Earlier this year, the Center for world-class universities in Shanghai Jiao Tong University released the ranking of higher education institutions in Macedonia. The ranking was commissioned by the Ministry of Education and Science of Republic of Macedonia and it included 19 institutions in the country. This was the first university ranking in Macedonia and the second one in the Western Balkans region - the first country to have its university ranked by an external party was Albania where the initiative was also taken by the government.
The ranking used 19 indicators of academic performance and competitiveness, covering three core functions of higher education: teaching and learning, research and social service. Unlike the Jiao Tong’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, where the methodology places more weight on the research activities, this exercise gave priority to teaching and learning dimension which carried 42% of the total score, followed by research (40%) and social service (18%).
The ranking exercise is envisaged by the new Law on Higher Education in Macedonia and is mandatory for all institutions. According to this law, institutions are obliged to provide the data necessary for the ranking. If they fail to do so, a fine ensues. The government, on the other hand, is responsible for delegating this activity every two years to an external body, as well as for its financing. The ranking institution needs to fulfil a number of criteria, such as to have a relevant quality management system, academic staff covering all scientific areas, a minimum of five years experience in providing consulting services to higher education institutions, experience in university rankings in the EU, and a flexible ranking methodology. Interesting, the law refers to the Jiao Tong’s Academic Ranking of World Universities at several instances and recognises its top 500 as a reliable source in recognising foreign higher education institutions, for instance in the process of validating degrees obtained abroad.
University Ss. Cyril and Methodius from Skopje was ranked top Macedonian university according to the ranking criteria. The fourth ranked St. “Kliment Ohridski” University from Bitola and Ss. Cyril and Methodius are the only two Macedonian universities dating from the pre-2000 period, while majority of the remaining 17 are less than a decade old. Even though the size varies and most of these universities are smaller in terms of student numbers, this trend is indicative of the expansion of the system. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of students in the country almost doubled. Moreover, most of these institutions are private, while some of them are founded by foreign institutions. The system comprises of, among other types of higher education institutions, large comprehensive universities, such as Ss. Cyril and Methodius, independent faculties, schools, arts academies, professional colleges, business academies, or specialised universities, such as the University for Computer Science and Information Technology “Ss. Apostle Paul” from Ohrid.
In her text on the latest developments with regards to the expansion of the higher education in Macedonia, titled Higher Education in Macedonia: Liberalization versus Qualification, Ilina Mangova shares some insight on this trend:
The newly founded schools gave the opportunity to continue their studies to the many who were not accepted in state universities. A new concept of dispersed studies in smaller towns was also introduced. This means that teachers from designated departments travel to smaller towns to hold classes, and youngsters who previously could not afford the cost of living in another city now have university classes on their doorsteps.
As it appears, Macedonia has witnessed both expansion and diversification of its higher education in the last decade, which has been also the case with Albania and, although to a lesser extent, with other Western Balkans countries. Yet, Mangova is rather critical of this trend and implies that some of these institutions operate by very low standards of quality: “Attracted by easier standards for enrolment, many high school students rush to get a fast degree. [...] Universities are being run like businesses which means they are being run for profit.”
One could possibly argue that it is this rapid growth that led the government to introduce ranking as a tool to “restore order.” Provided this is the case, the question is, however, whether ranking can have such an effect on the system without perverting the original intentions of the law maker.