SINCE THE 1990s, learning by travelling, getting to know other cultures and meeting the locals has been a favourite part of the university experience for many students in central and eastern Europe. Today, while most students from the region still prefer to head westwards to ‘check out’ the better study conditions in western European countries and the US, the Visegrad leaders are encouraging exchanges within the region as well as with its eastern neighbours.
Education is one of the priorities of programmes supported by the International Visegrad Fund (IVF). Generally there are three ways in which the IVF supports education. First, through the standard and small grants programmes, under which individual projects such as the annual Visegrad Summer School (see the accompanying article), are supported. Secondly, the Visegrad Scholarship Programme supports the exchange of scholars and students in the V4 countries. And, finally the latest plan, the Visegrad University Studies Grant (VUSG) supports university courses and programmes which deal with Visegrad-related issues at any university in the world.
The student exchanges are, however, the current centre of attention for the IVF, according to its PR director Jiří Sýkora. With these scholarships, students as well as teachers can learn by travelling and living in another country.
“It’s extremely rewarding to us to learn that a student whom we supported in a master’s programme was accepted for doctoral studies in the same country,” Sýkora told The Slovak Spectator.
“The main aim of the exchanges is to enable students to learn about the culture and language of another nation,” Ildikó Vančová, the deputy dean for international relations of the Faculty of Central European Studies (FSS) in Nitra told The Slovak Spectator. “FSS students frequently travel to Hungary and the Czech Republic, but they don’t have much experience with the IVF scholarships yet. In the coming academic year, FSS will welcome the first in-coming student from Ukraine supported by the Visegrad Scholarship,” Vančová said.
At the launch of the programme in 2003 its scholarship funds distributed among 80 scholars was almost €250,000, which according to Sýkora represented about one-fifth of the IVF''s budget. Today, the scholarships make up one-third of the budget, as almost €1.3 million was allocated to the programme. In the coming academic year the budget for the scholarship programme exceeds €1.5 million, which will enable the fund to grant scholarships for 480 semesters.
Students from 17 countries in central and eastern Europe, the western Balkans and south Caucasus are eligible to apply for a scholarship in one of the three schemes – intra-Visegrad scholarships, out-going scholarships for V4 students wishing to study at a university in one of the neighbouring countries and in-coming scholarships for students from beyond the V4 to come and study at one of the Czech, Slovak, Polish or Hungarian universities.
Within the in-coming scholarships scheme the IVF operates special programmes focused on Ukraine and Belarus.
“We are focusing on these countries because they are our closest neighbours to the east,” Sýkora said. “Ukraine is a regional superpower, so it’s necessary to communicate with it. For our region’s stability it’s important that Ukraine is stable too. In addition, through Ukraine the countries more to the east in the southern Caucasus are opening up for us.”
The aim of the programme is that the students return home after their studies in the V4 countries and use what they have learned to improve the state administration or other areas of public life in their home country.
“For our students, awareness about the V4 is a necessity. As they travel around, they will see the region as a whole and that gives us the hope that one day the borders between the Visegrad countries will be less important than they are now,” Sýkora said.
The out-going scholarships haven’t created as much interest as the in-coming scholarships, because the range of applicants is limited by their study fields. Only students in regional studies and international relations can apply for these scholarships. According to Sýkora, the applicants sometimes have only limited fluency in the language of their target country. Russian or local languages are often required.
That was the case of Matej Kresáč, a Slovak student of international relations specialising in eastern Europe at Masaryk University in Brno. As a graduate student he spent a semester through the EU Erasmus programme in Warsaw and later he was awarded an out-going scholarship to study at the Rivne Institute for Slavonic Studies of the Kyiv Slavonic University. He appreciated the possibility to get some more practice in Russian and Ukrainian languages.
“Most people want to try studying in the West, because everything is better there and you can live without much trouble,” he told The Slovak Spectator. “I wanted to get to know Ukraine better and improve my knowledge of Ukrainian and Russian, since eastern Europe is in the focus of my studies.”
Travelling eastwards had a slightly exotic touch and Kresáč thought it would be more interesting to study in Ukraine than in western Europe.
Somewhat negatively surprised by the living standards in his host country, he said that his stay in some respects confirmed some of the stereotypes he’d heard about Ukraine. But overall he felt his time there had a positive impact on him.
“It gave me the opportunity to look at countries with a different point of view from the teachers and other people that I met there,” Kresáč said.
Kresáč agrees that the V4 countries have a lot to offer to Ukraine in terms of the democratisation and the Euro-Atlantic integration process, but he also believes the learning process goes both ways.
“It’s good to get to know our eastern neighbours better,” he said. “And for students from beyond V4, coming here will help them to better understand democratic standards.”
The piece is part of the Visegrad Countries Special, prepared by The Slovak Spectator with the support of the International Visegrad Fund. For more information on cooperation between the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia please see the following document.