“Overcoming educational inequalities can lead to a significant increase in the number of students in Bulgarian universities” – stated Georgi Stoytchev at a meeting of the Council of Rectors, held on March 16 at the Medical University in Plovdiv. During the meeting, which was also attended by the Minister of Education Professor Sasho Penov, the director of the Open Society Institute – Sofia cited data from the latest population census, according to which the proportion of higher education students among the Roma population remains below 1%, while among those who self-identify as Turkish, it is 8%, and among Bulgarians, it is 29%. “If these inequalities did not exist, the number of students in Bulgarian universities could be approximately 20,000 more than it is currently,” said Stoytchev, calling for additional efforts to increase the proportion of students who successfully pass the final exam of High School and thereby open the way to higher education participation.
He reminded that over the last decade, the number of students in Bulgaria has decreased by about one-fifth and that currently, it is half the number of places available in universities. This poses a question for many higher education institutions on where to find students. According to Stoytchev, higher education institutions can attract more students by expanding the scope of higher education to groups in the country that have so far been isolated from participation, as well as by attracting more foreign students, including from areas outside Europe.
In the last decade, the share of foreign students in Bulgaria has doubled and exceeded 8%. By this measure, Bulgaria has reached the EU average levels and is a leader among the Balkan countries, but it continues to be a net donor of students, meaning that more Bulgarian students study abroad than foreign students come to the country. In order to achieve a balance between the two, Bulgaria needs to aim to increase the share of foreign students in Bulgarian universities to around 12% of the total number of students in the country, Stoytchev said. To achieve such a goal, Bulgarian universities will need to diversify both the regions from which they attract foreign students and the fields of study that are attractive to such students.
At the moment, barely 12% of foreign students in Bulgaria come from regions outside Europe, while on average for EU countries, over half of foreign students come from such regions, which are generally characterized by population growth and increasing potential to generate future students. However, Bulgaria still has limited participation in the growing global education market and remains heavily dependent on processes in Europe, which is facing demographic stagnation.
Stoytchev added that Bulgaria has a high concentration of foreign students in only one area – healthcare, in which the country is a leader in the EU. According to Eurostat data, 58% of all foreign students in Bulgaria are concentrated in healthcare-related fields, while only 13% of foreign students in the EU study in similar fields. At the same time, Bulgaria lags behind in attracting foreign students in economics and administration, as well as in engineering and humanities.
According to Georgi Stoytchev, by the end of the current decade, universities will receive a one-time “demographic bonus” that could lead to an increase in the number of students by 5-7% due to the higher number of births in Bulgaria in the period 2003-2009, who will turn 18 and enter the higher education system over the next 6 years. However, afterwards, under equal conditions, a new, deeper, and more prolonged decline in the number of students is expected. This means that at the beginning of the next decade, universities will be faced with the choice of either consolidating or seeking to increase the number of students they attract from abroad and/or from groups within the country that have so far been on the losing side of educational inequalities.