University City, Riga?

20 July, 2016 Daunis Auers

Late last week I attended the bi-annual Baltic studies conference at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA. Among the 250 participants there were also a few dozen presentations from professors and doctoral students based at Latvian universities, including a smart young Thai business PhD student from Turiba University. This was somewhat of a surprise. While we have all become accustomed to seeing bright young Latvian students ‘go west’ to study for their doctoral degrees it still seems like a novelty for an international student to take a doctoral degree in Latvia.

However, we should get used to this. The rapid growth in the number of international students in Latvia – from 2,757 in 2012 to 5,458 this academic year – means we should expect an increasing number of international students representing Latvian universities at international conferences.

Indeed, while in New York last weekend I spoke to a potential doctoral student preparing an application to write her dissertation at the University of Latvia. Last year a well-qualified Canadian was preparing to enroll in the PhD programme in my university department before eventually choosing Tartu University (which offered both free tuition and a scholarship – which the University of Latvia did not).

Indeed, the potential growth in the number of international students in Latvia is so large that universities will need to start collaborating with the Riga municipal government in order to develop and enlarge the infrastructure of student hostels and apartments (which German and Nordic students prefer) that cater to international students.

But perhaps we should be more ambitious? The Baltic studies conference was held in a neighborhood of Philadelphia known as University City. In addition to the University of Pennsylvania (an Ivy League school), the University of the Sciences and Drexel University as well as a community college and several research institutions also have campuses in the neighborhood. About 46,000 students live and study in the quarter.

University city was developed in the decades after the second world war through a collaboration of the city, the universities and private firms. The universities created an attractive and dynamic academic environment by investing in their campuses – auditoriums, libraries, office space, student dormitories – in order to be able to absorb an ever greater number of students. The city developed the municipal infrastructure – policing, street lighting, public spaces and transport links – while private investors financed hotels, conference facilities, restaurants and housing.

This kind of university neighborhood has many advantages. First, it is an intellectual cluster, attracting an ever increasing number of education and research institutions as well as employers that want to be closer to these human capital resources. University graduates often start-up new businesses in the area, further fueling collaboration between academics and business – an area where Latvia has long underperformed. A university city also creates the kind of vibrant social life that, in addition to a qualitative study environment, is attractive to students.

Of course, this kind of project needs to be researched in depth, but at first glance it seems logical to gradually build-up a university city around the Pardaugava neighbourhood of Riga where Riga Technical University (RTU) has already begun work on its “Pilsēta Pilsētā” project, and this neighborhood is also close to the Riga Stradins University campus, the University of Latvia’s new Tornakalns base and a number of private universities.

Higher education has emerged as possibly the fastest growing, high-value added services sector in Latvia. This academic year the export of higher education is 0.61% of value-added to Latvian GDP and has created almost 1,500 jobs. A workable public-private partnership would provide a springboard for further growth of this sector – and a larger, more competitive higher education sector would obviously bring great benefits to the Latvian economy.