‘Brain drain’ creating major headaches

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Photo: Alexandria Molony

In the past 5 years, Lithuania has reportedly lost 700, 000 people who have sought educational and working opportunities in surrounding EU countries. The adverse effects of the countries proclaimed ‘brain drain’ can be seen in the many abandoned and neglected buildings throughout the capital, Vilnius.

By Alexandria Molony

Vilnius, Lithuania: It could be said that the neglected buildings are indicative of the current state of Lithuania, who although is slowly recovering their economy, is at the same time in danger of becoming a country absent of its young and brightest. According to a 2012 study conducted by Ona Gražina Rakauskiene, from the Faculty of Economics and Finacial Management at Mykolas Romeris University, the high emigration rate is presenting Lithuania with the threat of falling behind the successfully developing states, with the population of the country expected to fall under the 3 million mark by 2035.

Ona Gražina Rakauskiene concludes in her study that the decreasing population will have an inevitable negative impact on the labour market. With decreasing supply of labour power and the number of working inhabitants, it will be harder to support healthcare and social security systems funded from tax money, and the need for those services will increase as the society becomes older.

A brief history
Lithuania was apart of the Soviet Republic for almost 50 years which as a result shaped the country, its resources and its economy. After 1990, Lithuania regained its statehood and began a long and arduous process to transform the state into an independent democracy. In 2004 the country gained accession into the European Union and NATO which marked the beginning of a major reform process to bring the country up to EU standard in every aspect.

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Lithuanian’s believe that it’s hard to attain a high quality of life on low salaries. Photo: Alexandria Molony

Although Lithuania has put in place an action plan to improve the economy, it still has a high level of unemployment and one of the lowest minimum wages in the whole of Europe. According to Eurostat, the minimum wage for Lithuania in 2013 was recorded as 269 euros per month which is up to an eighth less than the minimum wage of its European neighbours.

In September 2010 Lithuania experienced an unemployment rate of 17.6% however the number was alleviated and reduced to 13.2% by 2012 largely as a result of the high number of Lithuanian’s that emigrated to other European countries to find work.

“I would prefer to stay in Lithuania”
Akvile Pazarauskite is a biophysics student at Vilnius University who loves living in Lithuania but knows how difficult it is to find work after spending two years hunting for a job.

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Akvile Pazarauskaite, 19, says that she would prefer to stay in Lithuania with her family and friends. Photo: Alexandria Molony

– There could definitely be more job places that you could attend because for me finding a job was very difficult. I’ve been searching for a job for two years, and after that time I finally got a job. Two years is a really long time to look for work so for some people its better to go somewhere else where they can get a job within a month, says Akvile Pazarauskaite.

Additionally the low salaries are only sufficient enough to cover the costs of basic necessities which means that she isn’t able to experience the high quality of life that she could get in other European countries.

– For me personally I only make enough I need to survive. We need higher salaries, because all my salary pays for is my accommodation and then I pay for food and that’s all I can afford. I have no money for going out but I guess that’s my choice, she says.

Despite this, she insists that if there were better working opportunities and higher salaries for Lithuanians, it would encourage them to stay.

 – Everybody is just choosing what is best for them, but they all say if they had the possibility to come back then they would do it for sure, she says.

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The old system versus the new system. While the new system allows for more students to receive full government funding, lower performing students have to pay for their education in full price.

It isn’t only low salaries and lack of work that’s driving Lithuanian’s to leave the country. The higher education system has been undergoing major reform in order to meet EU standards.

According to Vaitkus Rimantas, Vice Minister for Education and Science, financing per student is 2-5 times less in Lithuania than other developed countries. In an attempt to more efficiently manage resources, a new financial model of higher education was implemented, but it only led to further discontent among students.

The new system allowed for more of the higher performing students to receive full state funding but it also meant that more students who were previously entitled to semi-funding would have to pay for their fees in full price. This inevitably has resulted in more Lithuanians pursuing education in other European countries such as Denmark where they can receive education for free and are entitled to social benefits.

– A lot of people don’t trust the education system because of the reforms and constant changes. The system wasn’t that old and there were two reforms in a short period of time so it was confusing for people, Dovilė Šeduikytė, journalism graduate at Vilnius University says. 

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Dovilė Šeduikytė went on exchange to gain a new cultural experience and ended up meeting her partner abroad at the same time. Photo: Alexandria Molony

“Erasmus is like education plus love”
But it’s not all about economics when it comes to emigration. Dovilė Šeduikytė went abroad from Lithuania to participate in the Mundus Erasmus program with the intention of improving her English skills and creating networks, and ended up deciding to emigrate after meeting her partner abroad.

– We have this plan that he will finish his studies in Auckland and then he is thinking about coming to Europe. We have a plan to end up emigrating to Brussels where I can work as correspondent for the European Union, Dovilė Šeduikytė says.

She claims that it is not uncommon for Lithuanian’s to find themselves in relationships when they are abroad.

– For me it was a really positive experience and that factor of getting a boyfriend is actually very common. There is some kind of nationalistic group that says “Lithuanian women for Lithuania” because a lot of Lithuanian girls get into relationships abroad. Erasmus should be re-named ‘education plus love’, she laughs.

She adds that the reason for people leaving the country is because Lithuanian’s perceive other European countries as having more to offer, particularly among the more capable students.

– The opportunities of studying abroad are just undeniably better. You can learn a new language and everyone knows that they can have better working conditions and salaries in another country so understandably, people just want to make the best of their abilities, she says.

Lithuanian students have a tendency to consider their options to study full degree programs abroad before their own country. Photograph by: Alexandria Molony

Lithuanian students have a tendency to consider their options to study full degree programs abroad before their own country. Photo: Alexandria Molony

Lina Pavalkyte  is a radio journalist in Vilnius and also works as a creative practitioner in schools.  She believes that Vilnius is a great city to live in, but agrees that there needs to be more incentives in place for people to stay in the country.

– A lot of students do not even consider pursuing higher education when they are searching for universities.What can you do? Lithuania is apart of the European Union and everyone is free to travel, you can’t force them to stay.The problem is that there are better opportunities for jobs, higher salaries and better living conditions in bigger countries with bigger economies. Sometimes it’s easier to find a job or find a place to study in a bigger country at a better university, she says.

Is internationalisation the key?
Audra Dargyte Burokiene, Head of International Students Office at Mykolas Romeris University believes that the best solution to deal with decreasing numbers of Lithuanian’s seeking full degree programs within the country is further internationalisation of the education system, with a particular focus on attracting students from third world countries.

Audra Dargyte Burokiene, Head of International Students Office at Mykolas Romeris University encourages further internationalisation of Higher Education Institutions. Photo: Alexandria Molony

– Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia are countries that Lithuania can be marketed to quite well. These are the countries that Lithuania are looking at to attract students for full degree programs in response to the emigration problem, she says.

She also discussed some of the initiatives that have been put in place in order to give Lithuania to increase the awareness and perceived attractiveness of Lithuanian Higher Education.

– Some initiatives are to unite universities into some marketing activities of the country. The Education Exchanges Support Foundation is the new initiative in marketing the studying in Lithuania brand such as educational fairs to try and promote the country. It’s certainly not as large as it is in Denmark or the Netherlands who have international offices all over the world but we are certainly thinking about doing that, she says.

In 2007 The Education Exchanges Support Foundation launched the ‘Study Lithuania’ project in order to help promote some of the educational areas that are really strong in Lithuania.

– Areas such as medicine, technology, bio-technologies are very strong in Lithuania and they will be marketed in this way. Of course there are much more possibilities to market the country, and the higher education of the country but this is in development, says Audra Dargyte Burokiene.

Number of international students recruited each year. Source: Department of statistics

Number of international students recruited each year. Source: Department of statistics

A study presented in 2012 about international students in Lithuania, showed that the number of international students being recruited each year is increasing. Audra Dargyte Burokiene believes that it is a trend that is likely to continue.

– I’m more then convinced that the number of international students is increasing and will continue to increase in Lithuania because it is already a tendency, she says.

Additionally the study presented the results from a student survey and concluded that up to 56 per cent of students who pursue higher education in Lithuania would would consider to stay in Lithuania after they graduate. There is currently no possibility to stay in Lithuania after graduation however in Parliament, there is a registered amendment recommending to change this provision of the law and allow students to remain in Lithuania three more months after graduation and look for employment.

“The better life”
Despite the proposed  measures to make Lithuania a more attractive place to study, there aren’t any concrete solutions to the emigration problem. While internationalisation of universities and attracting foreign talent appears to be having a positive impact, it is debatable whether or not it will adequately address the core of the problem; what is causing Lithuanian’s to leave. The general consensus among Lithuanian youth is that in order to make it a more attractive place to stay, there needs to be higher salaries and better career opportunities.

– Here politicians are trying to take people who are abroad and bring them back, but they aren’t trying to make it a better place so that people don’t go in the first place. Everybody’s just looking for the better life, says Akvile Pazarauskaite.

Akvile Pazarauskaite: Why I think it’s important to stay in Lithuania