Croatia: Street Smart

street smartZAGREB | Thousands of Croatian students who took to the streets this month to protest a new university admissions test and reforms in higher education, complaining that schools and universities are ill prepared for the changes.

More than 4,000 students used blogs, e-mail and online forums to promote May Day demonstrations in the capital and four other cities. Secondary students complained they had not been sufficiently informed about planned uniform university admission exam, called the matura, while university students said the country was ill prepared for adoption of European-wide academic standards.

“We are not your guinea pigs!” and “Even God is against the state matura” read the banners carried by marching students. The students criticized education officials of moving too hastily on the matura. One student in the town of Osijek said, “To [the government] it is one generation, but for us it is our life.”

The matura, was announced in 2004, with testing to begin scheduled to being next year. But students argue that there has not been enough information about how the system will work and they complain that some universities will not accept results of the test. They also say teachers have not been given proper guidance on how to assist students in preparing for it.

The test is part of changes to the Croatian system under the Bologna process of educational modernization. The standardized entrance exam is intended to replace a hodge-podge of tests now given by Croatia’s six universities and other institutions.

The students are not alone. Administrators, teachers and professors have complained about the implementation of some changes and the lack of resources to adopt a more rigorous European standard.

Zelimir Janjic, the state secretary for high school education, acknowledged that the Ministry of Science, Education and Sports may have overlooked some aspects of introducing the matura to students. “We were convinced based on information coming from the field that pupils are very well-informed … but talking with them [during the protests] has shown us that they don’t have answers to a lot of important questions,” Janjic told Nova TV.

So ardent were the objections that the education minister, Dragan Primorac, decided to postpone the introduction of the test until 2010. He announced an investigation into the implementation process and thanked students for, as he put it, pointing out the problems.

Winds of Change

The Croatian education system has undergone many changes in the last few years. In 2005, Croatia entered the process of cooperating with the Bologna Accords, a 1999 agreement to adhere to common educational standards throughout Europe. The country also plans to join Erasmus, a Europe-wide study abroad program, next year.

Like the matura, the Bologna standards have sparked opposition. A week after the May Day protests, more than 3,000 students gathered in Zagreb to challenge the Bologna standards. They claim that universities do not have the resources and staff for the changes, which include more interactive learning, more personalized attention for students, and practical teaching. Critics blame Croatia’s implementation of the Bologna standards for classroom overcrowding and confusion about course expectations.

Neven Duric, a student at the Faculty of Political Science at Zagreb University, said the problems are acute. “Once a professor asked me to leave the room because there were not enough chairs,” he said.

In Bologna’s first year, Internet forums established to discuss the new system were crowded with questions from confused students. Often a single question would have multiple, differing answers, and many professors said they didn’t have the training to tell students what was expected of them under Bologna.

Many students do not oppose aligning their national schools with the rest of Europe, but they say the process has been badly implemented. They point out that Croatia’s academic calendar begins and ends much later than many other European countries, creating conflicts with study-abroad programs.

But they also say that while the system has changed, instructors haven’t. Some professors, they say, have not modernized their teaching methods to include more interactive and practical lessons, and still dwell on lectures and memorization.

But Marina Mucalo, head of the department of journalism and public relations at the University of Zagreb, said the problems haven’t been tragic for Croatia’s universities. “How can you prepare for something completely different and unknown?” she asked. “If we had tried to do so, we may have had a contrary effect of too much organization.”

Mucalo became department head in 2005, the same year the Bologna standards were introduced here. The former basketball player has a reputation as a straight-talking, down-to-earth professor. She drew a diagram of the Bologna process to map out its timeline, admitting that there is still a lot of confusion among students and professors. “I am up to my ears in it,” she said of the process.

But she emphasized that the program is a positive step for Croatia’s university system. “The thing that definitely could have been done better way is the so-called ‘911 center’ … that any student or professor could call at any time and ask about some troubles or problems they are having.”

Ironing Out Problems

Despite the problems, Duric thinks Bologna has positive aspects. It includes class discussion sections in which students are able to debate, exams spaced out over the semester rather than clustered at the end, and requirements of professors that encourage them to engage more individually with students.

“Lessons are better [and] professors are trying harder and are more prepared than before,” Duric said. “Of course, there are still professors that don’t want to change and are still giving lectures as they have been doing for the last 20 years.”

When asked how many professors know him by name and face now, however, Duric grins. “Not one.”

Discussion groups, which were much less common before Bologna, are so large – up to 90 students – that professors still struggle to address students on a more personal basis.

A problem that Bologna cannot be blamed for is the lack of teaching staff in many departments. Although the education ministry has hired hundreds of faculty assistants and posted openings for hundreds of other jobs, Mucalo said faculties are still missing core professors.

“Universities are seriously lacking in highly educated people, professors with doctoral degrees that can give lectures and grade students – the ones that can actually help, not merely assist,” the journalism professor said.

A survey in 2006 showed that students overall graded Bologna four out of five on a quality scale. Duric, however, said he thinks students weren’t candid in their evaluations. He said he would give the system a grade of “maybe 2.5. Maximum three.”

“I am sick of fighting the unknown,” he added.

Mucalo is more optimistic and thinks the future will be better once the process has worked out some of its wrinkles.

“Bologna is in general a very well thought-out process, flexible, and it makes you work harder,” Mucalo said. “One generation will soon be behind us, professors have become accustomed to it, students have also changed, and they have become more aware of their rights and are not afraid to claim them.”


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