Speaking with Serbian Education, Science and Technological Development Minister Mladen Šarčević, we discussed his ministry’s plans for the period ahead and the potential to improve the education system and ensure its more efficient connecting with the needs of the market.
What are your priorities in terms of catching our connections with the world?
– We have grabbed our connections with the world in many areas. In the TIMSS survey, which covers the first part of primary school, Serbia is ranked 27th in the world, and is far above the world average. This testifies to some elements of the reforms being recognisable. In that part of schooling we are striving to make computer literacy mandatory, as opposed to an optional subject. Because of that we must influence the colleges that teach personnel to give them new and different competencies than the current ones. When it comes to PISA testing, we have a specific problem because, for some banal reason, we did not participate in the last cycle. Now a PISA council has been formed that also deals with the fourth literacy-financial component, which is not permeated through our curricula. When it comes to colleges, many of them are high-ranking, not only the University of Belgrade on the Shanghai list, rather according to some other criteria the University of Novi Sad is also highly rated, as are parts of the University of Niš and the University of Kragujevac.
Also testifying to the fact that we are a country on the rise when it comes to higher education is the fact that Serbia was identified by researchers from British universities as the only country in Europe that has a chance to be a superstar in education. This gives us the potential to, in accordance with our financial capabilities, have expansion of academic education and the academic community. In dual education we have not only caught up with Europe, but we will actually regulate the legal framework for this type of education before many other countries.
You were in the state school system and then established a series of private schools. What do you see as the pros and cons of the two systems?
– They are of course different, but not just because of who founded them, rather also because in a private school you can set a goal for which it was founded. There are many people who established schools just to make money or gain prestige. For me, those were secondary objectives, with my primary one being to establish ideas and quality that is measured through some high standards, such as the possibility of becoming part of the IB school system, recognisable and very highly rated, with children who achieve results that are achieved only by 0.2% of the world’s school pupils. Not all institutions were established because of that. Both in the private and public sectors, there are good and bad schools. You’ll see that in many parts of academic education we can quickly achieve great results only if laws are adopted and reform processes come to life, if the training of people is initiated, if efficiency is achieved and if the State envisages significantly more funding from the budget for 2018.
As a consequence of that, how do you see their future coexistence?
– Only those best ones will exist excellently, because they will seek the best knowledge, and that knowledge must be confirmed by someone neutral. External assessment is the sole criterion to determine whether someone did something well or not. That goes for all schools. When it comes to state schools, in some subsequent stage of reform we will insist that those better ones also receive more money. In Serbia there is regimentation when it comes to payments for good and bad schools, and good and bad teachers, and good and bad directors and managers.
What most concerns you and what instils hope in you when it comes to the equipping of educational institutions, their programmes and staff readiness?
– When it comes to the readiness of personnel, I’ve already said that the training of all participants is necessary. When it comes to equipment, we have schools that are really equipped at the world level, while we also have those that we need to equip. We are now in the phase of equipping schools with IT equipment and raising IT maturity, both among students and teachers.
I hereby call on ambassadors to consider granting a greater number of scholarships for our students, because it has already been proven that, especially in science, they achieve excellent results
Education today, perhaps more than ever, has become one of the most important factors in the competitiveness of countries. What primarily needs to be done in this context in order for Serbia to utilise its potential?
– Serbia is in the process of a new industrialisation, and the introduction of foreign companies creates the conditions for the employment of young people. At present the country is mostly turned towards the IT-sector and as a result of that we have increased the enrolment quotas for IT departments, because those students can immediately gain employment. A greater number of such personnel will represent a good factor in the competitiveness of the country, because that’s what companies recognise. It is important to involve the scientific diaspora in all of that, which we are considering these days.
To what extent are young people in Serbia today willing to consider their possibilities of finding a job when it comes to selecting their high school or college?
– I think very few people in Serbia think in the direction: which school or university should I enrol in, in order to more easily secure employment. And it seems that the biggest problem is troubling parents, who often direct their children towards some interesting, fine managerial occupations and nice office jobs. That doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Elsewhere in the world work is respected, the labour market is respected. I did various jobs while I was a student and when I graduated I didn’t have a problem working in many other professions due to an inability to secure work in the profession for which I had studied. There is also a problem in that among children there is ever less of a desire for independence, and educating for that comes earlier. Because of that we are introducing entrepreneurial education, for children to learn how to think in a free and creative way. When choosing a school, children should first start by considering the needs of local governments, because the dominant thought in the world is – let me complete something that will immediately secure a job, and then after that I have the opportunity to continue with my studies and ultimately complete a doctorate. We will conduct campaigns on education for parents and children regarding the importance making the right education choices, and I believe we will resolve many of their misconceptions.
How many instruments and which ones should support equal access to education for all categories of the population?
– Categorical access to all levels of education has long been present in our country, primarily through free primary and secondary education, while good students have possibility of using student dormitories at minimum prices, while there are also scholarships and loans. A month’s residence in a student dorm costs 12 euros, which is less than a phone bill. These are very high quality conditions in a country like Serbia. That is the heritage of the old Yugoslavia, which we did not stop during the time of hyperinflation or even during the bombing. All of this is not only available to members of the majority ethnicity, but also to national minorities, while we are devoting special attention and exerting efforts, along with many partners, on the inclusion of the Roma people.
Only the best private and state schools will be able to survive in a system in which we will impose qualitative and neutral external assessments
You’ve said that during your term you will take into the interests of teaching staff, because no reform can be achieved without them. What does that now mean in practical terms, given that there should now be a reduction in the number of employees?
– Reducing the number of employees in education is a regular occurrence in a system characterised by depopulation and falling birth rates. This is a principle that applies in all countries. Reductions also occur when the reform process is introduced, when the system is being changed. When that is a large system, it does not automatically mean that you reduce the number of employees; you can also change something. For example, different types of instructors appear if you introduce dual education.
The level of salaries for teaching staff has been declining over the last nine years. This government has finally turned around the direction of that movement. In the first increase they received one per cent more than others, and in 2017 that trend is expected to continue. There is an idea that we are agreeing with the unions whereby realised savings will be added to the fund for salaries. The aim is for salaries in education to be equal to those for all other occupations in the public sector as soon as possible. This is the first time that the problem of the position of teachers has been approached systemically, and if that isn’t care then I don’t know what is. There are various categories that are hidden in education, including so-called personal school revenues that are generated by schools themselves, which are very rarely seen and can rarely be included in stimulating workers, mostly ending up in “black channels”. We will also prevent that with new laws. We will definitely take care of educators in all possible ways.
How much are education employees interested in advancing their own education and how much do they have opportunities for that?
– I think there is a small number of employees who are not interested, but that will be imposed on them. I cannot believe that someone who loves their profession doesn’t want to see what’s new and innovative in the world. We must find money for their training, because t well-trained teachers represent the basis of reform.
To what extent has our schooling progressed in terms of adapting to new forms of learning brought by digitisation?
– Digitisation helps to improve certain teaching processes, starting from information technology, or from the fact that a tablet is an interactive notebook. However we also have to be careful with that. Younger children must practice dexterity motor skills, must speak well, write well, learn their native language well, which provide the basis for all other knowledge and skills. When it comes to new forms of learning, I will repeat that it is important for us to switch to conceptual models of learning. Digitisation is an important tool in that model, but it is not sufficient in itself.
There are various categories that are hidden in education, including so-called personal school revenues that are generated by schools themselves, which are very rarely seen and can rarely be included in stimulating workers, mostly ending up in “black channels”
Today there are many embassies in Serbia that award scholarships to Serbian students. How important is this kind of assistance when it comes to raising the level of knowledge in the country?
– There aren’t quite that many scholarships. This is a misconception. I have spoken with all ambassadors and told some of them openly that there is declining interest in learning their language, with more students interested in other foreign languages – those of countries that provide more scholarships, have more investors and more job opportunities. Apart from Hungary, all other countries work on the level of reciprocity, providing as many scholarships to us as we give them. I’m sorry about that to an extent, because our students are very good. On the other hand, I don’t think that a Cambridge Scholarship is exceptionally good, because most of them remain in the UK, which thereby gains very good experts. We cannot prevent young people from leaving, but part of what Serbia has invested in their education should be returned to Serbia.
I hereby call on ambassadors to consider granting a greater number of scholarships for our students, because it has already been proven that, especially in science, they achieve excellent results.
When they return to the country, these people still face the problem of their diplomas being recognised and validated. What are the chances of serious progress being made in this domain?
– We have significantly improved processes for recognising diplomas. For many Ph.D. students from our universities we have recognised the role of reviewers for the appropriate level of studies, made models and budgeted part of the funds for reviewers for areas that were previously not covered. Our Enik-Narik Centre is now working at full capacity.