The demand for experts who are highly qualified and socially engaged is increasing in accordance with the numerous global challenges confronting society as a whole. That’s why the University of Belgrade is expected to be an active, creative and impartial visionary
Given that the University of Belgrade is preparing to celebrate its 215th anniversary, our aim in this interview with Professor Vladan Đokić Ph.D., Rector of the University of Belgrade, was to shed light on successes, changes and plans for the University’s further development.
The University of Belgrade was once again represented on the prestigious Shanghai Ranking list, The Academic Ranking of World Universities, last year. How difficult is it to maintain such a high position today?
Universities have to strive constantly to raise their reputation and status. World ranking positions are certainly one of the most important indicators of that status, but not the only one. There are various charts around the world that rank universities. The Shanghai Ranking somehow imposed itself as the most visible, which is why many also consider it the most important. On that list, the University of Belgrade is currently ranked in the top 400-500 places, which is a better result than last year. I would like to emphasise that the indicators that form the basis of this chart are extremely unfavourable for the University of Belgrade, and that possibilities for us to influence it are very limited. That ranking is formed on the basis of six categories, two of which (number of Nobel laureates and winners of the Fields Medal among the University’s alumni or faculty members) are completely beyond our reach.
Under such circumstances, and also taking into account the dynamic development of the performances of higher education institutions in the most economically developed countries, the position of the University of Belgrade is relatively stable, despite the less favourable conditions for conducting scientific research activities. With the aim of maintaining and improving the position of the University of Belgrade in the Shanghai Ranking, it is essential for there to be greater and more systematic investment, but there is also a need to improve specific fields like the development and strengthening of the alumni network, encouraging international collaborations, establishing postdoctoral positions, establishing joint master’s programmes and increasing the number of scientific projects. In order to influence an increase in the number of papers published in leading international journals and increased citations of researchers, it is necessary to provide those who contribute the most with certain benefits: financial, academic and media-based.
In the University’s 215-year history, what would highlight as the greatest successes when it comes to the position of the University of Belgrade on the map of world universities?
There are many of them; almost a day doesn’t go by without us publishing news about some new one, but they mustn’t cause us to relax. The future development of the University of Belgrade faces numerous challenges. Higher education plays a unique role in creating a sustainable framework for modern society. The demand for experts who are highly qualified and socially engaged is increasing in accordance with the numerous global challenges confronting society as a whole.
The University of Belgrade is working on a Platform linked to the legal, academic and material aspects of financing higher education institutions, which should serve as a preliminary document for discussions with representatives of the Government of Serbia on a model that would secure stable and adequate financing
That’s why the University of Belgrade is expected to look to the future and to be an active, creative and impartial visionary, to advance its role as a pioneer of knowledge-based initiatives; to continue advocating for the continuous incentivising of academic independence, to provide an environment of equal opportunities and fair treatment for everyone, regardless of vocation, age, ethnicity and gender.
Which moments in history would you single out as having shaped the University’s current structure, standards and scope?
This is a major anniversary, and we have something to celebrate. To commemorate the 215th anniversary of the founding of the University of Belgrade, we are preparing a series of activities aimed at creating a permanent record of the role of its members and individuals in the academic community and society. In respecting the role, but also the importance of the institution we represent, we decided to mark the anniversary by compiling a lasting record of its history of success, changes and constant growth. We are preparing a monograph, a documentary film, exhibitions, working and celebratory gatherings. Through these projects, we will compile a selection of those moments that created and shaped the University, and you’ll see everything this coming September.
We are bearing witness to the fact that, following a great wave of exceptional specialisation, interest in multidisciplinary approaches and multidisciplinary study programmes is today on the rise. How does our University, together with its members, adapt to these trends?
Alongside the exceptionally high standard of the educational process, which is testified to by the number of current and graduate students at various levels of study, our University is also recognisable for its outstanding results in scientific research work, intensive cooperation with business and the leading domestic and international institutions. Likewise, the special importance of the development of faculties and institutes is reflected in the creating of new opportunities for students aimed at building the capacities of young researchers and staff, i.e., enabling students at all levels to get acquainted and receive training in the conducting of scientific research work. In the context of defining public interest and actions carried out beyond the framework of the University, it is important to highlight the constituting of the Environmental Protection Committee of the University of Belgrade, which has the role of indicating the importance of environmental protection and improvement from a professional perspective.
Digitalisation has long since become a process that encompasses all parts of society. How do these processes impact the functioning of the University in an organisational and educational sense?
Digitalisation proved crucial during the period of the pandemic. After more than two years, classes were relaunched in practise rooms and amphitheatres at full capacity. Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, the majority of teachers and students had no experience of remote learning, nor with different pedagogical approaches to this method of teaching. Although the University of Belgrade positioned itself very well in the new conditions, thanks to its previous experience and efforts in the implementation of the digitalisation process, I would emphasise the fact that the results of exams and the passing rate of the last school year, which was conducted completely in accordance with the combined model of teaching, didn’t differ much compared to previous years.
My opinion is that the lack of in-person teaching will not have an impact on students’ knowledge, considering that their potential to acquire knowledge is huge and they are adaptable to specific contemporary circumstances. What concerns me is the social aspect of their two-year absence from the classroom, the consequences of which we will only be able to see after a certain amount of time has passed.
How well equipped are our faculties today and can they provide students with knowledge in some of the areas that are developing rapidly, such as the faculties gathered at the future BIO4 campus?
The key lies in stable and adequate financing. The University of Belgrade is working on a Platform linked to the legal, academic and material aspects of financing higher education institutions, which should serve as a preliminary document for discussions with representatives of the Government of Serbia, in order to devise a comprehensive solution for financing higher education. I hope that the state will have understanding and that in the next two years, as partners, we will find an adequate financing model that will be applicable consistently.
This year marks the culmination of the first experimental cycle of the work of Circle U, the European University Alliance. How are the University of Belgrade’s experiences of this initiative?
On the partnership, dialogue and networking front, the University has developed and strengthened numerous strategic partnerships with reputable universities and institutions over the previous year. Belgrade hosted the Rector’s Forum of Southeast Europe and the Western Balkans, which brought together rectors from 23 of the region’s universities. A partnership agreement was signed at Prague’s Charles University between the League of European Research Universities (LERU) and the seven Central European universities, CE7, of which the University of Belgrade is a member. This agreement aims to enable support for common interests at the national and European level.
Through a series of tangible proposals, solutions and decisions, we work continuously on retaining the best at the University of Belgrade or, which isn’t so rare, repatriating those who’ve left. The process is long, just as the problem emerged over multiple decades
Within the European framework, an application is being prepared for a new call to the European Commission under the scope of the Circle U alliance programme, which was formed in the context of the Initiative of European Universities and the Development of European Interuniversity Campuses that’s being implemented by the European Commission. This alliance connects nine European universities that work together to encourage new models of university cooperation and partnership, and to address priority topics and challenges like climate change, democracy and public health. This cooperation is extremely important and useful to us, but a series of additional cooperation agreements have been signed over the previous year with several Asian universities, which form the basis to provide opportunities for new dimensions of intercultural cooperation. This all demonstrates the interest among numerous partners in cooperating with our University, as a dignified institution.
The latest census also showed us that the Serbian population is getting older and the major brain drain is persisting. To what extent do you, at the University, feel the ramifications of these two trends when it comes to new generations of students and staff renewal?
The University is perhaps the national institution where the brain drain is felt the most. Through a series of tangible proposals, solutions and decisions, we work continuously on retaining the best at the University of Belgrade or, which isn’t so rare, repatriating those who’ve left. The process is long, just as the problem emerged over multiple decades. And that’s why no one, including the University, is able to offer an instant solution. Instead, I will offer my own example. After completing my studies at the University of Belgrade, Faculty of Architecture (1988), I earned my master’s at the University of Southern California, School of Architecture, in Los Angeles (1991). And despite receiving multiple offers for further study and employment beyond the borders of Serbia, I decided to return to Belgrade. And I know that I wasn’t wrong to do so.
A potential increase in the number of highly cited researchers could be made possible by creating positions intended for returnees from abroad, by considering opportunities to engage guest professors, as well as by focusing on areas in which there are chances to achieve the best results. In accordance with that, it could be possible to increase the number of papers published in journals that are indexed in relevant databases by employing more researchers and associates, and by amending the regulations governing the minimum requirements to obtain the title of teacher, in order to optimally combine the differential and cumulative requirements for the number of published papers during the elective period. These could be the first tangible steps.
We are commemorating a major anniversary… We are preparing a monograph, a documentary film, exhibitions, working and celebratory gatherings with which we’ll mark the most important events in the University’s history
Over the previous year, the University developed and strengthened numerous strategic partnerships with renowned universities and institutions, both in European and Asian countries
The University of Belgrade will in future continue advocating for the continuous incentivising of academic independence and the creating of an environment of equal opportunities and fair treatment for everyone