Higher education student numbers hit 20-year low in Latvia

The latest Central Statistical Bureau (CSB) data published February 13 show that declining student numbers in the Latvian higher education system continue their worrying trend – though there may also be some reason to expect something different in future. 

In the academic year 2023/24 tertiary education is being acquired by 74,000 students, which is 1.8 % less than a year ago. In Latvia, the number of students has been declining for the past 20 years. An upward trend was recorded until 2005 when the highest figure was reached – 131,100 students – but since then the number has been on the slide.

However, there may be some cause for optimism as the number of entrants has grown sharply in the current academic year. In the academic year 2023/24, 28,900 students entered Latvian higher education institutions, which is 9.3 % or 2,400 more than in the previous academic year and the fastest increase in a decade.

Half of the students (54.6 %) entered study programs at bachelor’s level, 23.2 % at master’s level, 19.4 % entered college, and 2.8 % doctoral programs. 

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Women still make up the majority of the entrants – 16,500 or 57 % of the total. More than two thirds (76.1 %) of the entrants have chosen full-time studies and just 23.9 % part-time studies. Tuition fees for most students (58.4 %) were from private contributions and those of 41.6 % were subsidised from state or local government budgets. Almost half of the students paying for studies (49.1 %) entered social sciences, business and law programs, while the state-subsidised students mainly chose engineering, manufacturing and construction (22.7 %) as well as health and welfare programs (19.2 %).

In 2023 degrees or equivalent qualifications were acquired by 14.1 thousand students, which is 636 graduates or 4.7 % fewer than in 2022. More than a third (35.3 % or 4.9 thousand) obtained degrees in social sciences, business and law and 19.6 % or 2.7 thousand in health and welfare.

Engineering, manufacturing and construction programs were graduated by 1.5 thousand students or 11 % of all graduates. The number of Latvian higher education institution graduates has declined by 35 % or 7.6 thousand since 2013.

Enrolments up significantly in several fields

In an opposite trend to the previous year when enrolments fell in almost all fields of education, in the academic year 2023/24 the number of entrants increased significantly in several fields. The most significant increase was observed in engineering, manufacturing and construction (20.1 %) as well as education (17.9 %). After the significant drop in the social sciences, business and law program enrolments in the previous academic year (of 14.3 %), this year the number of entrants in these programs has grown (by 15.2 %).

In the academic year 2023/24, most entrants chose social sciences, business and law (35.9 %) programs followed by health and welfare (15.4 %) as well as engineering, manufacturing and construction (15.4 %). The smallest number of entrants is registered in agriculture and education (1.6 % and 6.5 %, respectively). 

The top ranking of the most popular fields of education has not changed significantly over the past decade: in 2013 the largest share of students entered social sciences, business and law (37.5%) followed by engineering, manufacturing and construction (16.7 %). Similarly, ten years ago education (6.7 % of all entrants) and agriculture (2 %) were the fields with the lowest enrolments.

Smallest number of students in the past 20 years

Over the year the total number of students (74 thousand) has declined by 1.4 thousand while over the past ten years by 15.7 thousand or 17.5 %. 

More than a half of the students – 56.3 % – or 41.7 thousand currently study at bachelor’s level, 22.0 % or 16.3 thousand at master’s level, 17.3 % or 12.8 thousand at college, and 4.4 % or 3.3 thousand at doctoral level.

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Women take the lead

In 1936 there were 7 281 students in Latvia, of which 70 % were men and only 30 % women. Almost a century later the situation is rather different: in the academic year 2023/24 more than a half of the students (58.4 % or 43.2 thousand) were women. The highest proportion of female students was registered in 2007 – 64.4 % or 82.2 thousand.

In terms of fields of education, the largest share of women – 92.5 % – is still recorded in education (programmes whereof in total are studied by 4.7 thousand people or 6.3 % of all students). Health and welfare (studied by 14.1 thousand people or 19.1 % of all students) as well as humanities and arts (studied by 5.5 thousand people or 7.5 % of all students) also engage a lot of female students – 80.5 % and 73.5 %, respectively.

The fields of education mainly chosen by men do not tend to change much. The largest proportions of male students – 73.9 % and 70.5 %, respectively –  is still registered in engineering, manufacturing and construction (studied by 9.9 thousand people or 13.4 % of all students) and science (10.8 % of all students).

In the academic year 2023/24, social sciences, business and law programs have the highest number of students (33.8% of all students). These programmes were chosen by 35.9 % or 15.5 thousand of all (43.2 thousand) female students and 31 % or 9.5 thousand of all (30.8 thousand) male students.

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There are 10 thousand mobile students in Latvia

This academic year, 4.1 thousand 'mobile' students entered Latvian higher education institutions (116 students more than a year before). Mobile students are defined as persons who have received their previous education outside Latvia and are studying in Latvia with the aim of obtaining a certain level of higher education (degree or other qualification).

However, the number still lags behind the pre-pandemic level and is one fifth smaller than that registered at the beginning of the academic year 2019/20. Currently in Latvia there are 10.4 thousand mobile students, which is 3.4 % or 345 students more than a year ago. The figure is the highest one registered since 2014 when the first statistics for the mobile students was compiled. The number of mobile students in Latvia has almost doubled over the last decade: up by 98.3 % or 5 170 students compared to 2014.

The bulk of mobile students (72.8 %) acquired their previous education outside the European Union (EU), moreover, men account for more two thirds of the mobile students (73.1 %). More than a half (60.2 %) of mobile students have acquired previous education in India, Uzbekistan, Sweden, Ukraine or Germany. Women account for more than a half (60.8 %) of those who have acquired previous education in Sweden and Germany, while most of the male mobile students completed previous studies in India, Uzbekistan and Ukraine (79.7 %, 86.0 % and 63.9 %, respectively).

Two thirds of the mobile students (69.1 % or 7 201 students) acquire education at one of the three universities: Riga Technical University (RTU 29.2 %), Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU 26.3 %), or ISMA University of Applied Sciences (13.6 %). The majority of RTU mobile students (97.2 %) have acquired their previous education outside EU and almost a half of them (42.4 %) currently study social sciences, business and law. At the RSU, in comparison, four fifths of the mobile students have acquired previous education in EU and almost all of them (98.9 %) currently study health and welfare.

More than a half (53.8 %) of all mobile students participate in master's and 42.6 % in bachelor's programs.  The majority of those who have acquired previous education in EU study at master's level (90.6 %) and have chosen health and welfare programs (82.9 %). However, more than a half (56 %) of the mobile students who have acquired previous education outside the EU study at bachelor’s level and (50.8 %) have chosen social sciences, business and law programs.

Half of all students study at the three largest Latvian universities

This academic year, there are 52 higher education institutions in Latvia (28 universities and 24 colleges), which is the same number as a year ago. State higher education institutions and colleges have been chosen by 78.2 % of all students, while private educational institutions by 21.8 %. A half of all students (51.8 %) study at the three largest Latvian universities – University of Latvia, RTU and RSU. Overall, 37 higher education institutions have fewer than thousand students and 11 institutions fewer than 200 students.

In the academic year 2023/24, doctoral programs are implemented by 18 higher education institutions. They engage 3 254 doctoral students (2 073 women and 1 181 men). Just under a half (48.6 %) of them participate in health and welfare programs and almost one fifth (18.1 %) in social sciences, business and law.

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