Will Bulgaria Remain a "Quiet Place" for Higher Education?

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1 Page 1 of 5 Will Bulgaria Remain a "Quiet Place" for Higher Education? Bulgarian higher education fails to compete successfully either within the EU or with the US. It is lagging behind in terms of available resources and quality, and in a short-term perspective in the percentage of educated people compared to the same indicator in other developed countries. Will the new Strategy for Strengthening Higher Education succeed in overcoming these shortages of the system? Boyan Zahariev "The university is no longer that quiet place for teaching, scholarly work allowing time for contemplating the universe as has been the done for centuries. It is now a large, complicated and competitive business which requires the constant availability of significant funding." 1 One of the assets of the draft Strategy for Strengthening Higher Education in Bulgaria by the Ministry of Education and Science is the attempt to approach reforms in higher education in the context of current global tendencies in the area. The application of this approach itself will dismiss ungrounded fears and at the same time help outline some key issues which a "local" perspective fails to account for in time. Within the scope of this article I would like to look in greater detail at the driving forces behind the big picture, which will eventually set the framework for Bulgarian higher education and will shape it with or without our participation. For this reason, I consider it important that we pay them due attention. Are we spending too much or too little on education? Education is a good which has many beneficiaries (in reality, everyone falls in that category). What do the various parties involved in education gain? This is just another way to ask how they are motivated to spend money on it. The taxpayer pays because education has multiple positive external effects which benefit everyone and not only those who study. The school or university student and their family pay because the student is a direct beneficiary in education and has the opportunity to later recover all costs by attaining higher remuneration throughout their lifetime. Active are also the natural (voluntary) mechanisms of family solidarity. When a family member acquires better education, this increases the chances of the next generations to gain a higher income and quality of life. Companies pay voluntarily or through corporate taxation because education provides them with the necessary human resources to perform their activities. In Bulgaria, according to data by Eurostat, private spending on education is greater than the average for the European Union 0.65% in 2003 compared to 0.63% for EU27. Public spending amounts to 4.24% of the Gross Domestic Product are lower than the 5.17% average for EU27. To

2 Page 2 of 5 compare it to the US, public funding there corresponds to 5.43% of the GDP. How about spending on higher education? Spending on higher as opposed to secondary education may be covered by a wider spectrum of public and private sources. Attracting private funding is a huge challenge, especially for countries in the EU. Even the total (public and private) spending on higher education as a share in the GDP is lower in the EU compared to the US. According to data by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in 2002 public spending on higher education in the US 2 was one of the highest in the world about 1.2%. Private spending is even greater, while the total amount of available public and private funds reaches 2.6% of the GDP. To compare these figures to those of the EU, spending on higher education in most EU Member States is below 1% of the GDP. Expanding the scope of higher education is inevitably linked to limiting the share of public financing in the total amount of funds available to higher education. This may be achieved mainly by fostering private funding rather than lowering the share of publicly funded education in the GDP. Otherwise, we will experience big pressure on public finance. Presently in Bulgaria the scope of higher education is relatively limited despite a cumulative growth in the number of students at the beginning of the 90s. That is to say, it is too low, for example, to be used as a strong argument in favour of the use of the finalexam grade at completing secondary education as a replacement of university entry exams. How educated are Bulgarians and do they need to study more If we draw a comparison with other EU Member States according to the indicator "share of the population holding at least secondary education", we may say that Bulgarians are sufficiently educated. For Bulgaria this indicator is 72.5%, while the average for EU27 is 69.3%. According to a report by Leitch Review International Projections, in 2020 about 98% of Japanese and 90% of US citizens will have completed at least their secondary education, whereas the same indicator for the larger Member States varies between 60% and 80%. The expected education period in Bulgaria in 2004 was 15.3 years. That is, at the moment that an individual enters the education system, it is expected that they remain in it for 15.3 years. In the same year this indicator for EU27 is significantly higher years, and for the US 16.4 years. Perhaps in Bulgaria we can also benefit from setting long-term objectives in developing our human potential resource....regardless of age? In short, Bulgarians traditionally study in the years of childhood and young age for as long as they preserve their dedication and interest and have the strength to continue. The need to create a new

3 Page 3 of 5 culture of learning is inevitable. This is a process of lifelong learning which will require that universities become much more flexible when compiling program curricula and in establishing a more direct link with real life and its economic dimension. It is a pity that the national proverb that a person learns throughout their whole life has become simply a piece of wisdom and a wish rather than a reality, at least as far as the more structured forms of education are concerned. This new culture of learning is still foreign to the Bulgarians. According to the primary indicator of lifelong learning - namely, the percentage of people at the age years who participate in various formats of education and training, Bulgaria holds tight to the last position on the list of EU countries with 1.3% as compared to an average of 10.2% for EU25. Lifelong learning is perhaps a good solution to the deficit of the initial training in the secondary and higher education system which a person usually experiences in the first 20 years of their life. Moreover, this type of formal education is no longer fit to respond to the needs of a dynamic and flexible economy capable of quick reshuffling with minimal consequences and fast adaptation of available human resources to new ways of acquiring skills. Only lifelong learning which requires no detachment from the labour market is capable of meeting these specific needs. The universities are among the possible actors providing such learning opportunities. Those universities willing to participate in the process can no longer afford to remain places for "contemplating the universe" as Jim Port s phrase has it, but instead need to build strong links with the more banal reality of the world of economy. However, if we take this "contemplating the universe" to be equivalent to fundamental research, we will have to admit that it is something of great importance to the long-term vivacity and competitiveness of universities as well as of the economy as whole. Unfortunately, nowadays investment in scientific research reaches ever greater dimensions and in most spheres of knowledge research projects of fundamental importance in scope exceed the resources available to economies and public funds much larger than the Bulgarian. In this sense, the only chance that Bulgarian universities have is to participate in international research networks in the EU and perhaps also outside the EU with big scientific centres around the world. Bulgaria has the potential to increase participation in higher education. The country currently has 53 higher education institutions 43 universities and 10 colleges (without counting the colleges which are part of a university structure). However, in the context of overall demographic tendencies, including student/academic migration, it is hard to expect any serious growth of the Bulgarian market for education services. Since the beginning of the 90s (with some uncertainty in some years) saw a general tendency towards increase in the number of students rising from a little less than 190,000 in 1990/1991 to 260,000 in 2006/2007. There has also been an increase in the net coefficient for student enrolment, which for 2006/2007 has reached 32.1% for all universities and specialized schools and colleges. Nevertheless, according to these indicators, Bulgaria continues to lag behind the more developed economies the net coefficient for student enrolment in the US is somewhere around 80%. Hence, trans-border supply is the only chance to preserve and increase the market of education services for Bulgarian higher education institutions.

4 Page 4 of 5 Are Bulgarian universities ready for learning without borders? Bulgaria is gradually becoming a part of the European Area of Higher Education 3. Bulgarian students now receive better access to a wide number of higher education institutions offering a variety of programs in different languages. In the territory of the EU, the countries with the largest number of universities are Germany and France about 350 each, and the United Kingdom about 250. Among these universities there are some which rank within the top 100 of all famous international university charts, although European universities traditionally fail to score as high as their US counterparts. A typical example of these charts can be found in the Times Supplement for Higher Education which places 13 European universities among the top 50 universities in the world, eight of which are British, or the rating of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University whose top 50 for 2005 has nine European universities, five of which in the UK. In the world there are more than 17,000 institutions working in the area of higher education., About 4,000 of them are located in the US, and over 1,200 in Japan. Tens of millions students all over the world study to acquire higher education degrees. The international supply of education services is becoming one of the strongest tendencies in higher education. Transborder supply of higher education has three dimensions: student mobility, mobility of programs, teachers and suppliers, and distance learning, usually Internet-based. Any attempt to oppose these tendencies is doomed to failure. A far more useful approach will be to see how best to handle the situation. There still remain tough questions which lack answers and which have to do with risky predictions. One of these questions, whose answer I will not even attempt to guess, is whether the big European universities will attempt to set their representations in Bulgaria and if so, in what form. Another question is whether Bulgarian universities have the potential to export education either through different forms of distance learning or by attracting foreign students. The answer to this question is affirmative, however only under particular circumstances. Bulgarian universities will perhaps become more and more attractive for young people from the neighbouring countries which are not members of the EU, as well as for students who will generate a migration flow to Bulgaria, or through Bulgaria to other EU destinations. Some universities in South Bulgaria have started a competition (though still relatively limited in its scope) with Turkish universities to attract one significant minority segment of the Bulgarian population Bulgarian Turks and other Turkishspeaking groups. This includes the relatively big group of Bulgarian migrants in Turkey. We need to point out that the competitive advantages of Bulgarian universities are at best questionable, with the exception of one very important advantage the degrees they offer receive recognition throughout the territory of the European Union. The recognition of education degrees remains one of the biggest barriers to mobility and migration. In this sense, can we guarantee quality higher education in Bulgaria?

5 Page 5 of 5 Academic programs become ever more diverse as a result of the increased number of their clients, who have special preferences. A tendency which works in the opposite direction is the unification and standardization of the education product in order to ensure compatibility and facilitate transborder recognition of acquired qualifications. The two opposing tendencies require the development of efficient systems to ensure quality supervision, while remaining independent both from the state and from the providers of education services. In the context of such contradictory processes, guaranteeing the good quality of provided education becomes a major issue. The market for education services is relatively asymmetric in terms of information. Apart from that, the evaluation of the product by the consumer requires a relatively long period of time and significant resources. Trainees have the right to receive protection from fraud and from paying for low-quality qualifications and other educational products lacking in value. Similarly, in the area of transborder education there is indeed a significant number of products of low quality as well as acknowledged cases of direct fraud. Some examples have gained sufficient popularity in Bulgaria to indicate the point. Even the physical mobility of education services and consumers is alone capable of posing numerous obstacles to guaranteed quality higher education. The exterritorial character of online education services completely changes traditional perceptions of the education product and introduces completely new methods for its delivery. These methods operate outside the "territorial" principle which governs most systems for quality supervision. All member states in OECD (i.e. the majority of the developed economies) operate their own system to guarantee the quality of higher education. Similar systems are gaining popularity among other less developed economies. Bulgaria also has its equivalent system, which is yet to be tested against the challenges to the competitive quality of the education product offered by our schools in a European and global context. 1 Jim Port, On the Edge: Securing a Sustainable Future for the Higher Education, Education working paper No 7, OECD, 2007 (March 27), OECD Education Working papers Series. 2 According to data by OECD. 3 I have derived this more balanced definition from two opposing standpoints. According to those who affirm the former, the common European Higher Education Area does not exist yet outside some official documents such as the Bologna Declaration. Their opponents, on the other hand, argue that it does exist and that Bulgaria has long been part of it.

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