian descent as well as from neighbouring and other post-Soviet countries and providing more scholarships for this target group, was put in place to achieve this aim. But is this going to do the trick?
Recent numbers give rise to hope. There were some 4 300 foreign students enrolled in Lithuania in 2013. Just under 3% of the total student population and way below the European average. At the same time, these are double as many as in 2007 and 12% more than in 2012. The largest single nationality group of foreign students are Belarussians (1 665), followed by Russians, Indians, Nigerians and Ukrainians. The majority are enrolled at the Master level. One of the most popular disciplines of foreign students is medicine, where there are bottlenecks in other countries. These students also pay tuition fees and thus generate income for the universities - although Lithuanian sources describe the fees as ‘competitive’ (i.e. low), in comparison to ‘Western countries’.
Will all of this be enough for Lithuania to keep up its present higher education infrastructure and provision? Hardly, but foreign students do contribute to soften the effects of the demographic decline. What could make a bigger difference would be return immigration. And recently, immigration into Lithuania has started to rise again.