Old-school routes into medicine

Ancient institutions are in rude health for UK students

Whether or not they choose a history degree, students from the UK will be steeped in the past if they opt to study in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, was founded in 1364 and is Central Europe’s second oldest university (Prague’s was founded in 1348); Lithuania’s University of Vilnius has been educating students since 1579, and Semmelweis University in Budapest, a comparative youngster, opened its doors in 1635.

Beyond the halls of academia the region’s cities have a rich and sometimes troubled past for students to explore from the relative comfort and growing prosperity of the present.

Possibly the best-known city, Prague, has long been a favourite with UK tourists and boasts medieval brewhouses and a bustling nightlife, Baroque architecture and curious contemporary art (which includes babies scaling the gigantic Zizkov TV tower and nude animatronic statues at the Franz Kafka museum).

It’s far from the only city of note, of course. Budapest unleashes ferocious winters on the people of Hungary, who make up for it with warm hospitality, opera and Romani music; Kraków’s Gothic architecture survived the Second World War and the city offers good jazz, classical and clubbing scenes; and Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, is home to the world’s only statue of Frank Zappa, set amid its dreaming spires.

Add the astonishing range of mountains, valleys, rivers, brooding castles overlooking lush forests and glacier-hewn flatlands that make this part of the world unique and there’s plenty for students to discover, almost without looking. Prague’s most famous son, Franz Kafka, summed up the region with his comment: “He who seeks does not find, but he who does not seek will be found.”

UK students can find a wide variety of courses to fit their academic ambitions, and applications continue to rise. Generally universities operate a similar model to the UK, often with lower entry requirements, and offer three-year and four-year first degrees and one-year or two-year Masters programmes. Technical, engineering and medical subjects are very well represented across many countries.

Courses of all kinds are increasingly popular with international students in Central and Eastern Europe.

Figures from the Czech Institute for Information on Education suggest that almost 38,000 foreign nationals were enrolled in higher education institutions in the 2010/11 academic year on programmes as diverse as physical education and sport and mechanical engineering.

There’s also a highly developed international atmosphere at the Faculty of Business Administration of the Corvinus University of Budapest, which has close to 700 students in its English programmes, according to Doris Keszthelyi, head of office, International Study Programmes.

“The student body within the English language programmes is itself international,” she says. “Each semester it represents close to 50 different countries.”

The English language programmes and courses at Corvinus are taught in English, says Keszthelyi, with – mercifully – no elements relying on students’ Magyar abilities.

While English is generally spoken outside universities in Central and Eastern Europe, it’s not quite as commonplace as in other parts of Europe, and the choice of English-language courses in Romania, Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic may not be quite as diverse. However, universities are offering more and more programmes taught in English and often offer courses in the national language to help students get along.

But there are many advantages to studying in the region, the experience itself, and also the relative cost of studying. Medicine and dentistry courses are comparable in costs to those in the UK, though fees for other programmes vary widely depending on the country. In Hungary and Romania, tuition fees range from £1,600-£4000 per year; at Lithuania’s Vilnius University, English-language programmes cost from £800-£3200 per semester; the average minimum cost in Poland is £1,600, while courses at Prague’s Charles University weigh in at around £4,800 for BA programmes.

Just as importantly, the cost of living is often up to two-thirds less than in the UK. According to Study in Lithuania (studyinlithuania.com) the capital ranks 166th out of the top 300 expensive cities in the world, with monthly living costs estimated at around £260. In Romania students might spend £200 to £400 depending on their lifestyle, based on calculations from Study in Romania (studyinginromania.com), and Keszthelyi notes that Hungary is also kind to students’ bank balances.

Keszthelyi recommends visiting individual university websites and checking how widely accepted an institution’s degree qualification is outside the country (this is especially important for medical and dental courses), and whether or not the faculty staff is multinational.

But whatever path students choose, their future lives and careers could be every bit as varied as the countries and cultures they’ve called home during their studies.