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Vladan Đokić Ph.D., Rector Of The University Of Belgrade

Developing Successfully Despite Challenges

The vision of the University of Belgrade is to continuously fortify its reputation as a leading educational and scientific research institution of the region, to attract an ever-greater number of students, improve study programmes and reform the system of work. During the previous period, we’ve launched many initiatives aimed at achieving these goals

If we observe a brief overview of the World Bank’s suggestions for Serbia’s further post-covid economic development, one of the fundamental challenges mentioned is the inappropriate supply and demand of skills, i.e., education that isn’t adapted to the needs of the economy. That’s why the first question we posed to Vladan Đokić Ph.D., Rector of the University of Belgrade, was: what, in this regard, can the Education Strategy 2030 change?

“Continuous monitoring of the qualifications framework, alongside analysis and an understanding of what skills and knowledge are essential to cover the needs of the labour market at the national level, certainly represents one of the priority tasks for higher education institutions in Serbia, equally in reaccrediting existing study programmes and developing new ones,” says our interlocutor.

“The demand for highly qualified, socially engaged professionals is increasing and changing in line with numerous global challenges. We also see this in the indicators of the European Agenda for Higher Education, which predicts that half of existing occupations and jobs will require high qualifications by 2025, and which recognises the existence of numerous shortcomings in the education process and the skills that are acquired in higher education. In our context, this issue has only become more pronounced and evident under the circumstances of covid, though there are clear pre-existing indicators that additional efforts are required, both in strategic and operational terms, to tailor higher education to the needs of the economy and labour market.”

Our interlocutor notes that this was one of the starting points in the drafting of the Education and Upbringing Strategy until 2030.

“However, it is my view that the determinants of the Strategy represent a broader conceptual framework for systemic advancement, and that individual tasks and goals must be established and implemented through specific initiatives and activities. One such initiative is the cooperation in providing support of the Public Administration to higher education institutions in the educational process, formalised by agreement in October last year. This marks an important step in public administration reform, both from the aspect of ensuring students acquire practical skills and from the aspect of achieving a high level of competencies for work in the real world.”

One possibility for improving the existing quality of studies is the introduction of vocational programmes and dual education models. How much interest in following this path exists at colleges?

When it comes to the University of Belgrade, of our more than 320 study programmes at various levels of study, there are currently two existing study programmes of basic vocational studies on offer, as well as three study programmes of specialist vocational studies, which indicates the need for colleges to at least encourage consideration of this type of study programme. The university should nurture academic studies in the classical form, but also deliberate on all possibilities for developing vocational programmes, as well as the dual education model to the extent that it has the capacity for that, to the benefit of the entire society.

The university should nurture academic studies in the classical form, but also deliberate on all possibilities for developing vocational programmes, as well as the dual education model to the extent that it has the capacity for that, to the benefit of the entire society

How reliant would the Strategy for the Development of Universities be on the need for change in the field of education?

Before I mention several key perspectives that can play an important role in changing education, I would like to note that ensuring continuous work on the realisation of longterm strategic goals makes it essential for the University to define – in the form of the Strategy that has not yet been formally established – the directions of its development over a period of at least one decade, while monitoring the fundamental projections of the strategies of the Republic of Serbia and relevant international documents. Considering the very uncertain circumstances, particularly the current situation and the ramifications of the pandemic, the strategic decisions that will be brought are very important to the long-term development of the University.

First and foremost, it is essential when defining the Strategy to respect the University’s established traditional values and identity, through an appreciation for new circumstances in national, regional and international circles. Strategic perspectives in this framework should relate equally to the development of the processes and outcomes of education, the development of digital education and distance/online learning, the establishment and implementation of all-encompassing processes and procedures linked to the improving of human resources, the improving of student standards, the promoting and strengthening of scientific research activities, the encouraging and strengthening of international cooperation, and the advancing and optimising of the organisation of work, in which the primary goal in establishing the Development Strategy is actually finally strengthening the financial security and independence of the University.

You are seeking the return of nationalised property to the University, based on the example of how the assets of religious communities were returned. Are there any individuals who donate to the university today; and who would you expect to be a patron of higher education in Serbia?

During the Interwar period, our University was one of the three richest universities in Europe, with revenues from more than 80 endowments and funds. Our University is now focused on an initiative to resolve the status of assets that were confiscated from the administrations of national institutions and endowments, with the aim of returning property in an institutionalised way. Numerous notable and wealthy Serbs have bequeathed their property to the University of Belgrade, with funding from revenues used to reward students’ professional and scientific works, to help impoverished students and student institutions, award scholarships and cover the university’s general needs, so this issue is significant because it would open new avenues of funding for the academic community. There are also positive examples today, both of individuals and socially responsible companies, but they are not as voluminous as they were during the golden age of Serbian endowment.

Money from endowments and funds used to be used to reward students’ professional and scientific works, to help impoverished students and student institutions. Are those needs today sufficiently addressed through other support instruments? What would it be wise to spend the money of donors on now?

It’s important that we launched the initiative to establish postdoctoral research positions at the University. Our laws don’t currently recognise postdoctoral research and this restricts further training for many researchers. This sub-specialisation could help when it comes to retaining young people in the country and encouraging our scientists who’ve earned their doctorates abroad to return home, while it would also attract foreign researchers. Finally, in this way, the University of Belgrade would be even more strongly affirmed as an institution of integrity. Space perhaps exists in this area for modern forms of endowments – of everything from equipment to facilities and funds.

The intention is to use the period ahead to improve the process of selecting teachers at the University, which should be carried out as transparently and fairly as possible, in order to avoid situations in which the results of elections can be interpreted in different ways

During the period of the Covid-19 crisis we saw a significant difference between private and public faculties when it came to the possibility of switching to online teaching. What lessons have you learned when it comes to the digital transition of our higher education?

Thanks to great experience in the digitalisation process, the University of Belgrade positioned and handled itself very well under the conditions of the pandemic, and is now in the third academic year of successfully implementing study programmes that have been adapted to the situation. The last school year’s exam results and passing grades, which were conducted in accordance with the combined model of teaching, didn’t differ significantly from previous years, and we can conclude on the basis of this that the quality of education and acquired knowledge will not be imperilled. I am more concerned about the social aspect, i.e., the alienation of students deprived of a lively, interactive academic atmosphere.

Issues of urbanisation and environmental protection draw citizens onto the streets and disturb them, regardless of their party affiliations. Why are so few experts from universities today included in discussions about Serbia’s needs in any area of development?

The challenges of our environment today include social transformation, globalisation, the endangering of the environment and ever-mounting pressure on public services, the healthcare system, infrastructure and housing, as well as the increasingly strong positioning of information technology. The University of Belgrade’s strength lies in the variety and specificity of its members, with 31 faculties and 11 institutes, which contribute to enhancing its repute and significance in different ways. Some of them do so through academic excellence, some through social engagement, some through improvements to the healthcare system, as we see with the pandemic, and some do so through their participation in important state construction and infrastructure projects. It is very important that the Committee for Environmental Protection was established, for the first time since the formation of the University, as an expert and advisory body of the University Senate. The members of this committee are relevant experts from various scientific fields, who are tasked with presenting stances – argued from an expert perspective – that highlight the importance of environmental protection, as well as the activities, processes and procedures that would contribute to that.

What forms the basis of the University’s reputation today and what can make or break it? Have you recently had any opportunity to receive feedback on how the public views you and, if so, what does that indicate to you?

The vision of the University of Belgrade is to continuously fortify its reputation as a leading educational and scientific research institution of the region, to attract an ever- greater number of students, improve and innovate study programmes and reform the system of work in order to further affirm its place among the ranks of universities in the region and around the world. We’ve launched many initiatives aimed at improving the work of the University. We’re planning to introduce a greater role for students in managing the University’s bodies and organs, due to the recently-adopted Law on Student Organisation, which we waited almost a decade for. One of the most delicate issues is the selection of teaching staff. The intention is to use the period ahead to improve the process of selecting teachers at the University, which should be carried out as transparently and fairly as possible, in order to avoid situations in which the results of elections can be interpreted in different ways.

MISSION

The University of Belgrade represents the most important academic institution in our country and the region, and our goal is to maintain our leadership position

PARTNERSHIP

The key is in partnerships of knowledge, the transfer of knowledge and ensuring an environment for future professionals to acquire practical skills during the period of their studies

AGILITY

Thanks to great experience in the digitalisation process, the University of Belgrade positioned and handled itself very well under the conditions of the pandemic and is successfully implementing its study programmes

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