Srđan Verbić, Serbian Minister of Education, Science and Technological Development:

Education Reform is a Never-ending Story

Although the financial crisis and the ongoing macroeconomic stabilisation programme have partially slowed the envisaged pace of reforms in education, efforts to modernise and internationalise the curricula are running in parallel.

The implementation of the programme with the IMF obliges Serbia to rationalise the field of education, while the need to introduce new knowledge to counter this requires the recruitment of additional teaching staff. In this interview for CorD, Minister of Education, Science and Technological Development Mr Srđan Verbić, talks about ways of harmonising these two contradictory targets and other plans of the ministry.

It is often said that education in Serbia is not harmonised with the needs of the labour market.

Education is not adapted to the needs of the market in the UK either, nor in Sweden and the United States. This is a global problem. We could quickly change the educational profile in the case that we had the opportunity to hire people quickly, but in order to introduce new subjects we would have to get rid of some existing subjects. This is the key moment of social dialogue that includes employers and the state and trade unions, and which concerns the fact that we have to offer people who are in the system effective retraining programs, enabling them to find another job and then to introduce what they need.

The IMF programme, on the contrary, calls for the accelerating of this business and rationalisation.

I think we need more teachers in schools, but it is necessary for them to do fewer things than they do now. For example, we have very few people who deal with career guidance, who should be in constant interaction with students, in order for them to be able to choose their school and further career in the right way. On the other hand, global financial troubles compel us to reduce that number and what we can and must do for the damage to be minimised as much as possible.

Of all the changes in the sphere of education, most media attention is devoted to the introduction of dual education. How important is this aspect within the framework of reforms?

At a time when the future of any business is highly uncertain, education devoted to a strictly specialised field is a risk for the state and for the individual. What we need to do is to create our programmes in such a way that we are flexible. Wealthy countries perhaps have the luxury of preparing students for highly specialised areas in which they will be the best in the world. We, on the other hand, must integrate our educational profiles and that is very important to us. Students graduating from vocational schools need to have enough quality working practice and be trained for more than a single craft, because they do not know where they will be employed and what they will need the most. When it comes to higher education, practical experience is extremely important to us. Our vocational high schools must offer a lot more practical experience than is the case today, and the kinds of educational programmes that imply very close cooperation with industry.

Young people in our country often study at university just because they cannot find a job, which has led to a fairly unregulated industry of private colleges. When will this sector be brought into line?

What we definitely need to bring order to is the route leading from basic primary education, through secondary schools, to higher education. We want to have as many highly educated people as possible, but the route leading to that education must be arranged, and that is why we are working to introduce a graduation at the end of high school that will be a very serious filter determining who goes to which school for what purpose and where they can enroll further after graduating from such schools.

On the other hand, until recently we had a big problem with another group of young people – those who earned degrees at foreign universities and have had trouble getting those diplomas recognised here.

The slowest part was the establishment of procedures that are supposed to help the ENIC NARIC Centre to do this job, and I think we are now finally picking up pace. Of course, we are not progressing at the same pace with all countries. However, as qualifications are resolved on the principle of precedence, once we have accepted a certain profile it is then recognised automatically in the future, the more recognised scientific educational programmes we have, the faster this procedure will go in the future.

At present we have 1,731 applications for the recognition of diplomas and 495 are being processed, because that is more or less the capacity with which we can work.

There is increasing cooperation in the region when it comes to the education sector.

During the past year we have managed to establish two international organisations headquartered in the region. The first is the Education Reform Initiative of Southeast Europe (ERI SEE), an initiative for education reform in Southeast Europe that is headquartered in Belgrade, and that is a very important event because it is only the second international organisation to have its headquarters in Belgrade. Besides ERI SEE, the Centre for Research and Innovation of the Western Balkans (WISE) has also been established and also involves all countries in the region. Both organisations have great potential, both in terms of the distribution of funds for education and science in the region and in terms of coordinating all activities – starting from secondary vocational education, which is a topic common to all of us, to the mutual recognition of qualifications or a common framework for qualifications for all countries in the region.

At the same time, you also plan for the University of Belgrade to once again become a point of reference for foreign students.

Here we have a lot of untapped potential. At the time of Yugoslavia, Belgrade was an important centre of education for many ambitious people from non-aligned countries and the echo of those times still reverberates. What we need to do is to increase the number of programmes that offer classes in English, and possibly in other languages. At this moment we have several hundred programs that are accredited and can be taught in English, but only 20 that are exclusively in English, which can cater for a maximum of about 2,300 students, and this is significantly less than, for example, Hungary.

State scholarships were also introduced recently for these students?

We launched the project “The World in Serbia”, which creates the possibility of awarding scholarships to students of member and observer states of the Non-Aligned Movement, thanks to which Serbia has the honour of hosting students from 53 countries. The programme was introduced in 2014 and in the 2016/17 academic year will offer 40 new scholarships.

As of recently, anyone can inform themselves regarding a large number of statistics from the scope of your ministry, thanks to the government’s introduction of “open data”.

The concept of open data is very important for the functioning of the ministry. First, there is openness to the public, who want to know a lot about the education system. The second reason is the intention for us to make decisions regarding the education system on the basis of reliable data. The third important reason is that we are opening the possibility for innovative people to get involved and develop some kind of work for themselves on the basis of this data.

There are increasing numbers of foreigners in our country and we often read that nursery schools have been opened in German or English. Is some government intervention needed in this are or is that space for free private initiative?

We want that to be about private initiatives as much as possible. If there is an institution that can provide such a service, it is only up to us to verify such an institution and wish them good luck in their work.