The number of foreign students choosing Cyprus for their studies has almost tripled in the last five years proving that efforts to establish the island as a regional education hub are delivering results.
Three third-year female medical students from Britain are basking in the winter sunshine at an open-air café on the bustling campus of the University of Nicosia (UNIC). At other tables you can hear American, Australian, Russian, German, Lebanese and Nigerian accents. With 12,000 students, UNIC is the largest of Cyprus’ eight universities and one of the biggest in southern Europe that teaches in English.
“We came to Cyprus because there simply aren’t enough places at British medical schools,” one British student says. “We’re getting the same education and qualifications as we would at home.” A former British colony where English is widely spoken, Cyprus is also the safest country in the world for young people according to a list published by the World Health Organisation which ranked 184 countries. And the weather is a considerable bonus.
Cyprus has rapidly established itself as a hub for quality higher education. Over the last decade, the sector has grown by more than 80% in student numbers, exceeding 44,000 total students during 2016-2017. In 2016 alone it is estimated to have contributed up to €900 million to the local economy and was responsible for approximately 9,500 jobs in the HE sector and its supporting industries. Interestingly, HE has also contributed to the country’s export revenue, with international students constituting 47% of the total in the 2016/2017 intake. The number of overseas students at the island’s accredited universities soared from fewer than 400 in the 2004-05 academic year to 17,601 in 2015-16, and exceeded 21,000 in 2017. Some 50% of overseas students were from Greece, but the range of countries that foreign students come from is rapidly expanding. The 650 students at UNIC’s two medical schools, for instance, come from 58 countries.
To flourish, UNIC and Cyprus’ four other private universities must attract international students because, with a population of just a million, the local market is small. English is the main language of instruction, although most also offer programmes in Greek to cater for Cypriot students and those from Greece.
The potential for further growth and foreign investment is reflected in the building boom underway at most universities as existing departments are expanded, new ones created, and further halls of residence constructed, some resembling five-star hotels.Cyprus’public and private universities, all part of the Erasmus programme, have rapidly expanded the range of programmes they offer and continue to forge links and collaborative agreements with renowned universities abroad. Distance learning is another growth area, with UNIC a pioneer in this field. Its medical schools offer busy working doctors worldwide the opportunity to take master’s degrees online in family medicine and in public health.
Turbo-Charged by EU Membership
The first major boost to the island’s ambition of becoming an education hub came with Cyprus’ accession to the EU in 2004, which meant that degrees from accredited Cypriot universities were recognised by other member states. The second followed three years later when the government, which is committed to ‘the internationalisation’ of the tertiary education sector,conferred university status on five private colleges that met the grade. “When we got official accreditation as universities, we saw a significant increase in students from EU countries, which were hard to attract before,” says an administrator at Frederick University, which has 4,000 students at its campuses in Nicosia and Limassol.
A major attraction for students from non-EU countries is that they get a value-for-money education and acquire qualifications recognised by the bloc’s members and validated by accreditation agencies in many other countries. But it is the high academic standards rather than affordability that is attracting a growing number of students from far-flung, prosperous countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and even New Zealand.
The universities measure their success not just by the numbers of students but by their quality, and they compete with good universities in Britain and others in the West, rather than those in Cyprus’ immediate geographical region.
Yet the island’s location as the EU’s easternmost outpost and bridge to Africa and Asia gives Cyprus a natural advantage in attracting overseas students and investment from foreign universities. Keen to recruit students from Russia, the Middle East and China, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in Britain chose Cyprus as the site for its first overseas campus nine years ago. This was built in the picturesque village of Pyla near Larnaca at a cost of €53 million.
“Cyprus has historic links to the UK and bridges the distance between the UK and the East,” says Liz Bromley, UCLan’s deputy vice chancellor. “Since the UK’s decision to leave the EU, we are even more pleased to have our friends and partners in Cyprus, as this continues to give the University of Central Lancashire a foothold in Europe through UCLan Cyprus.”
Cyprus’ three public universities, which teach predominantly in Greek, are now introducing courses in English to attract more foreign students. The government offers a number of them scholarships, whether they are in programmes taught in English or Greek. Private universities have their own scholarship programmes and offer international students a subsidy of up to 30% on their tuition fees, while those who perform well are eligible for grants.
Trail-Blazing Medical Schools
Whether private or public, all of Cyprus’ universities are constantly devising courses to keep ahead of business trends and future employment needs. Medical schools are a considerable success story. A decade ago, Cyprus had none, although you could find Cypriot doctors who had trained and remained abroad in high-flying careers at some of the best hospitals in the world. Now three Cypriot universities have medical schools that are proving a big hit with Cypriot and international students.The main attraction is that academic standards in Cyprus rival those of well-established British and American medical schools and students graduate with qualifications recognised across the EU and beyond.
UNIC, which established the island’s first medical school in 2011, did so in partnership with London University and its prestigious teaching hospital, St Georges. It offers a four-year programme for graduate-level entry students, knowing this would appeal particularly to students from the US, which is the world’s biggest exporter of quality medical students. “We knew it would also appeal to regional markets such as Israel and Lebanon,which have decent numbers of graduate-entry students, as does Britain,”says John Surrey, the UNIC director of admissions and development. UNIC has since launched a second medical school, with a six-year programme for high school leavers. It is attracting students from Cyprus, Greece and other European countries.
Following suit, the European University Cyprus (EUC) – another private institution in Nicosia – established a medical school three years ago with a six-year course that has attracted students from Israel, Germany, Iran, Austria, Greece and Cyprus, among others. In 2017, it launched a dentistry school. “Our medical schools have definitely put us on the map in terms of international students,” says Andria Karekla, a marketing officer at EUC. “But we also cater for students who want to study anything from computer science to business.”
The mostly state-funded University of Cyprus established a medical school four years ago and will graduate its first students in the summer of 2019, and offers parallel courses in English to cater for 100 students a year. Cyprus’ main competition for medical students comes from eastern and central European countries where tuition fees and living costs are mostly lower and some of the universities have hundreds of years of heritage.
However, Surrey says that many of these universities sign up overseas students knowing that after four years they cannot provide enough clinical training slots for all students to complete their courses. Whereas, he adds, “all the medical schools in Cyprus, operate on the basis of having clinical training spots for all students right from the beginning.”
Cut the Red Tape
University administrators say Cyprus could attract more foreign students if the cumbersome visa application for non-EU nationals is overhauled. “There seems to be a one-size-fits-all policy,” says one. “A medical student paying €100,000 for their education goes through the same process as someone applying for a two-year course at a culinary college costing a few thousand euros.” Otherwise, the universities have few complaints. They value the government’s assistance in forging links to academic and research institutions abroad, and organising visits from international accreditation agencies.
Young graduates from EU countries are entitled to remain and work on the island after completing their studies in Cyprus, but few expect to because the job market cannot yet absorb the high number of Cypriot graduates. Instead, most arrive in Cyprus aiming to get qualifications that will enable them to fulfil their career ambitions at home or in the wider world.
Turning the Tables
There can be few more promising indicators of Cyprus’ emergence as an international education hub than the intake at UNIC’s two medical schools. A third of their students come from Britain, whose universities have long been the preferred choice for bright young Cypriots studying abroad. Today, it is no longer a one-way street.
If the current level of higher education activity in Cyprus is sustained and complemented by moderate growth in international students and research expenditure, then by 2023 the sector’s economic contribution could grow by another 50%. Also, the market for anglophone HE Internationally Mobile Students is estimated to be up to around €50 billion, and growing at a 5% annual rate. Over the next decade, as tertiary enrolment rates are expected to soar around the world driven by the coming-of-age of large developing countries such as China and India, there is a unique opportunity for Cyprus to earn a seat in this sector globally.