BU is among the 2-3% of the world’s top universities
In the interview for Diplomacy&Commerce, Professor Nenad Zrnić, PhD, Vice-Rector for International Cooperation, University of Belgrade, speaks about the benefits of dual education for the Serbian education system, the importance of cooperation between our universities and universities in Europe and the US, and the extent to which higher education institutions can influence the improvement of the education system in Serbia at all levels.
“One of the problems in our education system stems from the fact that the higher education underwent a more extensive reform, implemented in 2006 in accordance with the Bologna Process, in comparison with lower education, where the teaching, curricula and grading method have not been modified since the time of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The measures implemented in recent years to reform the education system in schools by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) are certainly encouraging and are already beginning to deliver results. A lot is also expected from the 2030 education strategy, which will cover all levels of education, from pre-school to university, and which the MEST is working on. Of particular importance are the announced leaving exams, where teachers from higher education institutions (HEIs) would be involved in the creation of their content since such integration between high-school and university education is much needed.
Also, higher education institutions must have a proactive approach to high school students, be present in schools, present themselves, and participate in student competitions and workshops. At the university level, HEIs should develop and enhance each of the three visions of higher education: teaching, science and the elements of the third education mission in terms of developing an entrepreneurial spirit in students, an innovative approach, technology transfer, cooperation with businesses, and development of start-ups and spin-off companies,” he says.
What benefits did the implementation of dual education bring to the Serbian education system and what are its effects in practice?
Although many flatly and unjustifiably criticize dual education, it is not a purely Serbian creation. Dual education has long existed in many European countries. It is a form of hands-on learning through work, where students obtain some of the knowledge in the classroom and the practical part through learning from the employer. This type of education has already come to life in our country in high schools, with good results and continuous progress, which is also encouraged by foreign investors who are particularly interested in such programmes. The Law on Dual Studies has also been adopted, thanks to the cooperation between the MEST, a working group set up by the Ministry, and researchers on a three-year international project called “Implementation of dual education in higher education in Serbia” which focuses on the capacity building in higher education under the Erasmus+ programme and which I manage on behalf of the University of Belgrade. The law has been drafted very carefully. Now, the National Accreditation Body and the National Council for Higher Education have to do their part. As a result, we will soon have dual studies at higher education institutions. Dual studies are a matter of voluntary decision made by a higher education institution, but it is an important novelty and a good addition to the higher education system. It is important to underline that many companies are dedicated to dual studies because they have estimated that dual education produces the so-called a finished product, or a graduate student who will not need a certain period to adapt to the work environment.
To what extent does the system of accreditation of higher education institutions affect the quality of university education, especially at private universities in Serbia?
The Law on Higher Education does not differentiate between public and private universities. Personally, I prefer to differentiate these institutions based on the quality of education they offer to students and other parameters that objectively, or measurably, rank a college. Also, we cannot speak of an inadequate accreditation system, given that the current system is in line with the positive practices of the accreditation system in the EU countries. Rather, we could talk about lack of implementation of the regulation, inadequate response and treatment, and concealing omissions. With the establishment of the National Accreditation Body, which is an independent agency, and the formation of a new Accreditation and Quality Review Committee, I hope that only those HEI that deserve accreditation will be accredited.
How important is the cooperation between our universities and universities in Europe and the USA?
There are several forms of cooperation, one of which is under the auspices of the Erasmus+ programme which enables student and teacher mobility. The Belgrade University (BU) has already begun the implementation of a new cycle, and in terms of approved funds, we are the best of all higher education institutions in Serbia. Our strategy is to work primarily with universities that are better ranked than us. This is a guarantee that students studying at foreign universities will gain top quality knowledge and experience that will contribute to their development. We also cooperate under the Erasmus programme on projects of capacity building in higher education, strategic partnerships, knowledge alliances, etc. Also, our university participates in dozens of scientific projects under the Horizon 2020 call, funded by the European Commission. This allows our teachers and researchers to collaborate with top experts from different countries and build on their knowledge. Finally, the BU is also a member of several university associations, currently chairing the Danube Rector’s Forum and Uniadrion (universities in the Adriatic-Ionian macro-region). We have also been admitted to the CESAER (The Conference of European Schools for Advanced Engineering Education and Research). All of this allows us to keep abreast of contemporary trends in education and science.
How much does the decline in the Belgrade University’s ranking on the so-called Shanghai List realistically reflect the situation in the Serbian education system?
The University of Belgrade has long been operating in accordance with the globally renowned standards. It is the best-ranked Western Balkan university and one of a handful from the former Yugoslav republics on the Shanghai List. A couple of years ago, it was ranked 284th, and is now among the 400-500 top- ranked universities. This decline has been extremely dramatically portrayed in the public. The BU has not seen a decline in its results. Rather, others make faster progress primarily because of increased investments that we cannot afford.
In reality, being among the 2-3% of the world’s top universities, or among the top 500 in the world, is no small thing for Serbia. According to data from Universitas 21, an association of 21 high-ranking universities from around the world, Serbia ranked 41st in the world in 2019. If these data are weighted by the GDP of the country and the level of investments in higher education, Serbia occupies an excellent third place. Therefore, higher education, as well as science, needs additional investments and in this regard, universities need to cooperate with the state, that is, such systematic access and synergy can produce good results.
How prepared are our higher education institutions to make the necessary changes to keep up with Europe and the world in terms of quality of studying?
In order to advance ourselves, we need to connect with those who are better than us. The BU was invited last August to join the CircleU network, which will very soon submit an application for a European Universities project under the auspices of the Erasmus+ programme. This is a move towards uniting excellent European universities, which only as networked can rival powerful universities from the US and China. This would create mega-European universities where at least 50% of students would use mobility programmes – physical and virtual – to bring together chairs and researchers. The University of Belgrade is recognized in this network as the preferred partner of the following universities: the Oslo University, the Aarhus University, the Humboldt University Berlin, the University of Paris, the Catholic University of Louvain and King’s College London. Collaboration and networking with these highly ranked universities from wealthy countries is a good direction in the BU’s development and creates great opportunities for our students and teachers.
How much can students, students and young professionals in Serbia compare to their peers and colleagues from abroad?
The fact is that the first generation of economic emigration, which emigrated mainly to the countries of Western Europe, consisted mostly of workers and a segment of highly educated people. With the collapse of the SFRY, that has changed and the emigration of persons with higher education has prevailed. This trend has continued and today we have a permanent brain drain. This is cause for concern and should motivate us to create the conditions for young people that would keep them in the country.
On the other hand, as the vice-rector of the University of Belgrade, the only Serbian university of national importance and by far the best ranked, I have to admit that, in some way, I am glad to see that foreign employers, including the world’s most renowned companies, are showing a continuing interest in our graduates. This is an indication that higher education at the BU and several other universities in Serbia is of excellent quality.