The Study Model at VMU Enables Students to Design Their Own Study Path

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If we had to name a university with the most diverse range of offerings, it would be Vytautas Magnus University, which is currently the most comprehensive university in Lithuania – students have the opportunity to choose from a wide range of study programmes, spanning across as many as 14 groups of study fields (by comparison, there are 17 available throughout Lithuania).

Dr. Simona Pilkienė, Vice-Rector for Studies at Vytautas Magnus University (VMU), is delighted that the university offers a study model that is highly attractive and popular in the USA, and is the only one of its kind not only in Lithuania, but also in the Baltic States.

Artes liberales – from philosophy to engineering

Why did we mention the abundance of study fields? It is an essential prerequisite for fostering interdisciplinarity and striving for more effective synergy between different areas of science.

“The concept of artes liberales is often understood narrowly or incorrectly because many people associate the Latin term with the liberal arts and humanities. In reality, however, artes liberales is an educational concept that aims to provide individuals with a comprehensive education, rather than a narrow and highly specialised one, through the study of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary subjects.

VMU Vice-Rector for Studies Dr. Simona Pilkienė

The uniqueness of this concept lies in the student’s role in the study process and the opportunity to personally design their own study path. While this concept is widespread in the USA, it is not as popular in Europe and is usually applied only to a very small part of studies, such as a single programme or faculty, rather than being implemented university-wide. The study model implemented by VMU is the only one of its kind in both Lithuania and the Baltic States,” explains Dr. Pilkienė.

She says that society has been greatly affected by the COVID pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and other unpredictable global events, which have led to the realisation that only individuals with a comprehensive education will be able to succeed in an ever-changing labour market and society, and that interdisciplinary knowledge and skills are the key to all future decisions.

“So, the concept of artes liberales has regained relevance. And for us, it is relatively easy to overcome these challenges because we have years of experience offering exactly this kind of studies, whereas specialised universities are facing issues in transitioning to interdisciplinarity and preparing graduates capable of handling unpredictable challenges,” says the Vice-Rector of VMU.

She is delighted that VMU is able to effectively implement artes liberales: of the 17 groups of study fields available in Lithuania, the University offers 14 (except for health sciences, veterinary sciences, and public security).

When challenges turn into opportunities: gaining international recognition

Recalling the merger of three universities four years ago, when Aleksandras Stulginskis University and Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences merged with VMU, Dr. Pilkienė asserts that it was an unprecedented case:

“Regarding this matter, the experience of foreign countries could not be of much help to us, as there has never been a simultaneous merger of three universities. Nevertheless, we successfully overcame a challenging period in which we had to unify the study process and the approach to quality, and implement the concept of artes liberales in all study programmes.”

studentės, biblioteka

According to the Vice-Rector, from today’s perspective, launching programmes with a new concept and simultaneously ensuring a high-quality completion of studies for students who previously enrolled in the former universities seems like a mission impossible.

“I am therefore very delighted that the universities managed to merge successfully in such a short time. What’s more, the restrictions that existed at the time actually turned out to be opportunities. For instance, we were not allowed to run the study programmes of the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences, so we had to create new ones in a very short time. Now, we see that this was the reason for our breakthrough in teacher training,” says Dr. Pilkienė.

The largest teacher training centre in Lithuania

Drawing on the experience of foreign partners and the concept of artes liberales, the university has developed unique study programmes for training the next generation of teachers, which have gained international recognition.

“The university has become the largest teacher training centre in Lithuania. It has more than 1,300 students, trains teachers from all branches of education at all three study levels, and admits around 500 teachers each year for further training or retraining.

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We have also received international recognition – VMU is the only university in Northern and Central Europe and one of the 50 universities in the world to offer the International Baccalaureate Studies (IBS) and the UNESCO Educational Certificate Studies,” says the Vice-Rector.

Dr. Pilkienė notes that engineering, agriculture, and forestry programmes have also been reorganised into innovative and interdisciplinary programmes.

“We prepare graduates who not only have expertise in their field, but also have the ability to communicate in foreign languages and make timely and informed decisions in complex situations. We achieve this through the concept of artes liberales, which allows students to modify their study programmes, choose minor studies, and thereby broaden their horizons,” says Dr. Pilkienė.

VMU also dedicates attention to the little ones: educational researchers are developing and implementing educational innovations in the university’s kindergarten “Mažųjų akademija” (Academy of the Little Ones) and in the “Gifted” centre, where gifted and talented children from all over Lithuania are educated using a methodology developed in collaboration with partners from Israel.

International cooperation will continue to grow

Another distinctive feature of VMU is its internationality. “VMU is arguably the most international university in Lithuania in terms of student numbers and activities. Around 20% of the students studying here come through exchange programmes and various study programmes,” says the Vice-Rector.

She says that it is precisely the concept of artes liberales studies that creates opportunities for students coming from other countries to choose courses offered by different academic units and study together with young people from both Lithuania and abroad. Teachers also enjoy the excellent working conditions.

“We have around 15–18% of foreign teachers and this number is steadily growing. Together with nine other European universities (Saarland University in Germany, University of Alicante in Spain, University of Trieste in Italy, University of Silesia in Katowice in Poland, Sofia University ‘St. Kliment Ohridski’ in Bulgaria, Catholic University of Portugal, Jean Monnet University in France, University of Primorska in Slovenia, and the Estonian Academy of Arts), and an associated member – Mariupol State University in Ukraine, we have established the European University Alliance Transform4Europe, whose goal is to create a future European university without borders or restrictions,” explains Dr. Pilkienė.

“Processes are underway: joint programmes are already being carried out, joint courses are being taught, and teachers are being exchanged. In addition, our students, together with those from the 10 other universities in the European University Alliance, study modules designed to develop competences for European challenges. These modules consist of 15–24 credits, and upon successful completion, students receive a certificate recognised by all partner universities. We also regularly organise mobility weeks for students and teachers, as well as creative workshops,” says Pilkienė.

The Vice-Rector expresses her delight – over the past years, the university has become a reliable international partner, entrusted with the responsibility of shaping European higher education policy, which is a truly significant step, and the competences of university teachers and researchers in this field are particularly important.

She firmly believes that VMU’s internationality will continue to grow as the chosen activities and strategy become part of the daily routine, inseparable from other activities.

Studies are inseparable from dialogue with business

Dr. Pilkienė says that VMU maintains a constant dialogue with business representatives: “We organise business breakfasts. The opinions of business representatives and changes in the labour market are important to us as integrating business into the study content is one of the aspects of improving our studies.”

The university currently has more than 500 partners from the public and private sectors and more than 4,300 internship positions, where students undertake internships and, in many cases, remain employed.

According to the Vice-Rector, social partners contribute to the development of students’ practical skills by delivering lectures, providing opportunities for practical training in companies, solving specific company case studies and providing solutions, and participating in business and student hackathons.

In certain fields, partners work cooperatively; for instance, at VMU’s Faculty of Engineering, a business cluster comprising agricultural engineering and technology companies such as Dojus agro, Lytagra, EWA, Ivabaltė, and others has been established. These companies organise laboratory work and internships in their infrastructural facilities, participate in the preparation, improvement, and marketing of study programmes, organise and finance student traineeships, and award scholarships to students.

“We understand that businesses are interested in the swift preparation of employees. For certain specialities, vocational education or additional courses may indeed suffice. However, when looking at the long-term perspective and considering what makes a good employee, every employer will say that a good employee is capable of communicating in at least one foreign language, but preferably two or three. Moreover, a good employee is someone who can make prompt decisions in uncertain situations and work in a team. And this requires interdisciplinary knowledge, which can only be acquired through university studies,” affirms the Vice-Rector of VMU.

Dr. Pilkienė asserts that it is precisely VMU that is capable of preparing specialists of the highest level today: “Studies based on the concept of artes liberales are a distinctive feature of VMU not only in Lithuania, but also in the Baltic States. It emphasises interdisciplinarity, internationality, and the highest level of student individualisation.

In the recent international university assessment, one distinctive aspect was highlighted – VMU provides the most extensive range of opportunities for students. And it’s true – we are the higher education institution that has the most to offer to those who choose to study here.”

Provides opportunities for people of all ages to study

VMU provides opportunities for every bachelor’s or master’s student to choose from 50 minor study programmes, enabling them to study two study programmes simultaneously and gain an advantage in the labour market.

The university also offers the Entrepreneurship Academy’s internationally acclaimed Minded programme, which develops entrepreneurial competences and the creative thinking and problem-solving skills crucial for the future labour market, all while using innovative study methods.

Moreover, VMU offers the Academia Cum Laude individual study programme, which allows motivated bachelor’s students to go beyond their main studies, delve into their personal study topics, and work with top-level scientists, researchers, or renowned artists recognised as authorities in their fields.

The Vice-Rector is delighted that today the university offers not only a wide range of studies but also a diverse array of activities. “We have developed a lifelong learning ecosystem: we have a kindergarten, a centre for gifted children, a VMU school and classroom network, the World Lithuanian University, and we conduct all levels of university studies, as well as qualification courses, courses for the public, and other learning activities.

There is no other university in Lithuania with such a broad profile, offering people of all ages the opportunity to choose what and how to study. And we can ensure all of that,” says Dr. Pilkienė.

Article by news portal Delfi.lt

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