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Did all barriers fall with the fall of the wall?

By Dr. Pavel Zgaga

In 1971, as a first year student at the University of Ljubljana, I for the first time visited a foreign university. This was in Amsterdam, where I hitchhiked to, met some students and stayed for three weeks with them. The foreign university was so different from home; but also my country at the time, Yugoslavia, was so different from the “Eastern bloc”. We needed neither a visa nor permission to travel to the West. The problem was money, which was why “academic pilgrimage” was a scarce commodity. Mobility was allowed, but not enabled. In 1990, my last academic journey in the days of the “old regime” led to a conference on perestroika in Oxford; four colleagues were travelling by car - with containers of cheap Yugoslav gasoline in the trunk. During a stop, German police surprised us and took it away for security reasons. But we did not have to pay any fine.

Then the 1990s came. With the disintegration of a country of 21 million inhabitants its higher education system also decayed. Yet, just before its sad end Yugoslavia negotiated an entry in the Tempus programme. In this watershed period, Slovenia, which was spared major violence, was the only country in the region who received significant funding from the Tempus programme. This was the first great new opportunity: we used it to thoroughly strengthen academic cooperation in Europe, and it indirectly contributed a lot to the development of a new national system. It was only at the beginning of 2000 that this programme also opened to other countries in the region, which was renamed as the “Western Balkans”.

The transformation of higher education in this region was also held at a different logic than in the countries of the former “Eastern Bloc”. It is not only the context of the wars that have devastated the greater part of the region. Out of a relatively uniform system in the former Yugoslavia of the former state (at least) seven national systems developed; today their comparability and compatibility is safeguarded rather by some of the principles of the European Higher Education Area than by a common past. What all of them have in common is that they operate at the level of mass higher education and are widely open to the establishment of private institutions. Only a few public universities (mainly the "traditional" ones) have retained their academic glory; private institutions - with a few exceptions - have become a metaphor for poor academic quality. This, however, is not unknown even in the public sector. International cooperation has developed to quite different levels from system to system and from one institution to another; it typically depends on the level of European integration which individual countries have achieved. International mobility has increased, but it largely differs across countries. To travel to the "West" today, many people need a visa, which was unknown under the “former regime”. All this creates mixed feelings. In the past twenty-five years, the gap between the top and below-average universities increased significantly. This could be optimistically rated as an achievement, but many might find this a cynical view. 

Are there unfulfilled hopes? Of course, there are. On the one hand, it is always the case with human hopes and dreams that some are not realistic at all. Within this restriction it can be said that among the major unfulfilled hopes one could find academics’ dissatisfaction with “academic autonomy” (in my memory, a quarter-century ago the distinction between institutional autonomy and academic freedom was very different from today’s understanding). It is true that nowadays academic freedom is no longer threatened by ideological constraints, but it is often faced with “soft” constraints of higher education policy (e.g. overregulated systems; austerity measures, etc.) and de-collegialised types of institutional governance as well as those constraints that have been brought into the academic communities by the free market. But the number of those who have had extensive enough experience of the former system is declining according to natural laws; thereby their unfulfilled hopes are vanishing. They will soon be replaced by the unmet hopes of the new generation. 

About the author: Pavel Zgaga is Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. In 2001 he co-founded the Centre for Educational Policy Studies (CEPS) at the same university and has been its director until today. In the 1990s, during the period of social and political transition in Slovenia he was State Secretary for Higher Education (1992 – 1999) and Minister of Education and Sport (1999 – 2000). 
Full biography and publications: CEPS