Ten or so years ago, a survey was conducted at the faculty I work at that contained one question:”- Do you think that graduate economists need more specialized or theoretical knowledge to obtain through curriculum?” The answers of the three surveyed groups were quite diverse. Employers and students answered the survey question with “specialized knowledge”, while my peers, unfortunately, answered with “theoretical knowledge”, for the most part. Even back then I recognized the gap between supply and demand for knowledge that economists should possess, or rather a gap between supply and demand in terms of what is usually being taught and what employers actually need. In the meantime, this gap widened, the economy barged forward with its changes, while the curriculum, unfortunately, is still stagnating, with very few notable exceptions.
From my daily conversations with business people, one really does have an impression that that is the current situation. Entrepreneurs are justifiably so dissatisfied with graduates’ knowledge, while most state-run universities are in a big problem when it comes to changing the curriculum due to their quasi-self-governing decision-making system. My experience with universities from neighbouring countries, as well as my productive stay with several successful Chinese universities, have just solidified my belief that we need to make three crucial changes in order to build a new foundation for Serbia’s higher education in the next decade:
1. Compulsory, continuous, and annual adjustment of curricula at faculties and universities to the real needs of the Serbian economy, with the active role of employers, who would have some kind of a veto to changes in curricula;
2. A stronger internationalization in higher education; namely setting up benchmarks for the improvement and harmonization of curricula at faculties in line with the needs of the international labour market, while raising the level of teaching process through an even broader (and even obligatory) international exchange of professors and students;
3. Introduction of a more rigorous ranking system for universities and faculties in Serbia, through an optimal benchmarking process. This is necessary especially in the process EU accession because our universities will soon face the stiff competition from foreign universities, with the best students wanting to study in one of the EU countries rather than in Serbia (the examples of Romania and Bulgaria, and even Croatia best illustrate the process of mass “outflow” of students). Higher education is unable to follow in the footsteps of economic changes (even if we are talking about top universities in the world) and this imbalance has to be reduced. Our universities follow the rule whereby curricula are created adhering to what university professors think is required in a certain segment of knowledge, and not what employers really need. In order to illustrate this, let’s take an example of faculties of economics (state and private ones). It is quite evident that macro-economic knowledge dominates over real labour market needs in their curricula (a minor number of economists find employment in institutions where such knowledge has practical applications), while future economists are still taught mathematics that is too comprehensive and inadequate, for instance. Therefore, the value of the curriculum for each subject should be tested by employers, who are members of a business council of a faculty/university, at least once a year. The criterion would be simple – if a subject or a certain lesson in textbooks is something that businesses need, than it will stay. If something is not needed, is obsolete or overly extensive, it should be abolished or adapted (reduced) to fit the labour market. Accordingly, the state accreditation process should be changed in a way that curricula would be accredited at least once every three years, and minor changes (up to 40%) between two accreditation cycles would be allowed. The next important correction in curricula should come from “the outside”, through the internationalization of our universities’ operations. This would complete the three essential corrective factors in curricula: the real needs of the domestic economy, trends in the international labour market and curricula at benchmarking universities (in order to do this, we should implement the best global practices in regard to comparison criteria at faculties). In the end, there is no better stimulus for productive changes and advancements in any segment of society than ranking and comparing. It is a demanding but necessary change in the higher education system which would encourage positive competition among faculties. There would be a clear distinction between those who offer quality education and those who offer only a diploma. Students would know what kind of quality of knowledge they would get depending on the investments and what kind of prospects they would have in the labour market. Quid pro quo! Because we’re not all the same…