Mladen Šarčević, Serbian Minister of Education, Science and Technological Development: High school graduation is a turning point

We offer a long-term education system fit for the 21st century

Much has changed in the education system of Serbia in recent years. The Minister of Education, Science and Technological Development of Serbia, Mladen Šarčević, talks about what has been done and what remains to be done. At the beginning of this interview, he says that, when he was appointed the minister, the Ministry was in a lot of chaos, adding that he is satisfied with the work done so far.

“Serbia went through a period of inactivity while things were happening in other European countries and work was being done on science and technological development. Education thus went astray for some time, partly due to low salaries and dissatisfaction of people working in the education system. This has caused many problems that cannot be solved immediately. We’re talking about 25 to 30 years of bad models. There is also a problem of what if the Strategy covering the period until 2020 was good, but was not implemented because there was no action plan in place,” explains minister Šarčević.

Could you tell us what you were able to do with this inherited situation?

In these three years, my cabinet and I have managed to direct the entire story where it has to go. We have received recognition from the European Commission, the OECD, as well as many other people from abroad, as well as from the world of education. They can now compare what Serbia has done in the last three years, and has done a lot. The first thing I would mention is the implementation of new technologies in teaching and learning, as well as many things in legislation. So far, we have enacted 36 laws and about 150 by-laws. We are now preparing an Education Strategy for 2030 with an Action Plan that will build on the sound foundations of reform. However, I would point out that the reform is ongoing. I would also like to mention that the mandatory high school graduation will be a turning point, because external grading is introduced.

What do you think is the key to changing the whole education system?

We can’t start building a house from the fifth floor. So, we first need to start with reforming the preschool system which means that we build enough capacity, that we have enough staff, but also that we have enough money. As for the staffing issue, we have already managed to do that and now we have enough staff. We still need to resolve problems in the other two segments. I think that our poor performance at higher levels of education stems from the inadequate coverage of children aged three to six when the modern world is moving along with other educational models. There are regions where the coverage of children is unsatisfactory so that it poses a problem. In our country, that is usually childcare which means that this category is absolutely crucial. We have already started working on this issue, we have created a great plan and programme for preschoolers called “Years of the Elevation”. We have been working with the UNICEF on this project and they ranked it among the top three. Currently, the training is being done under the project’s auspices. This is something new and different to what has been done in Serbia so far.

You talk about pre-school, but what about primary and high school education?

Primary and high school education has undergone major changes, as it has shifted from classical content transfer through content adoption and content reproduction to learning through outcomes. Teaching and learning is therefore done today with the aim of children connecting different models and concepts. By doing so, they acquire competences for lifelong learning. Also, we found that school leaders needed training because no-one has worked with them. We have introduced training and licensing and this is a really serious endeavour. Obtaining a license to be a school principal is not that easy at all which resulted in departization and depolitization of that function. We are also working with lower-level education facility managers, as their roles need to be presented differently. I am mainly referring to school secretaries and expert associates. There are now new paradigms in place where we will have different models of schools that will be able to express their idiosyncrasies. All institutions will thus have a degree of autonomy where we will only be interested in the outcomes, not the formal programmes. As I have said earlier, we are now introducing high school graduation and nationwide tests. We have already achieved a lot in reforms, having covered the first and the fifth grade of elementary schooling and the first grade in gymnasiums. This year, we are going to cover the second and the sixth grade of elementary schools and the second grade in gymnasiums. We have already provided an impetus, with the reform of high school education being implemented in its entirety.

You cannot develop a quality high school education if you reduce it only to obtaining knowledge. Everything I have mentioned is interconnected. You cannot expect good grades if your teaching is not good. In order to quickly track all this information we are going to implement a unique information system in education. In September, we will start implementing JISP where everyone, from nurseries to universities, will be assigned a JOB (the Unique Education Number). We have digitized the system and I can confidently say that we are champions in that and are not lagging behind developed countries. Throughout this process, we have been providing extensive staff training, purchasing much needed computers and perfecting the whole system. The state has allocated 70 million euro for this purpose. Of this amount, 35 million euro will be spent on the equipment and training, and the remaining 35 million euro will be transferred to the Ministry of Telecommunications which is in charge of build a robust network that can follow everything we do.

How important is the implementation of the dual system in high school education? When will dual education be implemented in colleges?

The implementation of dual education will start at colleges soon. We now have a working group that is dealing with quotas. Dual education in high schools is working well and we will continue to work on it. The plan is to open resource centres for lifelong learning. Everything is turned upside down here – there are dozens of commissions and working groups which members are volunteering and everyone is working with us. We are also working on new student accommodation. A complete reform whereby vocational colleges were transformed into academies has also been implemented and we can see progress in that segment too.

What is the current situation with science in Serbia?

Science in Serbia is disproportionately well-developed compared to the rest of society. Only 23 countries are members of CERN, including Serbia, and this is the best validation of my claim. We have been to Japan recently where we succeeded in renewing our connections with our counterparts there after a 40-year-break. Needless to say, Japan is one of the five technological powers in the world. Also, we have scientific connections with Russia, China, the USA, South Korea and many European countries. Plus, we are also working on a strategy for science. There are two useful things we have done here – the first is the Law on Science and Research, which got researchers seriously concerned because they have to do evaluations now, and the second is the Science Fund which is regulated by another law and has already been formed. The first tranche for this purpose amounted to 6 million euro but we have managed to up this amount to 9 million euro, which is how much the second tranche will be.

Speaking of science, what are the plans for science and technology parks in Serbia?

Many institutes and technology parks are now operational. The construction of the Science and Technology Park in Belgrade is now in its second phase with the first phase completed. The Science and Technology Park in Novi Sad is open, with the first phase completed in January and the second phase about to be completed in the spring. The Science and Technology Park in Niš is also finished and handed over to the local government for use, while the budget for the Science and Technology Park in Čačak has been allocated. That is not the end. Startup communities are growing fast too. Our focus must be now on higher education and its re-internationalization, and that goes hand in hand with the accreditation of curricula in English. Also, we will have to implement major infrastructure projects in this segment, including the construction of new buildings and adaptation of the existing ones.

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