Lithuania: The incredible shrinking university degree

The allure of a university diploma gives way to the security of vocational training in the post-2008 economy.

KLAIPEDA, Lithuania | Alfredas Pumpulis dabbled in writing before applying to the journalism school at prestigious Vilnius University after graduating from high school last year.

But his path to a journalism career took an unexpected turn. When Pumpulis did poorly on his exams, his parents urged him to stick with his plans to attend the university by switching to a different field. Instead, he said, “I picked up my documents and sent them to Klaipeda College of Applied Social Sciences.”

A year later, now studying intercultural and social communication, Pumpulis, 20, says, “I’m happy being in my shoes.”

His parents are also pleased that their son is at school just a half hour’s drive from home in the coastal town of Palanga and is doing well.

For Mantvydas Paulikas, a former schoolmate of Pumpulis, the story has a similar beginning but so far a different ending.

Paulikas had planned to embark on the career his parents wanted for him, enrolling in a university architecture program. But he soon gave it up to learn welding at a vocational training center. The swap cost him his parents.

“They disowned me. Literally. We haven’t been in touch since then,” he said.

Both men say other ex-schoolmates could tell similar stories.

As Lithuania considers how to cut a high youth unemployment rate, it has joined a battle being waged across the European Union, to channel more high school graduates into vocational education, where they can learn skills in demand by employers – and away from the halls of academe, where they can earn a prestigious diploma that is losing its luster in the job market.

The country’s 50 public and private universities and colleges still enroll more new students annually than vocational schools, but the gap is narrowing.

Since 2010, the share of the college-age population enrolled in a university has steadily declined, from 69.3 percent to 58.4 percent, according to the country’s statistical agency, while the share signing up for vocational schools has climbed, from 14.8 percent to 22.4 percent.

Last year the number of high-school graduates who signed up to the national registry of potential university and college applicants fell by 3,000. As the registration deadline for this year’s graduates nears, the figure is expected to fall further.

“Higher education is slowly losing its attraction,” Pumpulis said. “Many young people out there are eager to start their independent life right away. This is what vocational studies are good for. Job-wise, university education cannot guarantee a clear-cut future and a good living, which a trade school does.”

Even though Lithuania’s youth unemployment rate of around 20 percent is slightly below the EU average, nearly a quarter of the 23,500 unemployed below the age of 25 in 2013 were university graduates – a daunting number for young people trying to decide what to do after high school.

At several universities, around one in five recent graduates is unable to find a job within a year, a figure Education and Science Minister Dainius Pavalkis called “really insane.”

“This needs to be changed, and in fact we’re already tackling the situation,” Pavalkis said.

One angle of attack is to push young people toward vocational education so they can enter the job market sooner, equipped with in-demand skills. The other, more controversial, is a bid to radically shake up Lithuania’s higher education system.

Public universities won a large degree of autonomy in academic and admissions policies in the early 2000s, but some have lost sight of their wider responsibilities, Pavalkis suggested.

“All institutions of higher education that use public funds must prepare specialists the economy needs,” he said.

Pavalkis’ plan would restore the state’s role in university affairs by requiring each institution to negotiate its admission policies and academic programs with the Education Ministry.

Universities would also be required to establish minimum admissions requirements and test scores. Under the current system, high-school graduates are assured of a place in the university system, although less academically gifted students may lose out on scholarships and admission to more prestigious schools. 

State universities will receive 578 million litas ($225 million) in budget funds in 2014, according to the Finance Ministry.

“I see the bar of academic achievements being raised considerably higher for secondary-school graduates who want to pursue higher education. This will allow us to separate the wheat from the chaff before wasting public money,” Pavalkis said.

The proposals have run into resistance from some universities who say their statistics are better than the ministry claims.

Kestutis Saldziunas is a spokesman for Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius, one of the five schools with the worst records in finding jobs for recent graduates according to the ministry. He said the school’s graduates who register at the Lithuanian Labor Exchange tend to be unemployed for only a short time.

“The inconsistencies in the graduates’ unemployment statistics stem from whether you are looking at short-term or long-term prospects,” Saldziunas said.

But the ministry has made dramatic progress on the other front of the battle, making the Lithuanian education system more responsive to the needs of the economy.

The country’s GDP tanked in 2009, falling by 22 percent from its post-independence high the previous year, and slipping another 7 percent in 2010, according to World Bank figures.

The slump gave new impetus to calls by previous governments for a shift from academic studies to skilled trades, and under the present left-leaning government the state has pumped millions of dollars of EU and domestic funds into vocational training, in part inspired by the example of Germany, whose system of channeling most teenagers into trade schools instead of universities is credited with keeping both youth and overall unemployment rates among the lowest in the union. 

“Perhaps it’s still too early to speak of a shift in that regard, but there are some good signs,” Pavalkis said.

At one of the country’s largest trade schools, Vilnius Business Services Vocational Training Center (VPVDPRC), where Paulikas learned to weld, the increased interest is striking. From 737 total students and 328 freshmen in 2008, enrollment rose to 863 and 412 respectively last year.

As much as the ministry would like to chalk up the achievement as its own, the impact of the hefty EU vocational training-oriented funds and the Lithuanian economy itself can hardly be dismissed.

Between 2011 and 2013 about 400 million litas, most of which came from EU coffers, were channeled into opening 40 new vocational centers and upgrading existing ones.

VPVDPRC scooped up nearly 10 million litas, or $3.9 million, in EU subsidies over the last two years.

About a quarter of that amount was invested into training hairdressers, cosmeticians, and nannies. Most of the rest is earmarked to upgrade programs for future photographers, florists, event planners, and designers.

Center director Rita Peciukaityte said Lithuania has received a “nice chunk of the pie” of EU money set aside for vocational training. “As a result, most Lithuanian vocational schools have been renovated and equipped with state-of-the-art training facilities,” she said.

“What the Lithuanian labor market now really needs is skilled, professional builders, welders, electricians, plasterers, and other highly professional workers,” said Danas Arlauskas, president of the Lithuanian Business and Employers Confederation.

Though interest in skilled trades is on the rise, vocational training is still dealing with a dismal Soviet-era image.

“For many, these educational facilities still conjure up images of sluggards and morons, a widespread old misconception. Many secondary-school teachers still warn lazy students that they’ll end up in a trade school and become ‘losers,’ ” Peciukaityte said.

“Our public still has too many unfounded misconceptions of that kind of educational establishment. Things are slowly changing for the better, but I wish the process were a lot speedier,” Education Minister Pavalkis admitted.

It will likely be the economy, more than any PR campaign, that changes those notions. “More and more, the magic magnetism of a higher education diploma is wearing off. What matters in a competitive labor market today is having a diploma that guarantees a living,” Peciukaityte said.

The business services training center in Vilnius is a vivid example of that: of its 850 students last year, a record-high 75 already had university diplomas that were of no help in finding a job.

As for this year, of 200 applicants to study massage therapy, about 30 already have a university diploma, as do 15 of the 60 vying for a place in the hairdresser course, Peciukaityte said.

“The phenomenon is clearly here: university and college graduates unable to find a job are more frequently walking into local trade schools. These kinds of students boost the image of vocational studies best,” she said.

Students like Pumpulis and Paulikas, for instance.

“I keep telling everyone that college studies have been very rewarding to me. They’re pretty short, practice-filled, and oriented to the labor market. I’ve already started working part time and I can use the know-how I’ve obtained in classes,” Pumpulis said.

“Most of my former classmates at universities complain that their programs are just too dry, lack a practical approach, and offer a dim future after graduation.”

Looking to broaden his horizons further, in June Paulikas applied to enter the Lithuanian Maritime Academy in Klaipeda.

“I want to be a seaman and welder, that’s my goal now. I wish all those parents who disapprove of their children’s professional paths would understand that times are changing,” he said.

He also wants to send a message to his own parents, who cut off contact with him when he left university.

“I want them to understand that the diploma doesn’t define the person, but the person with the right diploma for himself can define his own future best.”

Linas Jegelevicius is a freelance journalist in Klaipeda, Lithuania. This article was originally published on Transitions Online.


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