Serbia: The Slow Pace of Change

slow pace of changeBELGRADE, Serbia | During the 1990s, Srbijanka Turajlic was one of the Serbia’s fiercest opponents of Slobodan Milosevic and an organizer of numerous student protests. After the ultranationalist president was ousted in October 2000 and a coalition government of democratic parties was elected, Turajlic became the country’s Assistant Education Minister, advocating for fast-paced education reforms.

Eight years later, she is deeply disappointed with Serbia’s lack of progress in reforming its education sector – a disappointment that led her to leave office in protest in 2004. Now a professor at the Belgrade Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Turajlic believes that higher education reforms have been poorly implemented. In her view, Serbian university faculties are maladjusted to the requirements of modern education despite signing on to the Bologna process in 2003.

“We cannot view the introduction of the Bologna system [of common European standards] through figures and statistics alone,” says Turajlic. “Students, the young people who are supposed to manage Serbia’s future with their expertise, are supposed to be behind all those numbers. I think we have completely forgotten about the people we are educating for the future.”

Complaints about lagging implementation and persistent old-fashioned curricula reach down to secondary and even primary schools. In theory, secondary schools should be providing more focused vocational training in line with the current job market, and primary schools should be moving toward instruction based on interactive methods over rote memorization. But the necessary legislation, funds, and experienced personnel are nowhere to be found, and frequent changes in government have prevented officials from putting mandated reforms into practice.

Bologna Blunders

Turajlic says that Serbian education officials do not understand how to implement the Bologna Process, a 1999 accord creating common higher-education standards throughout Europe, and are dragging their feet. Bologna standards are intended to modernize curricula, with an emphasis on interactive teaching and instructor involvement with students. It also establishes a system of credits to make it easier for students to study in different countries and be credited for work outside their home universities.

Some of the delay can be blamed on the belated adoption of a new higher education law harmonized with the Bologna Process in June 2005. Some Serbian faculties went ahead and enrolled the first generation of students according to the new study regime just last year.

The result has been messy. Petrovic pointed to the new point system introduced by the Education Ministry in 2006, which required students to earn 60 points per year through course attendance, exams, and other activities in order to advance to another year of university. After the majority of students failed to reach that level, the ministry was forced to lower the threshold to 37 points. He said that the faculties themselves had not adjusted adequately to the new system. “That is why the students cannot fulfill all their obligations,” Petrovic said.

Nemanja Petrovic, head of the Students’ Parliament, which represents the various university faculties in Belgrade, said that “many faculties have failed to find their way through the implementation of the Bologna system, which is why they haven’t done the most important thing for their students-they haven’t reduced the size of study programs.” In spite of the lowered yearly requirements, many students still feel overburdened, arguing that study programs are too long and their courseloads are too intensive.

Another problem is skyrocketing tuition fees, which threaten to exclude those from poorer families. Current tuition costs range from 50,000 to 260,000 dinars (between $1,000 and $5,082), while the average monthly salary in Serbia totals about $625. “We do not want faculty education to become available only to the financial elite, because education should be available to everyone,” Petrovic said. He added that students are considering protest rallies as a means to force faculties, which set their own enrollment prices, to cut the cost of tuition.


Secondary education reform has revolved around the goal of providing more job-focused training over general education, preparing Serbian youth to enter the workforce. “Communist times are long-past, when everyone went to university and then was taken care of by the state and worked in some socially-owned firm,” former Education Minister Slobodan Vuksanovic said at the start of the reforms in 2006. According to his ministry, the end result is to avoid “hyperinflation of intellectuals” and to make it clear that not everyone has to go to university.

The idea is that those who do not wish to continue studying after high school should be able to get a job in their chosen profession. As a result, some schools have begun offering training courses for administrative jobs in banks and insurance companies, for example. Such courses include a heavy emphasis on practical instruction, including internships in the workplace.

Experts, however, say the process is moving too slowly. Zelimir Popov, head of the non-governmental organization Education Reform Circles and a pedagogy teacher at the Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy, said that high schools are still waiting for a new education law that will clarify the implementation process. In the meantime, they are operating under a document adopted in 1992.

“Experimental courses have been introduced in high schools for attractive professions, such as working with computers, with which one can easily get a job,” Popov explained. However, the new focus on vocational training has not deemphasized academic subject matter, such as history, in the high school curricula. “The expert-general subject ratio for high school students in Europe is 80:20, while in Serbia it is the other way around,” Popov complained.

The new emphasis on practical training should not, however, come at the cost of providing a solid basis for those students who do choose to pursue higher education. The policy has come under scrutiny, particularly after the results of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Programme for International Student Assessement (PISA) survey were revealed in 2007, in which Serbian students ranked 41st out of 57 countries tested. The study measured the applicability of “obtained knowledge”, asking students to perform a number of tasks based on subjects such as math, geography, and other topics. According to the OSCE, the results highlight the “extent education systems prepare young people for tomorrow”. Some of the other former Yugoslav republics faired much better, with Slovenia ending up in 12th place and Croatia in 26th.

Violence in Schools

The Serbian school system has also been shaken by rising violence. In mid-May, television stations broadcast mobile phone footage showing three 13-year-old girls from an elementary school in Pirot, a town in western Serbia, physically and sexually harassing a younger female pupil. Only a few days later, mobile-phone footage again appeared in the media, showing a group of Novi Sad elementary school students forcing a student who had bickered with them to eat grass.

The state reacted to the ensuing scandal by increasing funds for a program dubbed “Schools without Violence”, which is being implemented with aid from UNICEF. The program involves anti-violence television commercials featuring celebrities, more police patrols around schools, and more surveillance cameras in school buildings.

Psychologist Dragana Koruga, who works on the anti-violence program, estimates that a third of Serbian students are in some way involved in the violence – either as perpetrators or as witnesses. She believes it is a reflection of larger social problems in the country. “According to international standards, there is more violence in Serbian schools than in European countries, but it is at the same level as in other Balkan countries,” Koruga told TOL.

One of the biggest problems, Koruga argued, is that teachers and school employees underestimate the seriousness of the problem and simply blame parents for their children’s misbehavior. “When we asked teachers what they thought should be done [about it], they replied that the number one task was to work with parents,” Koruga said.

Good Intentions

Elementary schools have also seen significant changes since the adoption of a new education law in 2003. Basic education still lasts eight years, but all pupils must now also take mandatory pre-school classes that last six months. Without a certificate proving completion of pre-school, a child cannot enroll in elementary school. First graders no longer receive number grades; instead, they are given descriptive evaluations. Teachers are now expected to use more games and animated methods in the classroom instead of dry, boring lectures and rote memorization.

While education experts view these as positive developments, some say that actual implementation has been painstakingly slow and resources are still out of date. Popov, from the Education Reform Circles, said that curricula in elementary schools are still not sufficiently innovative, in line with global trends.

“Optional classes have been introduced, but the selection of these programs is meaningless and poor. For example, chess is an optional class for children from first to fourth grade,” Popov said. The lack of progress on adopting a new law on textbooks (the old one dates back to 1982) has also caused delays in developing new courses.

In late 2007, the Education Ministry announced that its reforms were continuing successfully and would boost Serbia’s economic development, bringing it closer to European standards. The ministry also announced a budget that represented 3.3 percent of GDP in 2008, with a long-term goal of 4.4 percent by 2010.

In May 2008, however, Serbia had a snap election and a new government finally formed at the beginning of July. Eight years after the demonstrations that toppled Milosevic’s regime, the new education minister is an official of the Socialist Party of Serbia, which Milosevic led until his death in 2006. Under the old regime, Marxism was still taught in high schools as part of antiquated, decades-old curricula. School buildings were falling into ruin, bereft of computers or modern equipment, and teachers had such low salaries that they were just as often striking as teaching. Now, the Socialists now claim to be a modern party of the left sharing European values. The education sector will be a litmus test to determine if they have truly changed.


Tags: ,


Share this Post