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FEATURE STORY

How Can Bulgarian Universities Become Stronger and Internationally Competitive?

December 8, 2013

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • With 85% of university graduates dissatisfied with the quality of education, Bulgaria needs to urgently address the challenges of raising quality standards, improving efficiency and investing smartly
  • The Government has drafted a national strategy for the higher education sector for the next 7 years reflecting some of the key conclusions and policy recommendations from a recent World Bank report

 

Today, more than 280,000 students in Bulgaria - along with their professors - celebrate national students’ day. But today is not a time for celebration. Despite many achievements over the last two decades, Bulgaria’s higher education sector still faces many challenges - as told by these statistics:

  • Only 25% of university graduates start a job that requires higher education;
  • Nearly 85% of university graduates are dissatisfied with the quality of education - and about the same percentage consider university education curricula outdated;
  • Almost every third graduate declares that the knowledge and skills acquired at university are irrelevant;
  • With a fast ageing population that is expected to decline by 27% between 2010 and 2060, university enrollment of 15-24 year old Bulgarians is also projected to decline by 41% during the same period.

What can be done? How can these challenges be addressed? A recent World Bank report called “Strengthening higher education in Bulgaria” outlines several policy directions that can help the education sector produce a highly skilled, adaptable workforce capable of increasing Bulgaria’s productivity in the face of rapidly advancing technologies and changing labor market needs.

Bulgarian universities can become stronger and more competitive internationally if they focus on just three areas.

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Focus on quality.

The quality of higher education in Bulgaria could receive a significant boost if European Union (EU) resources made available in the next programming period (2014-2020) are used to support carefully selected, high impact interventions. For example, EU resources could fund the participation of world-class researchers and academics in the evaluation and accreditation procedures carried out by the National Evaluation and Accreditation Agency or other, renowned international accrediting institutions. Structural funds could also be used to enhance the research capacity of tertiary institutions in Bulgaria. The quality of teaching and research in public universities would benefit from the development of a new framework for career development and promotion of academic staff containing a number of core, system-wide, rigorous and internationally relevant assessment criteria.  The public higher education institutions could then build on this to develop their own frameworks.

Manage universities for the benefit of society.

A priority reform should include revisions to the existing management structure of public universities to ensure strong mechanisms for accountability of academic staff - especially as they relate to the educational outcomes of students and graduates. Presently, state universities are managed for the benefit of academic staff. Stakeholders, who are external to universities - including representatives nominated by the government - should take the lead in strategic decision making at the university level. This type of reform would increase the accountability of higher education institutions without harming the academic autonomy of Bulgarian universities.

Invest more. Invest smartly.

The tertiary education system in Bulgaria is underfunded by EU and global standards. More resources are needed to strengthen the research capacity of universities and to curb the “brain drain.” This should be preceded by reforms improving the efficiency and allocation of financial resources  in  the system. The network of state universities needs to be optimized by consolidating the large number of small specialized institutions into fewer, larger universities that offer a greater pool of researchers across disciplines. The government should continue to increase the share of performance-based financing and use it as a tool for achieving long-term strategic policy objectives. This could be achieved by instituting performance contracts with public universities as the key mechanism for awarding performance. At the same time, funding arrangements should ensure equal access to higher education and adequate incentives for top performing students. This requires revisions to the existing schemes for student scholarships, loans, and tuition fees.

In an attempt to address these challenges, the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science has presented a draft Strategy for developing the higher-education sector over the next 7 years (2014-2020). The document reflects some of the key conclusions and policy recommendations from the recent World Bank report. The first round of strategy consultations took place on November 29, 2013 with representatives from students’ councils in more than 30 universities meeting the Prime Minister and the Minister of Education. According to students attending this meeting, quality of education and the link with labor market are the main areas that need attention.