Foreigners at Czech universities at record high, topped by Slovaks and Americans

Foto: Nikolaj Georgiev / Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

More than 60,000 foreign students studied at Czech universities last year – a record high. Most full-time diploma students are from neighbouring Slovakia, followed by ex-Soviet states such as Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, with interest from India and China steadily rising. Most exchange students, coming for just a semester, are from the United States.

Jan Boček,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
Tens of thousands of foreign students began enrolling in semester-abroad programmes at Czech universities after 1998, when the country joined the Erasmus programme. But it was only in 2006 that statisticians began distinguishing between ‘diploma’ and ‘exchange’ students when compiling data about foreign students.

A team of data journalists at Czech Radio have been pouring over statistics going back to 1953, when records first started being kept, to identify trends in the composition of the foreign students. I asked team member Jan Boček what surprises they found when analysing the data.

“We got almost all of the data from the Dům zahraniční spolupráce (House of International Cooperation), which is the main organisation behind the Erasmus programme in the Czech Republic. We have a unique timeline of incoming foreign students since 1953.

“For me, quite a big surprise was the time in the 1990s. It was quite an era of chaos in terms of incoming foreign students. After the era of Socialism ended, almost none were coming from the ‘friendly’ Socialist countries, and the Erasmus exchange hadn’t started yet. Most people were coming from Greece and the United Kingdom, which is surprising – there are not a lot of them today.”

The historical trends naturally also coincide with waves of migration – such as with Ukrainians, Vietnamese, and Greeks. Jan Boček notes there is a large Greek diaspora in Northern Moravia, where communists sought refuge the Greek Civil War of the late 1940s. As for British students, he says, most came to study medicine, since tuition costs were decidedly lower.

Nearly half of the 45,000 diploma students today are Slovaks – who unlike other foreign students have no problem understanding courses taught in Czech, as the languages are mutually intelligible. About 11,000 students from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus – all Slavic countries – are enrolled in Czech universities.

Diploma students studying in English or another foreign language, on the other hand, have to pay a premium – which helps offset the cost to the Czech taxpayer for the free university education system.

Photo: Nikolaj Georgiev,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED
“At some universities and faculties, especially in medicine and the technical faculties, there are a lot of foreign students in those English programmes, and they really pay a lot – they make a big part of their budget.

“As for short-term studies, the Americans make up the biggest percentage and have since the data about such students began being differentiated, in 2006. The number of Erasmus students is growing fast, but there were five times as many Americans this year as in 2006.”

In total, about quarter of the nearly 61,000 foreigners who studied at Czech universities last year were exchange students, here for a semester or at most one year. Their numbers are now 3.5 times higher than in 2006, after Americans, most are French, German or Spanish.