The University of Nicosia is the largest in Cyprus. Photo: UNIC

Cyprus is fast emerging as the destination of choice for university education thanks to the island’s growing reputation for academic excellence, its “green zone” pandemic status, an eye for innovation and, of course, plenty of sun.

In a huge accolade for the country’s universities, three of them have now won places on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2021, beating competition from more than 25,000 universities worldwide to make it into the top 1,000.  

Making its debut appearance – alongside the University of Cyprus and the Cyprus University of Technology – is the University of Nicosia (UNIC), which made headlines in 2013 when it became the first university in the world to offer a master’s degree in digital currency. It was also the first to allow fees to be paid in Bitcoin.

John Mavris, communications manager at UNIC, said: “We have been driving educational innovation in Cyprus and the wider region for some time now, and it’s gratifying to see these efforts recognized.” 

Cyprus’ education sector accounts for about 5% of the country’s gross domestic product, putting it on a par with other key industries such as shipping. 

In the last academic year, there was a 5.6% increase in enrolled students in universities, half of whom are from overseas, and the government is courting more, with Education Minister Prodromos Prodromou recently announcing plans for a bill introducing non-Greek-language programs of study in state universities.

According to the minister, the number of foreign students in Cyprus stands at almost 30,000 – up from just 8,000 in 2012.

He added that Cyprus aims “to gradually become an international regional center for university-level development.”

According to Mavris, it is an aim that is wholly achievable.

“There is definite interest to study in Cyprus by overseas students, which can be further tapped into and harnessed by universities, decision-makers and stakeholders in promoting Cyprus as a global, university-level study destination,” he said.

One of the government departments tasked with promoting Cyprus as an educational hub is Invest Cyprus. Director general George Campanellas said the recognition from Times Higher Education’s university rankings was “extremely welcome.” 

“Cyprus continues to attract significant numbers of students from overseas, including the UK, US, China and India, reflecting our continued progress to establish the island as a regional hub for education and research,” Campanellas said.

“In recent years, a number of tech companies have expanded or relocated to Cyprus, and the work being done by the university to teach and inspire a new generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs is driving Cyprus’s rapidly growing tech ecosystem.

“This human talent, alongside a thriving professional services industry, means that Cyprus is able to offer significant benefits to businesses seeking to build headquarters in Europe.”

In an ironic twist, given the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on educational facilities globally, Cyprus universities could emerge from the crisis stronger than ever.

Thanks to the government’s timely and effective measures to prevent the spread of the virus, the island has emerged relatively unscathed and is now considered to be one of the safest member-states of the European Union.

According to Mavris, the island’s insistence on putting health over wealth has further fueled interest in the island’s educational system, at home and abroad.

“In UNIC’s case, we began preparing for the coronavirus in late January, activating our risk and emergency plan and ultimately implementing 100% online and 100% work-from-home by mid-March. The coming academic year 2020-2021 will continue in that same spirit, with UNIC prepared for any eventuality.”

Although all of the island’s private universities have attracted foreign students, UNIC is believed to have the most international degree-seeking students of any university in Cyprus “by a wide margin,” he claimed.  

The majority of UNIC’s students hail from Europe and North America, representing a significant shift in the university’s student population in the past decade. 

“In aggregate, over the last 10 years, the UNIC student base has evolved from over 90% Cypriot to less than 35% Cypriot, as several of the university’s targeted international initiatives have flourished,” Mavris said.

“Our top 10 countries of origin for students are Greece, Cyprus, the USA, the UK, Israel, Lebanon, Canada, Australia, Nigeria and Russia. This interest is carefully and consistently generated through a series of pioneering initiatives.

“The University of Nicosia Medical School, for example, is explicitly designed to attract overseas students. It draws on the first of its kind partnership with St Georges, University of London, with clinical placements in various countries, which is a big draw for many students.”

Other UNIC initiatives include joint degree programs as well as its blockchain / cryptocurrency program, something that put the university well ahead of the curve, attracting students from North America and Western Europe.

UNIC also linked with employers in the US, the UK and Western Europe, particularly in the areas of medicine and blockchain, who are now aggressively recruiting its graduates.

“Catering to the increased demand for education, in the context of ‘life-long learning’ and continued professional development, helps alums stay ahead professionally over the course of their career,” Mavris said.

“By working like this, UNIC was the first university in Cyprus to demonstrate that it is possible to attract meaningful numbers of high-quality international students to a Cyprus university.

“More broadly, Cyprus has tremendous potential as a destination for high quality, university-level education, with strong and rapidly improving universities and an appealing, safe environment for students in which English is widely spoken. 

“UNIC is proud to be playing its part in this endeavor. Indeed, the University of Nicosia example should give confidence to all involved stakeholders that establishing Cyprus as an important global destination for higher education is a viable and appealing objective for the country.”

Andrea Busfield

Andrea Busfield has been in journalism for more than 25 years, working as a reporter, features editor and copy editor for UK national newspapers, the chief civilian print editor of Sada-e Azadi in Kabul, and deputy editor of Gulf Times in Qatar. A published author, she now works as a freelance journalist based in Cyprus.