Student mobility is a key issue across European higher education. But it is often seen as a way to boost university revenue by attracting fee-paying students from abroad or recruiting foreign students to vital, but less popular science or engineering courses.
But what happens to countries exporting their talent, particularly those like Lithuania which are struggling to enrol sufficient numbers of bright students because of high levels of migration and a falling birth rate.
It is an issue I briefly touched on about 13 months ago in a blog ‘The other side of the student mobility coin: Lithuania!’. Then I looked at how Lithuania, and universities like Vilnius, were trying to adapt to increased competition from abroad for the best students.
It was also the theme of a workshop during the European higher education communicators’ (EUPRIO) Innsbruck conference last September.
That was led by Ilona Kazlauskaite from Lithuania’s Education Exchanges Support Foundation.
She focused on the challenges Eastern European countries, particularly the Baltic states, were facing with a brain drain.
I spoke to Ilona again while doing research for the BBC’s Knowledge Economy series.
Worst predictions – a 40% fall
Ilona said: “The worst predictions are that the number of graduates will fall by 40% by 2023 compared to 2009 if nothing is done.”
I also talked to students, politicians and academics for my BBC investigation, including Vilnius University spokeswoman, Nijolė Bulotaitė, who told me: “Retaining talent is one of our most pressing problems along with demographical changes.”
How to turn a brain drain into a brain gain?
Easing visa restrictions for graduates who want to stay and work in the country where they’ve studied is one obvious answer – and Lithuania is far from being alone in coming up with this possible solution.
It is a move very much welcome by Karina Ufert, a Vilnius graduate, who chaired the European Students Union in 2012/13. She now works in Burma for a development agency, and says: “Lithuania’s labour market needs international students who have studied here, learnt the language, and want to work here or set up a business.”
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are also working together to market themselves to new countries as a Baltic brand; and they are having some success, albeit starting from a very low base.
In Lithuania’s case, the latest data shows them hosting 4,618 foreign students in 2014. This is up from 3,798 in 2012. Many students are from nearby Belarus and Russia, but growth markets include Ukraine, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Germany. Students from India rose from just 57 in 2012 to 357 last year.
More are heading abroad
UNESCO’s Global Flow of Tertiary-level Students shows 12,364 Lithuanians studying abroad out of a student population of 160,000. That’s one in every 14 students!
The UK is by far their favourite destination with just under 5,000 Lithuanian students. A further 1,573 are in Danish universities, where tuition is free for all EU students.
Lithuania saw high levels of emigration after it joined the European Union in 2004. Together with the halving of the birth rate from 1991 to 2004, it all means a lack of 19 and 20 year-olds today. This is hurting not just the universities but also efforts to boost economic recovery.
Stopping the brain drain
As well as trying to recruit more international students, the Vice-Minister for Education and Sciences, Dr Rimantas Vaitkus, told me: “Despite falling student numbers more government money is going into higher education and better cooperation between universities is being encouraged to foster possible mergers.”
He also wants stop the brain drain and support brain gain by encouraging talented Lithuanians working abroad to return on a short-term basis to teach at Lithuanian universities.
“The ratio of brain drain and brain gain depends on the economic situation and now we’re part of the Euro we hope more of our graduates will come back and find jobs in Lithuania.”
Attracting talent back
I ended my investigation for the BBC talking to Marius Skuodis, 29, who moved to the UK with his wife, Rita, an accountant, for a two-year Master of Public Administration degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science, or LSE, in 2010.
Now he is back in Vilnius working as a senior specialist in the Bank of Lithuania’s international relations department.
He said: “I returned to pursue my PhD at Vilnius University and because Lithuania offered me career opportunities I could not expect in the UK.
“Since returning, I’ve had the chance to contribute during Lithuania’s Presidency of the Council of the EU and the introduction of the Euro.
“The choice to return was quite difficult, but I decided on the option that promised me a much lower salary in the short-term, but much more meaningful daily activities.”
• See my feature for the BBC Knowledge Economy series.
Main photo: Lithuanian students in the UK celebrating national day at Oxford