ROMANIA: Investment boost for higher education

Higher education in Romania has undergone huge changes in the past two decades, from a small and stifled sector during the communist era to a competitive system with seven times more students, more than 100 institutions and burgeoning research. There are challenges, including raising quality, but investment in higher education has increased 30-fold in the past seven years, says Professor Paul Serban Agachi, president of the academic council of Babes-Bolyai University and a member of a team that crafted reforms.

In 1989, the tumultuous year that the Soviet Union crumbled, Romania had dismal higher education statistics: 600 students per 100,000 people or around the same as Syria, according to the Unesco measure. Since then there has been rapid massification of higher education and today the country has 3,500 students per 100,000 people - a six-fold increase.

While there used to be fewer than 20 universities, now there are more than 100 institutions - 49 public universities and the rest private colleges and universities (which Agachi believes is too many for a population of 21 million people). There are 700,000 students and some 40,000 academics, many of whom were pulled in from other sectors.

Universities fared badly during the communist era, which began in 1947 under the controversial leadership of Nicolae Ceauşescu who was executed in a violent revolution in 1989. Anti-intellectual policies led to detentions and deaths of academics, oppression of critical voices and serious neglect of the sector.

Serban Agachi, a chemical engineer, belonged to a political family and suffered during those bleak years. His uncle and father-in-law were both jailed:

"I had problems being employed and promoted. The party didn't like me." After liberation he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and went to the California Institute of Technology where he was an associate in 1991-92. "I was offered a contract but preferred to come back," he says.

Babes-Bolyai's Rector, Professor Andrei Marga - who went on to become the Minister of Education and is now back leading the university - asked Agachi to join his team. "Coming from America, Marga felt I would be open-minded about reform," he explains.

Aside from three years spent in Iraq as part of a Unesco team that undertook a needs assessment of higher education in that devastated country, he has been at Babes-Bolyai ever since and is today president of the academic council, a top strategic position.

Agachi was part of the team that steered university reform, which began in earnest in Romania in 1997. Their work was helped immensely by two programmes: Phare, a European Union instrument assisting central and eastern European countries prepare for accession - which Romania did in 2007 - and a World Bank initiative that, Agachi says, was "a blood transfusion for higher education; for the first time we had money to do something serious".

Despite higher education's transformation and growth in the past decade, Romania has a way to go before it can compete with Europe's most developed countries in terms of human capital.

"Our main problem is lack of qualified human resources," states Agachi. "And we are losing a lot of skilled people to other countries in Europe that pay better." There remains in Romania a low proportion of people between the ages of 24 and 64 years with higher education - about 8%. "I don't know how we are going to catch up," he says.

But Romania is committed to doing so: launching an international higher education conference at Babes-Bolyai last week, Governor of the National Bank of Romania, Dr Mugur Isarescu, said the country was intent on following its own version of the Irish model of economic growth through investment in human capital and education.

Like many other countries of eastern and central Europe that have experienced momentous transformation since 1989, Romania's higher education sector still faces many challenges.

Melania Vergu, chief editor of Gandul newspaper in Bucharest, says higher education values "got lost in mediocrity" and that when Romania moved from an oppressed to a free society, the sector didn't know how to respond.

"Universities had to accept many more students. They became like businesses. There was an explosion of private institutions, created for profit. That was a serious flaw until around 1997, when [then] Minister of Education Andrei Marga managed to impose some order." She also highlighted corruption, "academic clans" and lack of self-criticism as ongoing problems.

Another challenge, exacerbated by massification, is quality. There have been major initiatives including establishment of a quality assurance board in the late 1990s, the Romanian Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education in 2005, and introduction of a comprehensive peer review and assessment system that has been identifying weak provision and institutions.

But improving quality takes time. At the institutional level there has been curriculum change and pressure on academics to up their research output, among other initiatives.

Agachi also highlights problems in the private sector. "Many institutions are 'fake' rather than real universities. They often do not have proper facilities, they are rooms in houses. Many focus on fashionable fields and are not concerned about quality."

More encouragingly, he says, "lately we have observed that the market is taking the value of qualifications into account. Employers want graduates from good universities."

A further challenge is lack of a national higher education strategy, though the EU is funding a new project in this regard. A higher education act was passed in the mid-1990s and was amended in 2004, although a new law will be needed once a strategy has been finalised, Agachi says.

Finally, lack of investment was a serious problem for Romanian higher education. But this has turned around dramatically, with major injections of funding for the sector leading to the 30-fold increase in investment in higher education since 2001.

Post-1989 governments promised to allocate 6% of gross domestic product (GDP) to education - but for a long time did not have the money. Under a Liberal government, sustained economic growth of 6% to 8% a year grew the public coffers and next year the 6% goal will be attained.

There has also been dramatic investment in research, starting in 2006. Research funding has grown from 0.18% of GDP in 2005 to 0.69% this year and will reach the target of 1% of GDP spending in 2010. Funding has been allocated through programmes under a national plan for scientific research, with more than 80% based on competitive grants for research infrastructure, ideas and human resources, such as postdoctoral positions. Research performance is closely monitored.

"Starting this year we also have access to structural funds of the EU, which are given to new EU countries to try and reach the level of development of older members, including for the development of road, agricultural and research infrastructure," Agachi says.

Today, Babes-Bolyai University in the northern town of Cluj-Napoca - a top institution with roots going back 427 years to a Jesuit college - is proudly multi-cultural and has 55,000 students in 21 faculties, including 3,000 PhDs and distance students.

Teaching is in three languages - Romanian (42,000 students), Hungarian (7,600) and German (1,100). In some faculties, such as economics, there is also teaching in French and English. Foreign students are returning to a country that once taught many students from Soviet-allied countries.

The Babes-Bolyai budget has risen to EUR110 million (US$157.2 million) this year, 43% of which is self-generated through tuition fees, research and services. The university has spent EUR7.5 million on science equipment in recent years, and will soon receive a further injection totalling EUR29 million for equipment, doctoral students and student training.

"There have been many changes in a short while. It has been exciting but very tiring," Agachi says. "But institutions are being renovated, refurbished and properly equipped. Universities are stronger and looking nicer. And higher education's future is looking much better."