IVANKA POPOVIĆ, Chancellor of the University of Belgrade – The University’s Voice is Now Heard

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The University can give support to the formation of public opinion by providing expert information, not by engaging openly in political issues

In the interview for Diplomacy&Commerce, the Chancellor of the University of Belgrade, Ivanka Popović talks about the problems that she encountered when she was appointed chancellor last year, the University’s plans and future and many other issues. To remind, the Chancellor was the recipient of the French Order of the Academic Pact, given to her by the French Embassy in Serbia for her contribution.

How much can the recent events surrounding certain doctor-al thesis harm high education in Serbia and the University of Belgrade?

— Current events have opened a discussion about the University’s role and influence of in society. The public expects the University to be more engaged in issues of public interest. The voice of the University is now heard more than before, but still not enough regarding all issues. The University can give support to the formation of public opinion by providing expert information, not by engaging openly in political issues. The insistence on turning the affair regarding a certain PhD thesis into a political one has damaged the position of the University.

Are you satisfied with this year’s enrollment? Are this year’s enrollment quotas and scholar-ships realistic enough?

— Enrollment was satisfactory this year. However, we do see declining numbers of potential freshmen due to decreasing demo-graphics. As a result, enrollment quotas need to be adjusted. We are trying to increase the number of foreign students studying at our University. We find that internationalization of the University would be beneficial to both Serbi-an and foreign students. Tuition fees are revisited every year and adjusted when necessary. The actual costs of many curricula are higher than the tuition fees, especially in natural and technical sciences. Our students have shown the greatest interest in traditional professions, especially in medical sciences, engineering and IT. Students are very practical, they realize that the job market is very competitive and choose study programmes that will provide the best employment opportunities.

You were appointed the Chancellor of the Belgrade University last year. Some of your priorities included work transparency, re-consideration of the Bologna process and devising a long-term development strategy for the University? Which of these goals has been accomplished so far?

— I became the Chancellor of the University on October 1, 2019. We have been quite busy, working on tying up some loose ends from the previous administration and starting on our priorities. We have achieved greater transparency in the University’s operations. We have also accumulated a certain amount of data regarding student performance that will assist us in improving the teaching process at the University. We have done this together with the UB Student Parliament. Nowadays most universities in the world are strongly focusing on the quality of teaching. Our international visibility has also increased due to our greater engagement in international networks and associations. We are raising awareness about the importance of academic integrity in this age when information is so readily accessible online. In the upcoming school year, all students of the University of Belgrade will be taking online courses on academic integrity. These courses are the result of a project coordinated by the Council of Europe, specifically the courses were developed in cooperation with the University of Gothenburg.

To what degree has the autonomy of the University of Belgrade preserved today? What is your relationship with the line ministry like?

— The autonomy of the University is guaranteed by law. However, in terms of the system of funding of higher education in Serbia this autonomy is quite fragile, as the Government is the main source of financing of state universities. The University can maintain its autonomy by becoming stronger as an institution through strict adherence to its rules and guidelines. We have a good working relationship with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development. The Ministry has been quite engaged in providing better conditions for the enrollment of foreign students and is committed to improving the academic infrastructure. Several faculties of the University of Belgrade still do not have their buildings.

Are you happy with the University’s position on the Academic Ranking of World Universities (the so-called Shanghai List)? What challenges does the Belgrade University have to over-come in comparison to other universities in the world?

— Our University is doing quite well in the rankings considering the very modest financing of research in the previous period. It is a tremendous result that we are in the rankings at all; the general public is not aware of this fact. Many countries have national programmes for supporting their universities on their way to the top 500 world universities, which is not the case in Serbia. The rankings are mostly based on scientific research performance and are not affected by daily events. We have great expectations regarding the new Law on the Science Funding and the new Law on Science and Research. New funding schemes will hopefully revitalize the scientific research in Serbia.

These future results should stabilize our position in the rankings. How big of a problem is the brain drain in Serbia?

— Brain drain is one of Serbia’s key issues, as well as for the whole region. It is a complex problem that can only be dealt with at the national level with clear priorities and actions. It cannot be solved quickly or easily. The Serbian government has set up an inter-disciplinary working group that is dealing with this problem.

Experts from the University of Belgrade are engaged in its activities. Many professors from the Belgrade University support the protests. What is your view regarding this?

— I have spoken frequently about the individual rights of citizens, including academic staff, to express their political opinions. The role of academic staff in public life is very important because it should serve as a model for the exchange of different opinions in a tolerant manner. This task is of great importance for the development of democracy in Serbia.

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