The brain drain and high dropout rates contradict the region's self-image as a bedrock of higher learning
Balkan societies must free themselves from the myth of the region's superior educational systems.
One myth that all societies in the Western Balkans have shared since the heyday of communism is the belief in the superior quality of education in the region. We may trail far behind the West in development and prosperity, the myth goes, but our education is and has been our badge of pride. Our engineers, even with only a bachelor's degree, outsmart their master's-degree-owning Western counterparts; our philosophers are versed in dozens if not hundreds more volumes than their Western colleagues; our children learn real stuff in primary schools while their peers in the West just play.
But the myth needs debunking.
It is partly based on the inflated number of students enrolled in higher education when measured against the number who end up completing their degrees. Schools still often enrol double the number of students who will ever graduate.
At the same time, Balkan societies lack human capital that is critical to support the complex reform processes currently under way and to facilitate their integration into the global economy, and the European Union in particular.
This lack, or loss, of human capital has several explanations.
Experts have identified two types of migration with adverse effects on human capital: "external" brain drain, whereby the well-educated from the region have sought better professional opportunities abroad; and brain waste, or "internal" brain drain, whereby specialists have left jobs in their fields to take better-paying ones in the private sector or in the informal economy not requiring their professional expertise.
Internationals working in the region often comment on over-qualified waiters and cab drivers. These are the people affected by internal brain drain.
The statistics, where they are available at all, are gloomy. They vary across countries and should often be viewed with caution, but they nevertheless reflect the human and material devastation caused by the conflicts of the 1990s and the depletion of the economic base needed to support the educational structures and research and development capacity in the region.
For example, since the outbreak of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 79 percent of research engineers, 81 percent of master's degree holders in science, and 75 percent of Ph.D.s in science have left the country. In her 2005 UNESCO study Science, Technology and Economic Development in South Eastern Europe, Milica Uvalic remarks on the difficulties of measuring the brain drain, specifying that the sample for the Bosnian figures showed that only one third of staff capacity in technical sciences was filled. Indeed, the numbers may not be precise down to the last individual, but the trends throughout the region are unambiguous. In Albania, according to the same study, a 40 percent loss of academic staff was recorded at the University of Tirana, of whom 90 percent were younger than 40.
Overall, throughout the region, the number of researchers has declined over the past decade, and in Serbia, more than half of all university graduates earn their degrees in the social sciences, while numbers of diplomas given in natural sciences, mathematics, medicine, and engineering are falling. One may note here that this particular trend is really no different from what is happening in developed Western societies. Recent closures of science faculties in the United Kingdom have rung the alarm bells. But many Western societies can count on educational infrastructure and reputation to attract foreign students to compensate for the dwindling number of home students of science.
The overall figures on enrolment in higher education show up a gap between the Western Balkans and the EU. According to UNESCO, the "gross enrolment ratio" - the number of students enrolled in a given educational level regardless of age, expressed as a share of the population in the theoretical age group from that level - was 16 percent for tertiary education in Albania in 2002-2003. In Serbia the figure was 36 percent in 2000-2001 and in Macedonia 27 percent in 2002-2003. These figures probably overstate university enrolment since they do not capture the high drop-out rates.
By contrast, the ratio in France is 56 percent, in Slovenia 68 percent, and in Finland 88 percent.
REFORMING SLOWLYIt is only recently that policymakers in the region have recognized the need for education reform. The South East European Education Reform Initiative, launched in 2003 under the auspices of the Stability Pact for southeastern Europe, is an indicator of the growing awareness that education reform is part of the comprehensive transformation these countries need to undergo as they pursue European integration.
The Bologna process, which was set up in 1999 to create a unified European educational space deriving from the European integration process, has given a boost to education reform in the Western Balkans amid the interest of these countries in closer ties with the EU, and the EU's support to the goal of eventual accession of the Western Balkan countries.
However, even this process has stumbled, primarily because of a lack of expertise, information, and preparedness - in other words, the capacity to implement it.
University lecturers throughout the Western Balkans have complained about a lack of support and no direct knowledge of how to restructure their courses, not to mention how to shift teaching away from ex-cathedra delivery towards seminars that engage the students, as foreseen in the Bologna guidelines.
The legal implications of reforming the education system are proving no less of a challenge.
FROM BELGRADE TO BOLOGNASerbia has recently been consumed by a heated debate and student sit-ins provoked by the bungled implementation of the Bologna process and the contradictory wording of new education laws.
The issue at stake is whether all university graduates - in fact, all lawyers, engineers, political scientists and so on who graduated after 1945 - should be able to upgrade their degrees to masters' degrees.
The rationale is that the undergraduate course of study under the old system was four years and that under the Bologna system, four years is sufficient to earn a student a masters' degree.
In the midst of the Serbian election campaign late last year, the law-drafting committee of the already disbanded parliament adopted an official interpretation according to which the old degrees and new master's degrees should be equated. To come into force, this reading has to be endorsed by the new parliament.
While newspaper headlines screamed, "400,000 Masters in Serbia Soon," the episode only illustrated that Europeanization itself can bring more harm than good when incompetence combines with politicking.
The students demanded equalizing the value of the four-year-undergraduate course according to the old system with the master's degree according to the new. Why not have a master's if you can? The lawmakers backed the students' demand, and, thus, wooed the student vote ahead of the parliamentary elections, analysts suggested.
But the range of issues involved is much more complex and serious, potentially affecting thousands of lives and careers. Where does this leave the country's brightest? What do the master's and doctoral degree holders get? Will they also be promoted, for instance, to Ph.D.s and membership of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, respectively? What about the employers? How will they be able to discriminate in their job descriptions between the required levels of expertise? Will this affect the fees for education? What if some faculties and universities resist the government's interpretation of the law, as has already happened? And, indeed, will the arrangements reached in Serbia be recognized by universities abroad? If not, the mobility of students and staff in the European space, which is one of the goals of the Bologna Process, may be undermined.
The elections are now over. But the protracted post-election power struggle over forming the government has sidelined the quest for answers.
Aware of this potentially devastating structural problem facing the Balkans, the EU has sought to support education and research through a range of programs such as Tempus (modernization of higher education) or Erasmus Mundus (scholarships for students). The irony, which only illustrates the severity of the problem in the region, is that many institutions have not been able to take advantage of these programs because they lack the capacity to take the preparatory steps necessary to join. Filling in complicated applications, for example, has been an obstacle.
In other cases young scholars missed a valuable opportunity for professional improvement at reputable institutions in the West due to corrupt practices rather than the demands of the application process.
On a recent trip to the Balkans, I gave two dozen application packs to a university dean asking him to recommend young lecturers for short stays at a university in the West. In this way, young scholars can give their careers a boost by updating their teaching and research skills, and also pass on the benefits to their students in the form of the newest developments in their respective fields of study.
The dean took the applications and returned them with one name. The recommended lecturer, a crony and party colleague of his, did not qualify for a visiting fellowship and could not use the opportunity. But, alas, neither could any of the young prospective lecturers since they did not have the dean's backing.
International and domestic policy-makers have often been preoccupied in the Balkans with the challenges of postwar reconstruction and the complex transition from the previous system - by political, economic, and security issues. The Balkans' depleted human capital, compounded by numerous structural and political obstacles to its rebuilding, represents a quiet challenge. However, it is the one that risks incapacitating the region in the long term well after the war's rubble has been cleared up and ruins reconstructed. Without destroying the myth of superior education, the idea of a knowledge society and with it the Balkans' chance to reform internally and compete globally will remain elusive.