Newsletter 2/2010 - Our South East Europe

INTERVIEW with Dr. Radovan Fuchs, Minister of Science, Education and Sports of the Republic of Croatia

“Regional cooperation is no longer a welcome addition to our domestic processes but a necessity if we are to create joint collaboration areas”

Minister Fuchs, what are the main challenges for Croatia and other prospective EU member countries from South East Europe in terms of higher education reform? How could they be overcome?

The main challenges regarding higher education reform in Croatia are primarily related to the university governance and the current system of financing higher education. The new Act on Universities, the draft of which is currently being discussed in Croatia, aims to address both of these challenges.

The four largest public universities in Croatia (Rijeka, Zagreb, Osijek and Split), which account for over 70% of all the students in Croatia, are historically loose associations of independent institutions – the faculties. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2007 and World Bank 2009 reports, this governance model hampers the progress of system reforms and decreases the overall responsiveness of the university system to the needs of Croatian society. Legal independence of faculties lowers the capacity of universities to function as single entities, which negatively affects their strategic development, use of resources and overall quality of teaching and research work. The new Act on Universities is planning to reform this governance model. In addition, the Ministry of Science, Education and Sports has proposed an EU project for capacity building for reforms in higher education sector.

Another important change being introduced by the Act on Universities refers to changing the existing model of funding the higher education. This model is at the moment input-based and funding is determined on the basis of historical trends, employed staff, overheads, required purchases of equipment and other input factors. Currently, the output factors, such as completion of studies, study success and research excellence, are not an element in determining financing. Changing this state of affairs is very important in promoting improvements in higher education in Croatia.

Other countries in South East Europe share many of Croatia’s concerns. Moreover, there seems to be some additional work that could be done in increasing university autonomy in parallel to developing strong and independent quality assurance bodies.

How can regional cooperation contribute to education reform in individual countries, especially in terms of developing knowledge based societies and creating competitive economies, also in light of European integration?

Nowadays, when all regional countries are firmly committed to the European project, irrespective of our individual integration speed or status, and when our institutions are undertaking huge efforts to adapt themselves to be successful and trustworthy partners within the EU framework, regional cooperation is no longer a welcome addition that could provide added value to our domestic processes but a necessity if we are to create joint collaboration areas – be it in education, economy or any other sector.

From my personal perspective, having had the opportunity to follow the development of regional cooperation in education over the past two decades, I must admit that I am very enthusiastic. Over the past several years, in education at least, there has been a proliferation and intensification of regional cooperation in Croatia, both within bilateral and multilateral frameworks. We are witnessing the increase of collaborations aimed at policy learning and transfer of good practices – this is particularly welcome and useful having in mind the sizes of our countries and our limited resources. These developments are to a considerable extent the result of joint participation in various European programmes and projects. For instance, only through the TEMPUS programme Croatian beneficiaries participated in 28 regional projects.

Regional cooperation as an instrument for both regional development as well as successful European integration has slowly come to the forefront of the EU policy focus, and rightly so. This process is reflected in the increase of regional initiatives. I will mention two of them which Croatia has had the privilege of hosting and which are directly targeted towards providing a joint regional platform for the development of knowledge-based and more competitive societies.

The establishment of the Education Reform Initiative of South Eastern Europe (ERI SEE), through a joint endeavor of SEE Ministers of Education and the former Stability Pact in 2004, marked an important milestone in creating a mechanism for supporting sustainable education reforms through regional cooperation. Up to date, through its programmes, the ERISEE has considerably helped the collaboration among regional administrations.

The South East European Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (SEECEL) is another good example of cooperation that demonstrates how eight countries have joined forces to strengthen and expand entrepreneurial learning in order to create competitive economies. The development of entrepreneurial competencies as well as the promotion of entrepreneurship in education are among the key pillars of SEECEL.

How do you see the role of the Regional Cooperation Council in this process?

The Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) provides the framework for regionally owned initiatives but also provides the international community with a forum for regional engagement. Since the RCC strives to build and maintain close links with all key players in the mentioned areas – such as governments, financial institutions, regional organizations, private sector and civil society – it is ideally positioned to serve as a forum for the exchange of information, best practices and common interests and priorities of South East European countries. I expect the RCC to become a strong regional voice that will raise the visibility of our various efforts, help us enhance our regional collaboration and open avenues for stronger partnerships with other EU countries.

As a minister of education and science, I am, understandably, most interested in the human capital development strand of the RCC efforts. In this area, Croatia is actively engaged in the Task Force Fostering and Building Human Capital of the RCC through which we formulate and advocate our joint priorities.

Can you inform our readers of the latest state of play with establishing the lifelong learning agency in Croatia?

Croatia established its national ‘lifelong learning agency’ at the end of 2007. Apart from managing the Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP), Croatian Agency for Mobility and EU programmes is also tasked with the management of the Youth in Action programme. As the full participation in these two programmes presupposes not only the full operational functionality of the agency but also a good preparation of the education system, in January 2009 we have started with the so called ‘preparatory measures’ which are funded through a grant agreement with the European Commission. As part of these preparatory measures, the agency started to equip and train its staff, to inform the beneficiaries about the possibilities and ways of participating in the LLP, and to implement some pilot projects within the LLP.

In parallel, both the Agency and the Ministry have been working together to meet the requirements needed for the accreditation of the agency. We expect to conclude the accreditation process successfully sometime in fall of this year. The full participation in the Lifelong Learning Programme is envisaged for 2011 and I am very much looking forward to the opportunities that the full participation will open for the whole education sector.

Let me also say that our agency has well developed contacts with similar institutions in the region and we are very open and willing to share our experiences and provide help to the region’s countries that are still in the early stages of preparation for the LLP participation.

The RCC is promoting an idea of joint degree programmes among universities from South East Europe. What is your opinion on development of joint curricula for specific BA, MA and PhD studies in the region?

Joint degree studies and joint degree programmes epitomize the essence of the concept behind the European Higher Education Area and serve as a test of its successful development. Over the past decade, Croatian academic institutions have accumulated experience in establishing joint programmes. Through TEMPUS 14 such activities have been implemented. Also, the Croatian National Foundation for Science, Higher Education and Technological Development has funded joint degree programmes.

However, we are all aware of many obstacles – accreditation, recognition, administrative capacities, funding and sustainability of these programmes. It is therefore good that the joint programmes duly enjoy special attention within the Bologna framework and that many activities and projects which are targeted towards eliminating the obstacle for setting these programmes up are underway.

The RCC efforts in this field reflect not only the interests of the region’s universities but serve as a support to many concrete steps and collaborations in the region already established towards this end. In this respect, I am very much looking forward to RCC engagement and support to the development of joint degree programmes in the region.

Radovan Fuchs has held the position of Minister of Science, Education and Sports in the Government of the Republic of Croatia since 2009. Previously, Mr. Fuchs was Assistant Minister for international cooperation at the same Ministry for 5 years.


Dr. Radovan Fuchs, Minister of Science, Education and Sports of the Republic of Croatia. (Photo Croatian Ministry of Science, Education and Sport)

Dr. Radovan Fuchs, Minister of Science, Education and Sports of the Republic of Croatia. (Photo Croatian Ministry of Science, Education and Sport)