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Twenty-five years ago, when Communism was alive and kicking, foreigners on Bulgarian streets were a rarity and mostly restricted to the Black Sea resorts and some major tourist sights. Otherwise, most of the visible non-Bulgarian faces in the country were in the cities with major universities. There, young people from the Arab countries mingled with Vietnamese and South Africans, the result of Communist Bulgaria's propaganda of the Socialist lifestyle outside Europe.
After the collapse of the system, private education got the green light and universities and colleges mushroomed in big cities, and even in towns. The Ministry of Education has an approved list (www.mon.bg/left_menu/registers/vishe/registar.html) which includes 44 universities, both private and state, and seven colleges. All of them compete freely on the tough home and international markets.
For two years now, you have been able to check the ranking of different Bulgarian universities on the official Ministry of Education website at www.rsvu.mon.bg/RSVU/. Sadly, where international assessment is concerned, Bulgarian universities fail to deliver. None of them features in the 600-plus Best in the World list of QS Top Universities for 2011/2012, though several universities from Turkey, Greece and Romania made it onto the list.
A survey published by Bulgarian EMP Ivaylo Kalfin showed that in 2009-2010 Bulgaria was one of the least preferred countries for Erasmus Programme students. This venture is an exchange programme aimed at EU students, with the idea of enriching their academic experience. Only 627 foreign students studied in Bulgaria in 2009/2010, and few countries did worse – Latvia (526), Iceland (491), Cyprus (452), Luxembourg (313) and Liechtenstein (46).
Some foreign students, however, do come here to study. According to the data produced by the Ministry of Education, in 2011-2012 1,657 overseas students are enrolled in 39 universities and colleges. The total number of students studying in Bulgarian universities and colleges is about 64,000. The ministry failed to provide data for the total number of foreign students in Bulgaria's universities and colleges, nor other statistics that Vagabond requested.
The Blagoevgrad-based American University in Bulgaria, or AUBG, leads the list with 300 foreign students admitted in 2011-2012. A close second is Sofia's Medical University (237 new arrivals). Other prominent names on the list are the Technical University in Sofia (199), Sofia University (141), the Technical University in Varna (112) and the Medical University in Plovdiv (106).
The great majority of newly-admitted foreign students, 1,173, are from Turkey. This tendency has continued for several years now, and is the result of the economic boom in that country, coupled with a shortage of local universities and Bulgaria's close proximity. A long way behind are the students from Russia (68), Albania (54), the United States (50), Kazakhstan (37), and so on. Medicine is the favourite subject choice of overseas students, 259 of whom are studying it. Other preferred programmes are in Physiotherapy (69), Computer Sciences (55), Social Management (49), IT Technologies (45), and Pharmacy (41).
Vagabond asked several universities for more details about their foreign students.
The administration of the AUBG reported 645 foreigners on its campus, or about 60 percent of the total number of students. They come from 40 different countries, most notably the Balkans, the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Germany, Poland, and China. The curriculum is in English and modelled on the American educational Liberal Arts standard, so it is hard to say which programmes are preferred by foreigners. Students study Business Administration, Economics, Political Science and Journalism and Mass Communications. Upon graduation, the AUBG alumni find jobs easily and receive better starting salaries than their peers in Bulgaria.
The privately owned New Bulgarian University, or NBU, in Sofia is the Alma mater to about 300 foreigners. They make up about 3 percent of the total number of students in NBU. Most of them come from Cyprus, Greece, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, Turkey, and Russia, plus Syria, Algeria, and Vietnam. The university also has a special agreement with Israel and every year welcomes about 30 Erasmus Programme exchange students. Graphic Design, IT, Political Science, and Architecture plus Music, Visual Arts and Plastic Arts are the top choices of foreigners. The Erasmus exchange students, however, have a taste for Psychology and Cognitive Science, Semiotics, Political Science, Fine Arts, Visual Arts and Plastic Arts. Bulgaria's universities attract foreign students with the diversity of their programmes, lower fees and cheaper living expenses, Dr Elena Blagoeva, director of NBU's International Relations Office, told Vagabond. She is very positive about NBU's flexible study programme, but also admits that it needs more foreign-language courses. However, there is more that could be done by the state itself. "Bulgarian universities are still largely unknown in Europe, and working separately they find it hard to make an impression," Blagoeva says. "A national strategy for Bulgarian higher education would be greatly appreciated, and changes at state level are needed. For example, in Bulgaria you need to study for four years to get a BA, while in many European universities the BA programmes are only three years."
Professor Dipl Eng Valeri Mladenov, Vice President for International Integration and Public Relations in the Technical University in Sofia, is optimistic that Bulgarian universities can hold their own in Europe. "Our alumni, when they are ambitious enough, easily find jobs in Bulgaria and abroad, as our professors and our scientific facilities are on a par with other European institutions," he says. The university is famous for its three programmes where major disciplines are taught through English, German and French. Some of the Bulgarian-language faculties also offer an English language option.
In 2011-2012, about 17,000 students are enrolled in the Technical University, of whom 1,319 are foreigners. About 1,000 of these are Turkish. Mechanical Engineering is the most preferred faculty for foreigners, as are Computer Science and Industrial Engineering. Professor Mladenov points out another difficulty facing non-EU students, which is the length of time it takes to apply for and obtain a D-type visa for foreign students.
The large universities are not the only ones that attract overseas students, many of whom choose smaller but highly specialised educational institutions.
The National Sports Academy in Sofia, or NSA, is one of them. In 2011-2012, it has 115 foreigners registered, or about 4 percent of the total number of students. Most are from Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, due to proximity and the academy's prestige in the region. "Turks are especially drawn by the opportunity to study in the EU and to get an EU diploma," Albena Micheva, head of public relations at the NSA, explains. About 90 percent of the foreign students study Physiotherapy, the other choose Physical Education and Football Coaching. Every year around 30 foreigners arrive on an Erasmus Programme; since 2005 there have been 184. Micheva attributes NSA's popularity to good sports and living facilities, the compulsory but fun courses in water and winter sports, the experienced professors and the opportunity for students to participate in research work.
What do the students think?
Lacey Cope, a 22-year-old Californian, visited Bulgaria in 2005 and "felt in love with the country." When she discovered the AUBG it seemed like the "perfect fit, combining my interest in Liberal Arts with my desire to live in Bulgaria." So far, she is "impressed" with the quality of education and finds her courses in International Relations, Political Science and Anthropology "engaging, interactive and challenging." After graduation she plans to work for a minimum of two years, before "considering graduate school. Most likely, I will return home to the United States to find a job."
"Initially, I chose Bulgaria on a whim but it charmed me into staying, and so I transferred to AUBG to complete my degree," says the 22-year-old Molly May, who is studying History. "AUBG was the clear choice because it was familiar and offered an American style of education." Molly doesn't have fixed plans for after graduation. "If the opportunity to stay in Bulgaria arises, I'll take it," she says. "Ideally, I would like to stay in Europe and pursue a higher degree within a year or two."
Petros Gogas, 25-year-old from Greece, is in his fifth year in Civil Engineering in the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy in Sofia. He spent his first eight months studying Bulgarian, and is very happy. "Bulgaria has given me much but the times call for more flexible specialists, something that you cannot learn in the university," he admits.
Some, like 23-year-old Tugsuu Sumiya from Mongolia, who is in his third year at the University of World and National Economics in Sofia, are more critical. Tugsuu is studying International Economic Relations through Bulgarian. "I am not so disappointed with the quality of my education as I am with the manner of teaching," he says. "The mundane efforts of most professors to basically encourage their students to memorise countless names, dates, events, and so on are vastly outdated and lack the ability to capture the students' interest." Upon graduating he plans to do an MA elsewhere in Europe or maybe back in the Asian countries. "I've been told by various acquaintances and friends that a degree from abroad will endow me with far better career prospects." Tugsuu believes, however, that cheaper fees in Bulgaria are not an advantage. "The difference is vast, but as a future economist I think that the benefits still outweigh the cost."