Higher education institutions play an important role in creating a professional workforce, although they have to face the challenge of some high-school graduates not being sufficiently prepared for independent work at the university
Ivanka Popović has been the chancellor of the University of Belgrade since October 2018. We talked to Ms Popović about the education system in our country, online teaching in Serbia and how well it is organized, improvements and elevating the University of Belgrade’s position on the so-called the Shanghai List of the best universities in the world. “I would like to single out two challenges that am facing as the university chancellor – restoring trust in the University of Belgrade as an institution and improving and implementing procedures related to academic integrity. I believe that we have made progress in both,“ says Chancellor Popović.
The research conducted by the Centre for Public Policy shows that 71.9% of students believe that online teaching is not an adequate substitute for regular classes, and 76.1% think that it has reduced the quality of higher education, but also have a very positive attitude towards online exams. In your opinion, how did the pandemic affect student education?
No-one wanted to replace regular with online classes. This decision was imposed by the pandemic. I think that the faculties in Serbia have made a huge effort to switch not only to online teaching but also to online business practically overnight. The change was not easy for students and workers alike. Whenever the conditions during the pandemic permitted, classes were held live, primarily for freshmen. Education is a two-way process so the success of such an endeavour depends on all participants. Taking exams outside the institution in which one’s studies, i.e. taking online exams, is not allowed according to the current Higher Education Law.
The University of Belgrade faculties have invested enormous effort and substantial material resources to create optimal conditions for teaching and taking exams during the pandemic. If we compare the exam results at the University of Belgrade from June to October 2019 to the same period in 2020, we can see that, in 2020, the pass rate was 8% higher than in 2019. This is an exceptional result which shows that we have managed to sustain the system in very difficult conditions.
My priority is to continuously improve the quality of all aspects of the University of Belgrade’s operations
How will the experience of working at the faculty and studying during the pandemic affect the future of higher education in Serbia? Will there be any longer-term changes? What did we learn during this pandemic?
The acquired experiences will certainly affect the way of teaching at the faculties in the future. Combined teaching is imposed as a model that gives maximum effects. Online teaching can contribute to theoretical teaching, while the time that students spend live with teachers and teaching associates should be used to discuss the material covered. The Conference of Serbian Universities and the National Accreditation Body of Serbia are closely cooperating to adopt standards that will regulate the combined model of teaching at faculties.
What are the University’s role and position in a country that has been in transition for many years where many human values have been degraded?
Higher education institutions play an important role in creating a professional workforce, although they have to face the challenge of some high-school graduates not being sufficiently prepared for independent work at the university. In addition to acquiring professional knowledge, universities offer students the opportunity to acquire other, so-called soft skills that can boost their competitiveness in the labour market. During their studies, students can also learn about entrepreneurship, which creates opportunities for launching an independent business. Higher education can reduce brain drain in conjunction with other measures at the national level.
The University of Belgrade first appeared on the Shanghai List of the world’s best universities in 2012, ranking between the 400th and 500th place. In the next six years, the ranking was improved and the University jumped to the 302nd position, only to fall again in early 2019. How do you interpret that?
I believe that the fact that the University of Belgrade found itself in the company of the 500 best universities in the world is an extraordinary success. Having in mind the previous period during which science in Serbia was allocated very modest funds, the University’s rank is an even more valuable result. The institution’s scientific activity is the key factor affecting the University’s place on the Shanghai List. At a time when, around the world, more and more funds are being spent on science, it is not at all easy to maintain a position on the list. That is why I would like to underline once again that the overall ranking of the University of Belgrade and all our faculties and institutes deserves great respect.
Are you satisfied with how much money has been invested in science? What successes would you highlight in that segment?
It remains to be seen if the intentions to boost domestic science through the implementation of the Science and Research Law and the Science Fund Law will yield the desired results. Our goal is no longer only to increase the number of published scientific papers, but also their quality and impact on the global scientific community. This is possible only in science receives stable financing and if there is a gradual increase in state budget allocations for science to 1%. The countries that have made the biggest progress in science invest as much as 3% of the state budget in this area. Our researchers have been successful in applying for and getting funding for projects from the European Commission programme. Here, I would especially like to mention the Horizon 2020 programme from the previous financing framework and Horizon Europe in the current financing framework.
The University of Belgrade has made a significant step forward by becoming a member of the ‘Circle U’ European University Alliance
One of your goals is for the University of Belgrade to be better positioned and more visible internationally than it was in the previous period. How will you achieve that and have you made any progress already?
The University of Belgrade has made a significant step forward by becoming a member of the ‘Circle U’ European University Alliance, where it works closely with the six renowned European universities – the University of Paris, the Catholic University of Leuven, King’s College London, Aarhus University, the University of Oslo and Humboldt University of Berlin. As the name of our alliance suggests, we are creating a circle of knowledge that connects education, research and innovation, all in the service of social progress. We are proud to have included Serbia in the group of countries with universities that are the higher education leaders in Europe.
You are only the second woman chancellor in the long history of the University of Belgrade. In 2019, the University Senate adopted the Gender Equality Plan of the University of Belgrade. Some progress has been made in this area but what more could be done to have more women in science, especially in the natural sciences?
At our University, female students are sufficiently represented or even make the majority in both natural and other sciences. About 60% of students at the University of Belgrade are women. We have also noticed that women are more interested in information and communication technology studies. We have equal representation among assistant professors and associate professors, while 40% of full-time professors are women. Our priority is to raise awareness of gender equality and gender stereotypes, especially regarding the representation of women in administrative positions. By developing an equal opportunity policy, we want to contribute to the well-being of all members of the university community.
What goals have you set for yourself for the next period?
The pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives. The main goal is to gradually return to normal work. My priority is to continuously improve the quality of all aspects of the University of Belgrade’s operations.