As part of a regional TEMPUS project Towards Sustainable and Equitable Financing of Higher Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia (FINHED), three national studies on social and economic conditions of student life in higher education will be conducted as part of the fifth round of EUROSTUDENT, along the parallel analysis of the existing higher education funding models.
The EUROSTUDENT survey is one of the two research components the project has, the other being concerned with system-level and institutional financing in which the current state of affairs with regards these issues will identified and, together with the findings from the EUROSTUDENT survey, form the core part of the body of evidence this project seeks to build in order to feed the policy process. The FINHED project aims to contribute to a more efficient, effective and equitable financing of higher education in the Western Balkans, through knowledge exchange and local capacity building and generating solid body of evidence.
The rationale behind the project can be well justified once a better look is taken at the current situation with regards to the higher education (HE) systems in question. Namely, in all three countries higher education funding models have remained essentially the same in the last decade or longer, despite the reforms and legislative change. At the moment, in all three countries there is a wide gap between funding instruments and the proclaimed goals of HE. HE systems in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro suffer from both insufficient funding and impeded access to HE for certain groups, the latter particularly leading to a high drop-out rate. Public expenditure on HE is currently 1,10% of GDP in Montenegro and 0,3% in Serbia. The actual contribution to HE from private sources is not known, yet tuition fees constitute a large part of these, with consequences for both student living conditions and quality and success of studying. Public HEIs, enrolling most of the students in each country, remain underfunded and heavily dependent on the state and parent contribution.
Direct student support is limited to a very small number of students and it is, directly or indirectly, heavily based on merit (grades, progress rate), while merit itself is not divorced from students’ socio-economic background. At the same time, taken from the student perspective in specific, students in these countries tend to be almost completely dependent on parents to support them during studying and also paying the tuition fees, which are usually set quite high with respect to income (if seen relative to the average salary) . Nevertheless, in the recent and ongoing debates on various aspects of HE financing, the discussions on finances and equity are addressed separately, the former being far more often the topic than the latter. This implies that there is a lack of consideration of effects the funding mechanisms can have on equity.
With respect to the institutional funding, HE institutions rely mostly on the state support and tuition fees, largely neglecting other potential sources of funding. Simultaneously, cooperation with business and industry, civil sector, inter-university cooperation and in some cases inter-faculty cooperation is limited, and good practices are encountered sporadically and in some disciplines, such as technical sciences. Yet even with these faculties this is not always the case. This clearly indicates the lack of systemic approach to supporting institutional diversification and enabling universities to be less dependent on the state, more innovative and proactive in their cooperation with other social and economic spheres and, consequently, more responsive to the needs of society at large.
In parallel, the capacities, expertise and evidence on HE are very limited and in urgent need for improvement. For instance, data on student income and costs of living is not collected. In effect, the approach to policy making which asks for evidence to be placed at its base or at least to inform it in these countries is not a well-established practice, both due to the lack of systematic evidence collection and expertise, but as well due to the capacity to base strategic decisions on solid analyses and evidence. It is for this reason that the research planned within this project is essential.
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The project is coordinated by the University of Belgrade, while the implementation of the EUROSTUDENT Survey is the responsibility of the Centre for Education Policy. The survey field work is planned for spring 2014, the year in which Croatia, the first Western Balkans to ever participate in this study, will have its second round.