Luring 'third' country students

WHILE the number of foreign students who come to Slovakia to study each year has been gradually growing since the country joined the European Union, its position as a study destination for foreigners is still marginal, with experts blaming feeble promotion and a lack of programmes in foreign languages.

WHILE the number of foreign students who come to Slovakia to study each year has been gradually growing since the country joined the European Union, its position as a study destination for foreigners is still marginal, with experts blaming feeble promotion and a lack of programmes in foreign languages.

Last year, the number of foreign students studying at Slovak universities for bachelor’s and master’s degrees, both full-time and via external studies programmes (a popular part-time form of college enrolment), stood at 4,500, which comprised 3.6 percent of the total number of students in the country. Compared to 2011, this figure represented a 2.72-percent rise.
Slovakia lags behind other countries, including its central European neighbours, and with students who come from non-EU countries, referred to in Slovakia as third countries, the numbers are even lower.

“Statistics show that the Slovak Republic has only been of marginal interest to international students,” reads the study entitled ‘Migration of International Students to the EU for the Slovak Republic’ authored by Peter Drozd, Andrea Frkáňová and Katarína Kubovičová from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

According to the authors, there are several reasons for this, including the low attractiveness of Slovakia as a final destination for foreign students, weak promotion of Slovak schools abroad, the low number of foreign-language study programmes as well as lengthy and difficult administrative procedures when applying for a residence permit.

The study proposes several recommendations to make Slovakia more attractive to foreign students and to solve some of the problems that they face. Since the study is the first comprehensive document to describe the migration of foreign students to Slovakia, its authors hope that it might help to open a discussion over the issue.

Moreover, Zuzana Vatráľová, head of the IOM office in Bratislava, expects that the results might be used to create policies in this area in Slovakia, and that the employees of Slovak universities dealing with foreign students from third countries, employees of the Alien Police or the students themselves will make use of them.

Administration is a problem

Every student who wishes to come to Slovakia from a non-EU country has to ask for a visa and apply for a temporary residence permit, which is not to exceed six years. Each applicant first has to submit his or her request on an official form of the representation office of Slovakia in his or her home country. According to the law on the residence of aliens, applicants must include a copy of a valid passport, a current photo, and documents confirming the reason for staying in the country, as well as numerous others necessary for acceptance of the application. Applicants must also attend a personal interview in a language they as well as the interviewer understand.

The relevant authority in Slovakia, the Border and Alien Police, must then decide on the application within 90 days of receiving it.

Even when the applicants receive a residence permit, the law stipulates that universities must inform the police within three days of when foreign students begin and end their studies, and whether they have been expelled or terminated from the school.

The website of the Interior Ministry, which provides the relevant documents and rules for foreigners seeking temporary residence, is in Slovak, except for the most recent amendment to the law on the stay of foreigners, added in October 2011.

Vatráľová said that dealing with the documents necessary to obtain a residence permit is one of the biggest obstacles foreigners from third countries have to deal with. She added that they also have problems understanding the various administrative procedures.

According to Ján Pekár, deputy rector for study affairs at Comenius, the biggest problem for foreign students coming to Comenius involves their ability to acclimatise at the school, citing language barriers and the difficulty of the studies.

They also often complain about the administrative procedures and dealing with the Slovak authorities, including the Border and Alien Police, he added.

Tatiana Žemberyová, head of the International Relations Office and Erasmus institutional coordinator at the Slovak University of Technology (STU) in Bratislava, adds that the students also have to deal with problems accompanying the recognition of documents confirming education received at foreign secondary schools and universities.

The process is very long, and there is no comprehensive information for applicants, she told The Slovak Spectator.

Number of students from non-EU countries still low

Universities in Slovakia have reported an increase in the number of foreign students since 2006, when public schools registered 775 foreign students in both full-time and external studies programmes. In the 2012-2013 academic year, the number of foreign students at public schools enrolled in bachelor’s and master’s degrees in both types of studies stood at 4,500. Of these students, 1,597 came from third countries, according to data of the Institute of Information and Prognoses of Education (ÚIPŠ).

Comenius University in Bratislava at the moment registers 1,994 foreign students at all three levels (i.e. bachelor’s, master’s and PhD), of which 787 were from countries outside the EU and 372 from countries outside the European Communities. The highest number of such students came from Norway, Serbia and Ukraine, Pekár told The Slovak Spectator.

Žemberyová said that in the 2012/13 academic year STU registered 203 students from non-EU countries at all three levels. The highest number of them are from Kuwait and Serbia.
The total number of students from third countries stood at 6,861 between 2006 and 2011.
They mostly came from Serbia, Kuwait, Israel, Ukraine and Saudi Arabia, and were interested in social sciences, economics, law, construction, technology, production and communication, as well as health care, according to the IOM study.

Other European countries report a higher percentage of foreign students enrolling in their schools. While in Great Britain this number stands at 15.3 percent of the total number of university students, in Austria it is 15.1 percent and in Switzerland 14.9 percent. Australia reports its percentage of foreign students at 21.5, Michal Fedák, deputy director of the Slovak Academic Information Agency (SAIA), noted when speaking at a conference on ‘The Migration of Students from Third Countries to Slovakia and the EU’, which took place in Bratislava in December 2012.

Slovakia should devote more time to foreign students for various reasons, such as their potential impact on the national economy, the sustainability of the country’s tertiary education, as well as to increase the quality of education and establish international contacts necessary for further cooperation, Fedák said at the conference.

Study offers some tips

The IOM study primarily focused on answering two questions. The first relates to Slovakia’s residence policies for foreign students and the motivation of the students when choosing the country for higher education. The results showed that the influx of foreign students from non-EU countries to Slovakia, as well as their impact on migration policy in the country, is relatively low. The factors affecting their decision to come to Slovakia are mostly scholarship programmes and the availability of financial aid for studies, based on agreements between schools, the study reads.

If Slovakia wants to attract highly qualified professionals, it should focus on its education system and support the influx of good students to Slovakia, according to the study. Moreover, it should allow them to enter the labour market more easily. Such policies, the report continues, “relate to other measures in the field of development aid, prevention of brain-drain from the students’ home countries”, as well as measures concerning “the prevention of illegal migration”.

The second question dealt with the number of cases in which people from third countries falsely apply for student status in order to obtain a residence permit in Slovakia. The results of the survey indicate that it is difficult to find out the manner in which this occurs, since there are currently no statistics available in Slovakia. Moreover, schools addressed by the researchers said that they had not reported any such cases.

Another important finding in the study is that even though the Slovak government has prepared various documents which support migration of foreign students from third countries, including the government programme statement for 2012-16, Slovakia still lacks some kind of comprehensive document which deals exclusively with this issue. The existing documents only touch on the issue, the study states.

When asked about how to improve Slovakia’s image in the eyes of foreigners from third countries, Vatráľová said that the country should implement measures whose aim should be “to increase the interest of foreign students to study here”.

These include the promotion of Slovak universities and campaigns focused on students abroad, providing information in foreign languages about the conditions for studying in Slovakia, as well as information about the conditions for the students’ stay, enrolment fees, and the legislative procedures concerning the issuance of visas and residence permits for students from non-EU countries. In addition, various scholarships, grants or other forms of financial support for foreign students, as well as the existence of study programmes created jointly with other foreign universities and foreign languages programmes, might be motivational, Vatráľová told The Slovak Spectator.

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