Small countries, big problems: higher education reform in the Western Balkans

Paul Temple

The Institute recently carried out an evaluation for the Open Society Foundation (OSF) of its scholarship programme, which has brought young people from the Western Balkan countries to study social science subjects in UK universities. Our study involved assessing aspects of university work in these countries – Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – and making recommendations for future OSF programmes.

These are all small, or very small, countries, which accordingly have small higher education systems. Montenegro, for example, effectively has only one public university; Macedonia has two. By European standards, these countries are very poor, but their universities’ chronic lack of resources will probably be easier to deal with than their fragmented structures, organisational rigidity, intellectual isolation and endemic corruption. The small sizes of these higher education systems also create problems: the difficulty is not numbers of institutions or students as such (some of the universities, in Serbia for example, are actually rather too large), but rather the insularity to which small systems, without pre-existing international traditions, are prone.

As if these countries were not already small enough, ethnic tensions effectively create internal sub-divisions, in Macedonia and especially Bosnia-Herzegovina: here, a country with four and a half million people has, technically, 14 ministries of education. The internal division between the Bosniac/Croat-dominated Federation and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska prevents any sensible national restructuring plans (and of course much else besides). And even within the Federation, ethnic tensions have led to the creation of two universities, one Croat and one (clearly unviable) Bosniac, in the small city of Mostar. Universities here are being used as symbols to identify a set of political aims and to help implement divisive programmes of identity politics.

Fragmentation is also a characteristic of internal university organisation in the region, stemming from the Yugoslav tradition of strong faculties, and chair systems within them. Despite current attempts in places to integrate faculties in order to create more effective unitary universities, this internal fragmentation persists, making institutional change hard to manage because of multiple and competing sources of authority. Formal institutional mission differentiation is hardly attempted. It is hard to avoid seeing this institutional fragmentation as mirroring the fragmentation found at national and regional levels.

Academic corruption remains a serious issue throughout the region, and obviously undermines any attempts to persuade Western universities to take seriously claims about academic standards there. The still-widespread use of frequent one-to-one oral examinations is one factor which facilitates academic corruption, but simply changing processes (as with the move to written examinations in Serbia, or new quality assurance procedures) is unlikely to eradicate a deep-rooted problem. Changed processes have to go hand-in-hand with a frank recognition of the problem (still mainly absent), followed by efforts at cultural change.

Other Institute colleagues involved in this study were Jane Allemano, Natasha Kersh and Holly Smith.

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education

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