03 Feb 2020
by Mariusz Luterek

How to attract more students to Central and Eastern Europe



Central and Eastern Europe – broadly defined as the former Eastern bloc, the Baltic nations and the independent states of former Yugoslavia – has changed a lot since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Economies in the region have grown enough for the Human Development Index to put all of the EU10 – the group of mainly Eastern European countries that joined the European Union in 2004 – in the category of very high human development.

But despite this progress, this region is still struggling to attract international students. According to figures from Eurostat, higher education institutions in EU10 states enrolled only 178,167 mobile students from abroad in 2017.

The challenges

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are not all the same, of course, but their higher education systems do have many characteristics and challenges in common. One example is the language barrier: if the region’s education systems operated in English, German or Spanish, it would likely be much easier to attract students from abroad.

A second challenge is the difference in historical background between Eastern and Western Europe, which has resulted in a different approach to the teaching process. For a long time, teaching in Central and Eastern Europe was dominated by knowledge-based learning outcomes. Change came slowly at first, but a snowball effect has now led to the development of modern, participatory and flexible educational offerings at universities across the region. As a result, countries including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are observing a slow but steady growth in the number of international students they attract.

Complex patterns

During the academic year 2018–2019, there were 78,259 international students enrolled at Polish higher education institutions, according to Statistics Poland. Of that total, 39,203 came from Ukraine, 7314 from Belarus, 3571 from India, 2131 from Spain, 1928 from Turkey, 1494 from Norway, 1187 from Russia and 1069 from Sweden. The total number of international students in the Czech Republic in the year 2017 was 43,831, figures from the country’s National Statistical Office show. Some 22,200 came from Slovakia, 5906 from Russia, 2908 from Ukraine and 1618 from Kazakhstan. So most of the international students in Poland are from neighbouring Ukraine, while in the Czech Republic more than half come from Slovakia, which until 1993 was part of the same country.

Behind these numbers are individual success stories: institutions that mastered their strengths and were able to attract more students from abroad

Taking a closer look, you might wonder why Poland only has about 34,500 more international students than the Czech Republic, a much smaller country. Going deeper, why does Poland attract twice as many international students as the Czech Republic in the social sciences, journalism and information science, and three times as many in services? And why does the Czech Republic succeed in enrolling five times as many students from abroad in the natural sciences, mathematics and statistics; twice as many in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and veterinary sciences; and almost twice as many in information and communication technologies, engineering, manufacturing and construction?

There is one simple answer to these questions: behind all of those numbers are individual success stories – higher education institutions and faculties that mastered their strengths and were therefore able to attract more students from abroad.

Learning from success stories

You can spot some of those success stories easily enough by checking the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities. Four institutions from the region make the top 500 in 2019: the University of Tartu in Estonia; Charles University in the Czech Republic; and the University of Warsaw and Jagiellonian University in Poland.

The small number of Central and Eastern European universities in the ranking is sad proof of the region’s underrepresentation on the higher education world map. Global rankings are not kind to the region’s institutions in general, which is one barrier to attracting more international students.

An obvious example is medical programmes in Poland, which are chosen by students from Norway and Sweden because of the favourable balance between cost and quality

However, we can find a path to success by looking at the institutions that do feature in those rankings and that have been able to attract good numbers of international students in certain disciplines. We should identify best practices in internationalisation and consider them within their institutional and market-specific contexts.

An obvious example comes from the medical programmes on offer in Poland, which are chosen by students from Norway and Sweden because of the favourable balance between cost and quality. Poland’s business programmes, too, have proved attractive to international students and have featured in the Financial Times European Business School Rankings.

Starting small

Putting Central and Eastern European higher education on the map might be too hard if we start from a global perspective. A better idea is to focus first on building up the region’s strengths and improving its standing in Europe. At an institutional level, we should try to learn from the experiences of universities that have enjoyed success. How can we use their example to build on our own strengths, overcome our weaknesses and attract more students from abroad? If we can answer that question, a place in the Shanghai world rankings might be just around the corner.


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