Foreign universities court Czech students as competition between institutions increases

Gaudeamus fair, photo: Pavel Cyprich

Czech students are sought after not just by local universities and colleges, but also by their European counterparts as student numbers dwindle across the continent. But while they are faced with more choice, Czech students also face a more difficult jobs market and the need to mark themselves out from the rest. Chris Johnstone looks at the evolving higher education market.

Gaudeamus fair,  photo: Pavel Cyprich
“When Christopher Columbus discovered America, Charles University has been up and running for 150 years as one of Central Europe’s oldest educational institutions.” That observation formed part of the plug for Prague’s prestigious university at a fair in the capital last week where universities and higher education colleges, not just the Czech Republic but the whole of Europe, and some from the US and Asia, used the event to showcase their courses and colleges. But are local roots, tradition, and prestige enough in what looks like an increasingly competitive market?

Within the next few week tens of thousands of Czech school leavers will have to make their applications for university and college courses starting in the autumn. The Gaudeamus study abroad fair in Prague is a traditional event aimed at allowing educational institutions to sell themselves not just to Czechs, but also Slovaks, and other foreign students.

Here traditional public universities, such as Charles University, rubbed shoulders with relatively young private colleges; universities which have grown out of the training courses offered by big industrial companies, such a Czech car maker Škoda Auto’s Mladá Boleslav University, with colleges offering specialist sports courses.

One striking thing was the sheer number of foreign colleges and universities promoting themselves. So is there a boom in Czechs choosing to go abroad to study beyond the now common term or two away as part of the EU’s Erasmus programme? Klára Macíková is a former student at the University of Worcester in Britain who has been recruited to encourage other Czech students to follow in her footsteps. “The interest is rising but it is in the very beginning because people are not used to going abroad. The students don’t know about the requirements. They don’t know what it takes to go abroad so they are afraid. And moreover there is a huge problem because we have education free of charge. In Britain it is not free of charge and they [students] do not know about financing and the student loans. So it’s hard for them to decide whether to go abroad or stay here. It is much easier to stay here, being in Prague, being in a familiar place. Compared to other nations, the Czech Republic is very weak in the number of students [studying abroad]. We just started two years ago, so I can’t judge based on that. ”

Last year 17 Czechs signed up for the University of Worcester, 15 undergraduates and two post graduates. It is a total that surpassed the university’s expectations. Former British language teacher turned student recruiter, Martin Stanton, was manning University College Birmingham’s stall in another part of the fair. It had succeeded in attracting sizable interest and he is more than happy with the promotion in Prague and other Czech cities.“We have had record numbers of applications this year. So far, up to January we have had 54 undergraduate applications which is rally an enormous number of students. So we are really happy with that. ”

Illustrative photo: European Commission
University College Birmingham started its promotions in the Czech Republic around eight years ago. A key factor was Czech entry into the European Union and with it the possibility of Czech students to apply for repayable student loans from the British state to meet the costs of tuition fees. Initially the interest amounted to a handful of students but that has clearly changed. Stanton says one of the main attractions is that the university can demonstrate the practical aspects of the courses in such fields as hotel management, tourism, and events management, and the fact that they lead directly to jobs. “I think one of the main factors is that our courses are very practically focussed so that students realise that when they leave university they have a set of skills that will make them marketable and employable.”

Aneta Řezníková chose to do her masters’ degree at Birmingham and is now part of the university’s recruitment staff. She echoed the praise of the practical approach and contrasts it with her experience under the Czech education system, which is frequently attacked as being far too theoretical and stuck in the past. “It is more or less based on some real projects. We get these projects from real companies so students are prepared for the real environment once they finish university. That is the main experience that I got. Moreover, the lectures are not that formal like in the Czech Republic. It is more friendly. Students feel more comfortable and calm down. If they have any questions, no question is stupid. That is what I liked about the university,” she said.

Aneta says that the costs of studying abroad might appear at first prohibitive. But with the teaching fees covered by a grant, the main costs are food and lodging. One helpful factor was that part time jobs were fairly easy to find in Britain’s second city. She boasts that she found a job after just two hours of searching.

It is not a flood of Czechs seeking to study in Britain or other European countries. In the 2012-2013 educational year there were 865 undergraduate and 385 post graduate students enrolled at British universities and colleges. That total of 1,250, was slightly down on the amounts from the previous years, which were 1,275 and 1,185. Czech educational authorities are vague on the number and whereabouts of Czech students who have chosen to study abroad. But if the step of moving abroad is too big to contemplate, that’s not necessarily a problem since an ever increasing number of foreign universities are setting up outposts in the Czech Republic.

Illustrative photo: Griszka Niewiadomski / Stock.XCHNG
Germany’s Fresenius University of Applied Science has recently done just that. Communications manager Alexandra Mostýn says one of the advantages is that it can offer Czech students courses at its eight German centres. “I think that Fresenius Hochschule has a lot to offer Czech students especially as regards our international links. We have about eight schools in Germany where Czech students can study as part of their degree course in Prague. And considering the fact that Germany is a very important economic partner of the Czech Republic, this is something that we can offer to our students.”

So, higher education looks like it’s increasingly a marketplace where there is more and more on offer if you are prepared to look around and expand your horizons. Most Czech and European higher education institutions are currently facing low student enrolment due to the low birth rate of around 20 years ago even though around three-fifths of Czechs are now opting for further studies after school. The total number of Czechs aged 18-21 is expected to stay at around 90,000 to 95,000 a year until 2025, when the figures should climb again. To put that in context, the total was around 140,000 around a decade ago.

But the jobs market appears to be tightening even faster than the declining student numbers and having a degree no longer for Czechs the guaranteed entry into a decent job that it used to be. A study by the Czech ministry of education estimates that by 2020 there will be 1.5 million Czechs with higher education qualifications or around 25% of the total workforce. However, only 20% of the jobs will be in areas traditionally regarded as needing graduates. That means many new graduates will have more problems finding the jobs they want and an increasing number will have to make do with work that falls well below their expectations. So, from the students’ side as well there looks like there will be an increasing emphasis on finding ways to stand out in the crowd, perhaps through foreign education or through studies at institutions with close links to private companies and potential employers.

So are the Czech Republic’s traditional universities threatened by growing local and foreign competition? Václav Hájek says of the many private colleges and universities that have set up in the Czech Republic over the last decade still have a very mixed reputation. For the scope of subjects, partnerships with foreign universities, and research options offered, Charles University is still way out there in front, he says. “Charles University has a wider offer, with 17 faculties and around 600 separate subject areas than these small universities. When it comes to internationally prestigious educational institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, and such like, it is clear that their reputation, and the financing and support they get, is undoubtedly higher. But what we appreciate is when one of our students, for example, leaves to go and study at one of those prestigious international universities, maybe on a doctorate course for young students, and the rector gets a letter back praising the level of his education and the fact that he is holding his own. ”

Illustrative photo: Sanja Gjenero / Stock.XCHNG
Education is a two way street. Charles University is the most successful at recruiting foreign students with around 7,000 on its books. They sometimes study in Czech, sometimes English, and less often in French and German. Altogether there are estimated to be around 38,000 foreigners enrolled in Czech colleges. And if Czechs start to be enticed in greater numbers abroad, foreign student numbers in Czech institutions could be even more crucial in the future.