International Students in Lithuania: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for risk management in many areas. International students in Lithuania, who have faced countless challenges during the pandemic, are not an exception, and, as the experiences of universities, colleges and state institutions have shown, these challenges only can be solved through inter-institutional cooperation.
On Wednesday, May 19, European Migration Network in Lithuania (EMN) organized a remote conference titled “International Students in Lithuania: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic” where participants discussed the situation of third-country students in Lithuania. Head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Vilnius office dr. Audra Sipavičienė moderated the event, while conference participants included representatives from EMN, higher education schools, and state institutions.
During the meeting, EMN representatives presented the latest EMN study on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on international students from third countries in Lithuania. Conference participants also discussed the main challenges posed by coronavirus to third-country students studying in Lithuania.
Impact of the pandemic on international student migration
Vytautas Ežerskis, the coordinator of the European Migration Network (EMN), presented the current situation concerning the COVID-19 outbreak in the European Union (EU) and the measures taken by EU countries. According to him, migration has been directly affected by border closures and travel restrictions, increased unemployment, and the slowdown or suspension of visa and residence permit applications. Among the measures of indirect effect, V. Ežerskis mentioned the decreased number of asylum applications, the increased use of electronic means, and the slowdown of the return process.
After that, EMN project assistant Greta Kvietkauskaitė reviewed international students' situation in Lithuania during the coronavirus pandemic. G. Kvietkauskaitė claimed that online studies, admission deadline extension, psychological and financial assistance were measures which Lithuanian authorities used to curb the negative COVID-19 pandemic effects facing international students studying in Lithuania.
Higher education institutions’ experiences
Universities also shared their experiences at the conference. Raimonda Markevičienė, Head of International Programmes and Relations Office at Vilnius University, highlighted the need for risk management skills. According to her, during the initial phase of the pandemic, uncertainty ran vibrantly - neither universities nor the Government knew which institutions were responsible for the decisions affecting international students in Lithuania.
Meanwhile, Ingrida Janulevičienė, dean of the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences (LSMU), expressed her pleasure with LSMU's ability to effectively adapt to the changing situation by transferring learning process online. However, the dean also worried about international students' lack of knowledge about insurance issues. According to I. Janulevičienė, most international students do not distinguish travel insurance from health insurance. Often, travel insurance is mistakenly confused with health insurance which provides inpatient health services in Lithuania.
The conference also revealed that the COVID-19 challenge was not unexpected for all higher education institutions. Aistė Motekaitienė, Vice President Marketing at LCC International University, emphasized that LCC University was preparing for the second quarantine in advance. As a result, the fall semester was divided into two parts, applying a hybrid study model. According to the LCC representative, students who could not come to Lithuania in this way were provided with conditions to study remotely.
Asked how universities will adapt to the accelerating transition to online teaching, representatives of higher education institutions took a united stand. According to them, online methods enrich the learning process, but they will never replace social experiences gained through learning in person. In addition, university representatives were adamant that in specific sciences, such as engineering, medicine and technology, online methods are hardly applicable.
Comments from state institutions
Evelina Gudzinskaitė, Director of the Migration Department, mentioned that, during the pandemic, the Migration Department never interrupted provision of its services. However, despite the benefits of the virtual MIGRIS system, E. Gudzinskaitė noted that efficient migration process still requires person-to-person contact. Therefore, live communication with foreigners arriving in Lithuania remains a priority for the Migration Department.
E. Gudzinskaitė also acknowledged that Migration Department is aware of the complex situation international students found themselves in during the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, Migration Department takes into account the individual circumstances of third-country students when making appropriate decisions.
At the conference Kamilė Nemeikšytė, Third Secretary of the Lithuanian Embassy in India, also shared her experience. According to the diplomat, the number of forged documents in India increased during the pandemic. For this reason, K. Nemeikšytė urged the representatives of higher education institutions to choose third-country agents more carefully with whom they cooperate while trying to attract Indian students to Lithuania.
The conference ended with a presentation by Gražina Kaklauskienė - the Deputy Director of the Education Exchange Support Foundation expressed the need to change the law on the legal status of foreigners by reviewing employment opportunities for bachelor programme students. According to G. Kaklauskienė, undergraduate students should be allowed to work more than 20 hours a week.
The EMN study and the experiences of the conference participants showed that Lithuanian higher education institutions, trying to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, managed to adapt to changing circumstances. However, university representatives pointed to the lack of joint action plan designed by state institutions. For this reason, participants agreed that the most efficient way to find solutions for the challenges facing international students in Lithuania was inter-institutional cooperation.
Link to EMN study (LT): https://bit.ly/3wiFTAw.