The first Open Conference gathered almost 50 participants, from all of the WB countries (except for Montenegro) and Norway (University of Oslo and NIFU), as well as a number of interested researchers and stakeholder representatives from Slovenia (Center for Education Policy Studies from Ljubljana, Estonia/Belgium (European Students’ Union) and the Netherlands/Hungary (Central European University).
The conference provided an opportunity for a dialogue between policy makers and researchers as well as for strengthening resources and networks of researchers as such. This was enabled by including (1) a panel debate session with policy makers, researchers and stakeholder representatives and by including (2) several sessions that focused on presentations and discussions of the current work of researchers as well as discussions of new research ideas, useful theoretical perspectives etc.
Policy makers from Albania and Croatia, researchers and university representatives from Croatia and a stakeholder representative (European Students’ Union) discussed a number of challenges for evidence-based policy making. The challenges that were in the focus included the distinction between simple data and solid evidence, general lack of data on higher education in the WB countries, in particular lack of qualitative data and limited reliability and comparability of existing data. Furthermore, the nexus between policy focus and research interest on particular topics was highlighted, including the negative implications of researchers being driven to focus only on a limited set of issues as a response to limited funding opportunities, which in turn would also limit policy development by limiting the scope to a very narrow set of policy problems and solutions. The panel debate also discussed the limitations of evidence-based policy making, highlighting two important issues. The first one relates to the difference in time horizons of many a policy maker and researchers, given that researchers usually have a longer time horizon than policy makers who often focus on one election cycle. The second one relates to the relationship between expert influence and political influence on policy making, given that different interest groups as well as policy makers often engage in “politics informed evidence seeking” than in “evidence-based policy making”. It was concluded that a comprehensive mapping of data collected in the WB countries, including information on accessibility of such data to researchers and policy makers as well as analysis of its reliability and comparability would be needed.
The conference also had a research component. Two months before the conference a call for papers was distributed in order to assess the interest and existing capacity in the region for higher education research. More than 20 proposals for papers were sent (from all of the WB countries except from Montenegro), out of which eight were selected by a committee consisting of representatives of the University of Oslo, University of Zagreb and Faculty of Political Science of the University of Belgrade. Six papers were presented and discussed during the conference*. The papers focused on different aspects of European integration and Europeanization of higher education, and included both comparative and case studies. This inspired the project partners to consider establishing within the project framework a working paper series, in order to support researchers from the region in developing their work towards publishing in international peer-reviewed journals, raise the visibility of the WBC researchers as well as the visibility of WBC higher education and research systems in the regional, wider European or worldwide research community. The conference also served to support development of PhD projects of the two students who have been selected to participate in the PhD school in Comparative politics at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Zagreb and who have also been provided scholarships through the project. A draft literature review on “European integration in higher education and research in the Western Balkans” was also discussed. The review will be finalized by the end of May and published on www.herdata.org.
The conference was followed up by a project planning meeting that focused on data collection as well as on future events. The next conference will be organised in Belgrade in May 2013 and it will be hosted by the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade. Given the positive experience from this conference, another call for papers will also be published, though this time allowing for more time for development of both proposals and full papers.
For more information about the project and further activities, please contact Martina Vukasovic at martina.vukasovic[at]ped.uio.no.
* The remaining two papers were not submitted because either the authors were not able to participate in the conference because of unforeseen circumstances or because the authors were not able to develop a full paper in a very limited time that was allocated. However, authors of both these papers will be given the opportunity to receive feedback on their work as they progress towards texts publishable in international peer reviewed journals.