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EUROPE
Western Balkan nations collaborate on higher education
Education authorities in the western Balkan countries are gearing up for the second regional ministerial meeting in May. The ministers set the agenda in March 2012, prioritising higher education. The folks on the academic workshop floor followed up with a massive event hosted by the European Commission in Dubrovnik in November 2012.

They have now sent a ball the size of a sphere in the Brussels Atomium back to their ministers.

It contains a hotchpotch of red hot issues, including graduate employability, evaluation mechanisms for institutions and administrations, transparency, assessment, brain drain, brain recruitment, the efficient use of resources, recognition, structured dialogue with society and industry, the development of doctoral studies, and managing resources and reforms.

The meetings are taking place in the framework of the EU-led Western Balkans Platform on Education and Training, which was launched on 7 March last year and also convened the first ministerial meeting with most of the next countries in line for accession to the European Union.

The platform’s aim is to assist the western Balkans with reform efforts in the area of education and training, and to increase regional cooperation. The countries involved are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. It is chaired by Director General of Education and Culture Jan Truszczynski.

Priorities

Interestingly, the platform was not pre-destined to become a higher education action group.

“At the March 2012 meeting, the European Commission asked the ministers to prioritise one section from the huge hat with education and training topics,” said Helene Skikos, the European Commission policy officer who coordinates the meetings from the Education and Culture offices at Madou in Brussels.

“They chose higher education and teacher training, but the commission said that they could only pick one.”

They chose higher education. Good for us higher education journalists, but a shame nonetheless. Teacher training in the region is a dead interesting field that could do with a bit of spring-cleaning.

It is odd by international standards, partly because the teaching profession is peculiarly politicised in countries such as Macedonia, but also because the monopoly of universities in teacher training has hampered (and continues to hamper) a great deal of development in a number of former Yugoslav countries.

Now that the ministers have chosen higher education as their priority reform area, what can the European Commission do beyond what it has already done for 20 years, together with a host of other donors: supporting higher education reform in the region?

Different

“There are several actors in the region,” said Skikos. “We are different because the others can do light things but there is usually very little follow-up because of funds. Beyond education support projects, we have the prospect of enlargement and technical assistance programmes so there is good funding.

“The countries themselves often choose to earmark this for large-scale investments in things such as infrastructure, but Serbia has requested money for education now, and so has Albania.”

This is interesting too, and we will follow up.

Serbia is the country in the region where reforms have been initiated at the grassroots level. It seems to be having success, with some tremendously creative universities such as Novi Sad driving local innovation with a zest that the government has wisely begun converting into interesting progress.

With that it is beginning to compare quite favourably to countries that are considered more advanced, such as Croatia, which has been legislating left, right and centre and building institutions as if they were real estate – but has faced persistent problems implementing all this legislation and empowering all these new institutions.

Regional cooperation

One of the objectives of the platform is regional cooperation, and the European Commission will return to the ministers with double sets of recommendations.

“On the four sub-themes of the last conference we will try to work regionally,” said Skikos. “These were managing resources and reforms, research in higher education, qualifications and competences, and linking higher education with the world of work.”

“But we also had national workshops in the conference. If the countries want assistance on a national issue, they can request support through Taiex, the technical assistance and information exchange instrument managed by the Directorate General for [EU] Enlargement.”

And what about the poor teachers?

“We are working on that too, but we need information first,” said Skikos, “so we have launched a study based on a model that was used in the Eastern Partnership countries [the non-candidate countries east of the European Union except Russia] and in winter 2013 we will have a large meeting on this topic.“

Expect an update on the Western Balkans Platform on Education and Training from University World News in May, after the next ministerial meeting.
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