Continued investment in education and science infrastructure
Education is one of the key development resources. It lowers poverty, and enhances economic potential of a country. It also increases the quality of life of an individual, and empowers them to be an independent and active participant in social life. We talked with the new Education Minister Branko Ružić about education during the pandemic-induced crisis, the Ministry’s future plans, as well as his personal vision of of education and science in Serbia.
During the COVID pandemic, education faced many challenges. How did the Ministry respond to these challenges?
I became minister less than three months ago. Although, this is not the best time to provide an unbiased evaluation of the education system, I can confidently say that we faced many challenges and responded to all of them completely and successfully. Today, almost all aspects of the education process have been digitalized in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The use of digital technologies in education became a necessity and new reality. Both teachers and students successfully adapted to changes and proved quite capable of using the new technology and a range of electronic devices that came with it. The Serbian education system embraced permanent training as a way of enhancing the professional capacity and skills of teaching staff in all fields, including digital competencies. Back in March 2020, following the sudden lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technological Development managed to organize an orderly transition to online teaching / classes in matter of days. Those extraordinary efforts were successful due to teachers training system already being in place. Additionally, the state secured free access to Microsoft platform TEAMS for the entire education system, as well as access to national TV systems (RTS Planet), class scheduling and my school platforms via the Internet. An agreement was reached with mobile operators to provide free mobile internet for educational purposes. Recording online classes proved to be a major challenge for the education system, particularly regarding vocational schools and schools with a dual education system which combines academic learning with hands-on instructions in participating companies. In other words, these efforts enabled students from vocational schools to acquire both academic and applied skills through online education. This academic year, the situation is different since the lower pandemic risks allowed face-to-face practical training albeit in small groups in adequately equipped teaching cabinets and workshops. These methods were used in many relevant industrial sectors (textile, leather goods, metal processing) and, to a lesser extent, in the provision of health care services.
Will the experience gained with online (distance) learning be utilized in preparing the new Education Strategy?
Extensive data and feedback received from schools regarding their experience in the area of distance/online learning thus far indicate that this mode of learning secured adequate student motivation and academic achievement in all those cases where pre-defined models of online learning were followed. Naturally, digital education and learning hold a prominent place in the new Education Strategy both regarding the teaching process and the use of “integrated information system in education” which will enable even more efficient management of that system in the future.
The objective is to ensure full access to education for every child and reduced attrition (especially from vulnerable social groups)
How far have you come in drafting the new Education Strategy?
The new Education Strategy is an attempt to create a systemic basis for improved education and learning in the Republic of Serbia until 2030. Presently, a draft Strategy is undergoing a standard public debate, including a more specific Action Plan for 2021 through to 2023. In addition to updating and enhancing the thematic coverage at all levels of education, the new Strategy will focus on the core competencies of teachers and students, boosting human resource development in the education system, and modernizing teaching methods and learning in general, including creating the necessary prerequisites for effective learning. The Draft Strategy envisages, among other things, greater coverage of pre-school education, pre-school prep programs, elementary and high school education, as well as higher enrollment rates in adult education and learning. The objectives of the strategy also include improved student achievements at high school graduate level, and reduced attrition in elementary and high schools. The Strategy also seeks to update and modernize higher and university education, as well as introduce effective monitoring and evaluation systems for higher and university education.
In advanced societies, education is one of most important resources of development. If we look at the salaries in education, it appears that there is a gap between the declared and actual importance, i.e. education is undervalued or even degraded. What can your Ministry do to change that?
Education is not degraded in Serbia. We continuously strive to elevate respect for professors and teachers. This effort is very important since education represents the central pillar of every state. Clearly, we must invest in education system. Raising salaries in the education sector in recent years has shown a more positive and supportive stance. I believe that social dialogue in this area is very important, as well as continuous communication with labor unions in the education sector. This will enhance our ability to identify all issues and challenges, and find solutions going forward. The promised reform of public sector wages and the introduction of clearly defined pay-grades will enable a more transparent and just remuneration system in education. The Government of Serbia is presently evaluating the possibility of introducing a new public sector pay scale system starting in 2022.
Which priorities would you single out in the context of the education budget?
Securing good work and learning conditions is one of the top priorities of the Ministry. We continue to invest in education and science infrastructure, including preschool facilities, schools, student dorms, science and technology parks, centers of excellence, and research institutes. We envisage strengthening leading education and science institutions to reach recognition at the regional and European level. We plan to invest in and support individual development, especially young scientists. The Strategy also envisages a range of measures to secure a dynamic development of science, research, and innovations. The objective is to advance the development of science, technology and innovation systems, expand their share in the European research space and, most importantly, strengthen the basis for economic development of Serbia.
This year, the budget will support young scientists and researchers with almost 7 million Euros
In addition to poor people and those in unfavorable social and economic situation, young talent, scientists and researchers also deserve help. How will the Ministry support young talented people who are critical for advances in education, science and innovation, as well as the best ambassadors of Serbia in the world?
Strategic orientation of the Government of Serbia and the Ministry is to improve conditions for promotion and career development of young talented people and their work in Serbia. We continue to offer scholarships to students, scientists and young talent and, by doing so, we are sending out a message that the state supports them and values the “power of knowledge”. This is the slogan of the new 2021 – 2025 Science Strategy. In addition to education scholarships and grants, the state also provides scholarships and financial support to graduate students at Master’s and PhD level, as well as individual researchers and research institutions. In our budget for 2021, close to 7 million Euros has been allocated for education and research support. One example of support for graduate students includes matching grants for participation in international conferences, research in qualified institutions, and costs of writing a PhD thesis and post-doc specializations. Many other activities of the Ministry are aimed at creating better conditions for science, research and innovations in Serbia.
As a new minister, what is your vision of education and science in Serbia and what are your priorities during your term in the office?
Serbia has a well-recognized tradition in the broad area of education and science. Our scientists and researchers are globally renowned. We strive to develop a modern system of education and science which will be able to deliver quality education, academic excellence, research and innovation on par with the best European and world institutions. In the first place, our objective is to increase enrollment at all levels of education, minimize attrition and secure quality education for every child and young person. In terms of outcomes, the objective is to secure better achievements, quality education, training and research programs, and a better social status and financial support for teachers. Overall, we would like to implement quality education policy, facilitate a widespread use of modern teaching and learning techniques and tools, and have a better and more meaningful connection between education and research and the market expectations.