Croatia: Learning Curves

learning curvesZAGREB, Croatia | The Croatian education system is in the midst of the most important reform process since the country’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. But while the Science, Education, and Sports Ministry (MZOS) is confident that deadlines for the implementation of the Bologna Declaration will be met, critics predict that the results of reform will not kick in before the end of 2005.

The Bologna Declaration, signed in 1999 by the education ministers of 29 European countries, aims to create a single educational space across Europe by 2010. Croatia signed on in 2001.

But even sources close to the MZOS say the goal to fully implement the various reform strategies for Croatia’s universities–including a new law on scientific research–is too ambitious. They point out that Croatia’s colleges in particular, though already undergoing significant transformation, will take more time to become Bologna-compliant.

Reform of primary school education is hampered not only by sub-standard infrastructure and lack of funding to build new school facilities, but also by the Catholic Church’s firm opposition to the introduction of sexual education. At the secondary levels, the discussion is focusing on the future role of vocational schools. And the university system faces its own set of hurdles.

Improving Higher Education

The main problem in implementing the Bologna declaration has been a lack of unity among Croatian universities: Especially those in the country’s four largest cities are refusing to submit to the authority of the MZOS. Former Science and Technology Minister Hrvoje Kraljevic has said that only the University of Zadar and the University of Dubrovnik are in effect under the control of the MZOS.

But Vjekoslav Jerolimov, vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Zagreb, told TOL that all the preconditions were in place for transforming the current four-year college (B.A.) courses into the three-year courses foreseen by Bologna, while the two-year postgraduate (M.A.) courses would remain unchanged.

Jerolimov was adamant that most of the problems had to do with colleges that were unwilling to give up their current courses, which had become too expensive. According to him, the main issue was that the professors teaching those courses were afraid they might lose their jobs. University courses in all fields, he said, were insufficiently focused on enhancing the job skills and prospects of graduates.

Jerolimov also warned that many university and MZOS staff were not aware of the importance of the Bologna process and thought they had a lot of time to implement its provisions.

Professor Gvozden Flego, one of the harshest critics of the reform, says that Croatian universities needed to reach European standards but would not be able to do so without additional funding to hire new teachers. These are needed to improve the student/teacher ratio and to establish mentorship programs. But the provisions for education in the 2005 budget are lower than in the previous year.

A loan from the World Bank to improve Croatia’s education system will increase the budget by one percent over 2004 but still be insufficient for the steps needed this year.

Of Secondary Importance?

The Croatian secondary school system consists of 78 percent professional schools and 22 percent general schools.

Ivo Seselj, the principal of Zagreb’s private general school, thinks that the problems now afflicting Croatia’s education sector go back far in time.

“The secondary education system we have today is a combination of the 1950s Russian system mixed with superficial reform in 1980s Yugoslavia and inertia after [Croatia’s] independence,” says Seselj.

He said that while Croatian secondary school pupils had a lot of knowledge, perhaps even more than their Western European colleagues, they didn’t have enough skills. The system as a whole lacked purpose, he said, and didn’t encourage creativity and skills development.

While there have been more serious attempts lately to create a strategic national education program, they have not yet yielded tangible results. The privileged status of general schools means that the skills taught there are valued more highly than those taught in vocational schools. Entrance examinations for most colleges are based on the sort of accomplishment typically achieved in general schools.

Without policy progress in the secondary school sector, Seselj emphasized, Croatian citizens will not be ready for the challenges of a modern society. For example, computer skills are among the most important factors in the success of new generations, but investment in that field is very low.

“The MZOS reform plan is bad because there is no national consensus when it comes to defining what kind of accomplishments a child should have after approximately 15 years of schooling. In other words, no one sees that such a reform is a long-term project,” Seselj concluded.

An indication of how urgently a national consensus is needed comes from contrasting statements by the government’s administrator for secondary school education, Zelimir Janjic, and the Croatian Chamber of Commerce.

Janjic said that a long-term goal was to reduce the number of professional schools from 485 to less than 200 and to increase the focus on information technology during vocational training.

The Chamber of Commerce, which has the biggest immediate interest in shaping the future role of professional schools, claims that no one from the MZOS is interested in its opinions.

Seselj attributed these problems to a focus on the supply of education at the cost of the demand side. “Our schooling system is based on answers instead of questions,” he says, “and we know that a famous quote says there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.”

Elementary Education

Croatia has an urgent need to construct around 800 new primary and secondary schools if it is to meet demand. The primary school Sesvete in the capital Zagreb is a good example of the conditions in which teachers work and students learn. The Croatian schooling law sets 900 as the upper limit for pupils per school. This elementary school has 1,500 pupils; they share 22 classrooms in four shifts. The school had to reduce the duration of lessons from 45 to 40 minutes. Parents are unhappy, but the situation is not improving.

A further controversy in Croatian education arose over clashing social attitudes towards sexual education.

TeenStar and MemoAIDS are two sex ed pilot programs currently offered in some primary schools. They come from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, but both have been contentious.

TeenStar began in 2003 after being recommended by the Croatian Bishops’ Conference, and has been criticized, among others, by the Ombudsman for children as well as by gay organizations. The Ombudsman, Ljubica Matijevic Vrsaljko, ruled against TeenStar, calling it “religiously colored” and lacking in factual content related to pregnancy and sexual diseases. They suggested MZOS change some of the content but no legal action was taken, and MZOS failed to change anything.

The Croatian gay and bisexual organization Iskorak (Coming Out) called the program discriminatory.

MemoAIDS, by contrast, focuses on teaching about contraception and contraceptives and was criticized by the Croatian Bishops’ Conference and other Catholic associations. They say that only TeenStar has complete and proper educational accreditation.

The MZOS is now reviewing whether to develop its own elective course in sexual education for pupils in eighth grade. An assessment committee will give its final verdict on the plan by 1 April.

While European integration provides much of the motivation behind the reform of Croatia’s higher education system, reforming primary and secondary education may be less sexy but no less important for the country. But whatever direction the reform will take, one thing is certain: there is insufficient funding available now to educate coming generations–but investing in education is also an investment in Croatia’s European future.


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