Why British students are flocking to Bulgaria to study?

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Bulgaria is becoming an increasingly attractive study abroad destination for international students, with British students making up the largest contingent of foreign students studying in the South-eastern European country.

A webinar organised as part of the British Council’s Transnational Education (TNE) in Europe series on 23 November 2023 heard that there are currently 5,000 students from the United Kingdom studying at Bulgarian higher education institutions, with some able to gain a double degree – one from a Bulgarian institution and another from a British university – while avoiding paying UK-level tuition fees.

The comparatively low cost of living and relatively stable geo-political situation in Bulgaria, which is also a member of the European Union, is proving tempting for those looking for a professional diploma or degree taught in the English language in a sunny European destination.

Dobryana Petkova, cross-sectoral projects manager with the British Council in Bulgaria, told the webinar: “Many Bulgarian universities, as well as the Academy of Science, offer a range of programmes in the English language. These are popular with Bulgarian and international students and are easy to adapt to be offered as part of a collaborative provision.”

At last count, there were 18,197 international students studying in Bulgaria, with the largest contingent from the UK. Greece and Germany are the next biggest sending countries of foreign students to Bulgaria.

A major draw for British students is medicine and dentistry qualifications which are over-subscribed at UK universities for home students and charge very high tuition fees to international students wanting to study at universities in the United Kingdom.

Student interest in studying in Bulgaria is also growing from Morocco, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, as well as from other neighbouring countries in Europe.

Health-related qualifications

“The main interest for British students is masters-level degrees with many studying medicine, dentistry and pharmacy,” said Ivana Radonova, who co-chairs the Bologna Follow-Up Group board.

As for recognition of the health-related qualifications for those studying at Bulgarian medical schools, Radonova said things were simpler before Brexit, but medical studies like dentistry, medicine and pharmacy are “among the sectoral regulated professions with the requirements being one and the same in both Bulgaria and the UK. So, the process [for recognition] is very easy”.

She added: “If you have a diploma from Bulgaria, it is easier to have your qualification accepted inside the European Union than if you have a diploma from a country outside the EU, which could be added value to UK students wanting to enter the EU labour market or go on to further study in another EU country.”

One of the oldest UK-Bulgarian TNE partnerships is between Varna University of Management (VUM) and Cardiff Metropolitan University (Cardiff Met) in Wales, UK, formed in 2009.

The TNE arrangement enables VUM students to study for the Cardiff Met MBA and a range of bachelor degrees in Bulgaria, with fees just a fraction of those charged for students studying in Wales.

Vanina Valcheva, international partnerships officer at VUM, said the cooperation agreement lets students graduate with double degrees – Bulgarian from VUM and British from Cardiff Met – with the programmes taught in English.

Subjects offering mirror awards from VUM and Cardiff Met University include software engineering, international business management, international hospitality and culinary arts at the bachelor level as well as the MBA.

Lower fees

Tuition fees are EUR1,550 (US$1,697) per semester for Bulgarian and other EU students and EUR2,400 per semester for non-EU students, including the VUM student status fee, according to the VUM website.

There is an additional registration fee of EUR450 per semester for the last two semesters of the double bachelor’s degrees for the Cardiff Met programmes and an additional registration fee of EUR450 per semester for three semesters for Cardiff Met’s MBA.

Answering a question from University World News, Valcheva said that all the teaching is done in Bulgaria with Cardiff Met being one of the awarding institutions.

Fees for studying at medical schools in Bulgaria are much higher but they are still very competitive compared with the UK, although British students cannot access financial support through the UK Student Loans Company to study full-time for degrees or diplomas abroad, even on UK-franchised courses.

Dr Janet Ilieva, director and founder of UK-based Education Insight, an international higher education consultancy, who originally hails from Bulgaria, told University World News: “Bulgaria is certainly proving an attractive option for UK and other international students with many courses taught in English.

“With the dramatic fall in the number of EU students coming to the UK for their higher education since the Brexit withdrawal agreement, I suspect there will soon be more UK students in Bulgaria than Bulgarian students in the UK.”

She said the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that overall, there were almost 3,700 full-time Bulgarian students in the UK in 2021-22.

“This is a significant drop compared to 5,400 students in the previous year.

“However, the decline in numbers is most notable if one only considers the new enrolments – 410 full-time students from Bulgaria enrolled at UK higher education institutions in 2021-22, compared to 1,850 a year earlier,” she said.