Internationalisation in the Western Balkans

Internationalisation in the Western Balkans

In this third blog post of the series on global partnerships, a second author of the EAIE Conference Conversation Starter, Manja Klemencic, looks at the current situation of higher education in the Western Balkan countries and how internationalisation is greatly needed for institutional capacity building. While the countries within the region are diverse, similar challenges and opportunities exist.

Like elsewhere in Europe, internationalisation of higher education in the Western Balkans is high on the political agenda of governments and higher education institutions. However, unlike the West, where internationalisation is considered a vehicle for enhancing the compe­titiveness of their higher education institutions and economies, in the Western Balkans it is seen primarily as a means of supporting national reforms and institutional capacity building.

Internationalisation is often invoked in discussions of the harmonisation and modernisation of higher education in the Western Balkans. Additionally, most internationalisation ac­tivities receive some sort of financial support from various international organisations, in particular the European Union. Therefore, in the region, the internationalisation of higher education is often also understood as a means of policy transfer from the supranational to the national level. The higher education systems in the region cannot compete with the most established and highly internationalised systems in Europe and elsewhere for students and academics. However, internationalisation offers these systems a chance to ‘breathe’ and to improve through a mix of cooperation and competition with local competitors. It is believed that having an internationalisation agenda will make these systems stronger in the Western Balkans.

A need for change

It is difficult to draw generalisations across the Western Balkans as the countries and institutions are highly diverse. Still, in several countries, higher education and research are severely underfunded, universities are depleted of their best academics and best students – who have ventured abroad – and fundamental reforms are difficult due to lack of political will and poor governance at both systemic and institutional levels. Often supranational recommendations, including Bologna Process Communiques, prompt only cosmetic changes in the national systems. Therefore, the enthusiasm is high over initiatives that do help implement changes. For example, experts interviewed in the region stated that “TEMPUS Programme is among the best things that have happened to us. […] Mobility and the transfer of experiences are some of the best things happening in our higher education”. Respondents from flagship universities spoke highly of the impact various international projects have had on improving teaching, learning quality and research capacity in the region.

Individual academics remain the single most important driver of international cooperation in the region. It is through the bottom-up initiatives of academics that short-term mobility, research cooperation, development of joint-study programmes, and other activities are being developed. While there is a high level of commitment to internatio­nalisation almost everywhere, these academics often do not receive sufficient support to enact their cooperative ventures. University practices and support services are not sufficiently adapted to serve this goal. Internationalisation efforts are hampered by certain shortcomings found throughout the region, such as an in­sufficient number of courses offered in foreign languages, relatively poor foreign language skills among students and academics in some countries, and weak support for finding and administering research funding. However, the intensity of these shortcomings varies significantly across the countries.

Opinions on intra-regional cooperation

Despite these deficiencies, there is significant potential for internationalisation through intra-regional cooperation. Se­veral important initiatives already exist to foster such cooperation in both teaching and research. Data from one opinion survey confirms that academics in the region are indeed eager to seek cooperation with partners from institutions in the Western Balkans. When asked whether their institution should primarily seek cooperation with universities or higher education institutions in the Western Balkans, the highest number of academics who agreed with this statement came from Kosovo (98.3% of all Kosovar respondents) and Albania (93.5%). A majority of respondents in Macedonia (77.6%) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (60%) also agreed with the statement. However, in the other four countries the majority of respondents disagreed with this statement: Montenegro (44.3%), Serbia (27.5%), Croatia (26.2%) and Slovenia (20.4%). It is obvious that, by increasing the opportunities for international cooperation in the broadest sense, interest in the ‘narrower’ regional cooperation is declining – these opportunities are much higher, for example, in Slovenia than in Kosovo. These differences have much to do with linguistic, cultural and political circumstances.

Indeed, when geographical preferences for international cooperation are exami­ned, geographic and/or cultural closeness expressed in factors such as language and religion and a tradition of cooperation, not only educati­onally but also politically or economically, tend to prevail. Within the emerging European Higher Education Arena, individual countries largely search for partners and establish relationships depending on their feeling of closeness and a common tradition that they would like to preserve and enhance. Other factors are far less important.

By Manja Klemencic, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia