The Law on Higher Education of July 25, 2000, defines the role and the tasks of institutions of higher education as “transmission of knowledge, organization of studies, advancement and promotion of education and science, development of creative skills, preparation of students for the occupations for which the application of scientific discoveries and professional skills are needed, advancement of technological development, development of arts, technical culture and sports and progress of the society where the individuals take over the responsibility for their own future…” (Art. 3).
The Magna Charta Universitatum (i.e. The Great Charter of the Universities), adopted by the rectors of European universities in Bologna, on September 18, 1988, states that “at the approaching end of the millennium, the future of mankind depends largely on cultural, scientific and technical development; and that this is built up in centers of culture, knowledge and research as represented by true universities…” (Paragraph 1, p. 1).
In light of these two statements, the system of higher education is placed as the foundation of social development and the future of each-in this case the Republic of Macedonia, of all of Europe and beyond. The tasks that confront today’s universities, both here and in Europe as a whole, the tasks appear to be almost insurmountable. Obviously, it is not just the statement of intent that counts but the strategy of its realizing it and the resources available in the process of transformation.
We have no pretention to delve into the philosophical issues raised here. Rather, we will look into a relatively simpler set of questions, namely: the status of legislation on higher education in this country, observations from everyday practice of university life and approaches to achieving a higher level of integration into the European and world trends of university development.
In 2007, there are three state universities in the Republic of Macedonia, with the forth one to be opened in September. There are also at least five, smaller, private universities, providing complete or a partial instruction in English. There are also some other institutions of higher learning not categorized as universities. Altogether we are talking about 50, 000 students, the largest of them being the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University with about 38, 000 students.
The main legal act regulating the higher education in Macedonia is the previously cited Act on Higher Education (of 2000). There is also the Act on the Founding of the Institutions of Higher Education in the Republic of Macedonia (of 2000, as amended in 2003). The first Act is to be amended, most likely in 2007, although the proposed changes were ready in the Sobranie’s Commission in January of 2006. There are literally hundreds of smaller or larger changes proposed (to some 200 articles of the Act), some of them establishing new features of university life (e.g. lifelong learning), some confirming and further developing the Bologna process.
The status of private universities, now in existence or yet to be created, are in most aspects equal to public universities. The Inter-university conference coordinates the work and common interests of both state and private universities accredited in the Republic of Macedonia. The differences in status are mainly in the tax and financial domain. Private universities pay taxes on their benefits without any special incentives from the state, and all students of private universities pay for tuition without state scholarships.
The domestic legislation in the Republic is being adjusted to the Bologna criteria and principles, as Macedonia is a full participant in this European process, aimed at creating with other European universities an all-European Higher Education Area by the year 2010. The standards for academic degrees standards and quality assurance are being equalized within Europe. For instance, the European credit system has already been introduced in several universities in Macedonia or will be introduced shortly. By adopting the 3 + 2 + 3 year system, Macedonian universities are getting closer to many European universities, while losing certain advantages they had with the traditional 4 + 2 + x year system.
The new system of higher education is a special blend of the Macedonian system as it is today, already adjusted to many features of the European, Bologna process, with some new features of that same process as it continues its development. By the end of 2008, all universities across Europe will have endorsed the University Charter for Sustainable Development (the COPERNICUS Charter). The goals of that Charter are expected to be incorporated into every university’s strategy by the year 2012. With time, the demands placed towards national higher education systems are increasing, which also means that European universities responding positively to those demands will be getting closer to each other.
A few practical observations
1. The link between higher education and high school education, i.e. the overall system of education, could benefit from a thorough, coordinated review. Many observers and practitioners agree that the different levels of education are not well coordinated, and that the lower levels do not prepare the students sufficiently for studies at the higher levels. Macedonia began with solid programs in high schools (and other secondary schools) but too many reforms in too compressed a time have made it necessary for the teachers constantly to readjust. Such adjustments have been at the expense of several aspects of the learning process. Experience in the classroom suggests that, more than good academic programs, what is missing is a culture of learning. Achievement at university level demands broad-based academic preparation in high school and well-developed work habits. The lack of those habits, and of key knowledge sets that ought to be acquired in high school, hampers student progress, impacting negatively on study and research at university level. Real learning is much more important than grades. Yet grades have become the greatest preoccupation of students at all levels. (See also Meirieu’s article in “Le Monde” of March 23, dealing in part with this issue in France).
2. University students should be encouraged to participate in every aspect of higher education. The students who excel academically should be promoted faster instead of remaining unnoticed. The high achievers should be offered the opportunity to complete two school years in one, to conduct more research or to participate in their teachers’ research work. Public recognition of achievement in the course of studies, notably through prizes, awards and where suitable professional internships, should become part of the system for encouraging excellence and a culture of learning. Class participation is another important aspect of students’ education. They should not only engage in passive learning and concentrate on textbooks but should be required to supplement those approaches with active participation in class discussions, study group work, simulation exercises, experiments, and competitions. The students are the key element in the education process. Their needs should be addressed too: student support services, student representation in university bodies, student governments. Students should also have the opportunity to meet with their teachers, consult them on studies and research, on academic programs and other issues. This means that regular office hours for teachers should be instituted where they do not already exist, and teachers should actively encourage such meetings and contact with their students. Overall, greater openness, flexibility and accessibility would improve the educational experience for students and professors alike.
3. The teachers remain the leaders in the education process. They need to concentrate on teaching and improving teaching methods. They need to attend seminars and conferences in their areas of study, as well as on the teaching methods. In undergraduate teaching, the teaching should be considered more important than research. In general, teachers should be more consulted by all other actors in education. They should be better paid for their work (which is true of teachers at all levels). That is, if the future of this country and of mankind itself depends on education and knowledge!
4. Administrators have to create workable systems of higher education and education in general. They, like other actors in the process, need and deserve greater access to professional training. Administrative solutions should be simplified despite the fact that the systems are becoming more complex. Administrators at the highest levels represent universities within the country and abroad and consequently have special responsibilities. Such administrators are, and must be, leaders; leaders of their institutions, leaders in the process of change, and leaders on the national stage. In carrying out their leadership they should stand for and encourage unity of purpose in their institutions, rather than the specific interests of the parts of the universities. At the same time, they should acknowledge advances by individual faculties, converting them into pilot programs or models that should be replicated throughout the university The autonomy of universities, as provided for by the laws of the country, should also be respected and fully implemented.
5. Programs of lifelong learning or continuing education have proven elsewhere to be a valuable contribution to society, to personal development, and to economic life. Such education provides opportunities for universities to create public-private partnerships with the private sector for example, providing tailored instruction needed by industry and contributing directly to the nation’s greater prosperity. Programs of lifelong learning increase the number of students but also help those students in acquiring additional skills, learn about new career possibilities or just get involved in university life. As instruction provided outside the scope of a degree program, they are also programs which can generate much-needed additional income for the university.
Further opening to Europe and to the world
By joining the Bologna process, Macedonia has already become a full participant in European university cooperation. This cooperation is very active with the US, Canada and other parts of the world. The process of “europeanization” has also started, in part independently of the Bologna process, and is being carried out even before EU membership is achieved.
a) Participation in international programs is valuable and should be increased wherever possible. Only through international programs can there be a free flow of scholarship, information, ideas and the sharing of international trends.
b) Students would benefit from more opportunities to spend a year of study abroad, while foreign students should be encouraged to study in Macedonia. Foreign students are an asset for every country. Developing dual-degree programs, official exchanges, academic programs in world languages, regional cooperation, academic, cultural or sports tourism, should all encourage students to become foreign students.
c) Teachers should also be encouraged to teach abroad, and foreign teachers afforded more opportunities to teach in Macedonia. All Macedonian universities, not only private universities in Macedonia, should be allowed to hire foreign teachers, independently of exchange programs. Teaching positions should be opened to international competition, first of all within the europeanization process and later within the EU. The principle of free competition among national and European universities should be fully applied.
d) Programs of joint research should be expanded, employing new forms of organization as needed.
e) Barriers to foreign study and to the professional use of knowledge gained in foreign universities should be removed. Recognition of foreign university degrees, as is widely practiced around the world, should be made a relatively automatic, simple administrative process, replacing the cumbersome nostrification process. The fact that a particular degree, or instruction in a particular discipline, is not offered in this country should not be an obstacle to recognition of a degree earned abroad.
f) Visa issues and the cost of studying abroad have prevented further development of existing exchanges and creation of new ones. The EU member states and the EU authorities should be encouraged to find solutions for Macedonian citizens, while the Government of Macedonia, acknowledging the value to the country and to its further economic development of international education, should make more efforts to send its students and teachers abroad and to bring in foreign students and teachers. Specific agreements to this effect can be negotiated and promoted.
g) The International Seminar on Macedonian language, literature and culture, organized by the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University, as well as a number of summer schools organized by the same and other universities, represent good models of international multilateral cooperation. In addition to the existing seminars and summer schools, Macedonian universities could create jointly an International University Center for European and Balkan Studies as a new focus in the field of europeanization in education and research. The country that founded the first Slavic university in the 9th century, could also be the first in the region to start a new graduate school for Macedonian and international students interested in Europe within a regional context. This kind of institution, with courses and research work in English and French, leading to a master’s and/or a doctoral degree, supported by the Government and the EU, could evolve into a ‘center of excellence’ (in Bologna terms) in this region. Similar centers, with a different regional perspective exist, for example, in Bruges (College of Europe), Nancy (European University Center), Torino (European University Center), Saarbrucken (European University Center), New York (Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU), Pittsburgh (European Union Center of Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh).
h) Last but not least, there should be a National Strategic Plan on Education to define plans, options, national priorities, and the direction of change. The evolution of a post-industrial, knowledge based society, the creation of the intellectual capital, the strategic approach to institutional change, the direction of the higher education further development, all require a National Strategic Plan, together with adequate financial support, both on public and private level. Given the proven critical importance of education in modern society, these are matters which can rightly be called matters of national security and ones about which only the nation and its Government should be in charge of making choices.