This article was written for the Hedda Blog as part of its thematic week dedicated to the project “European integration in higher education and research in the Western Balkans.“ The article was written by Jelena Brankovic (Ghent University), one of the editors of the book The Re-Institutionalization of Higher Education in the Western Balkans. The interplay between European ideas, domestic policies, and institutional practices published by Peter Lang.
During last three decades, European higher education systems and institutions have witnessed dramatically changing socio-economic, technological and political environments, general public sector reforms aimed at modernizing public sector governance and management, and increasing demands for positive social and economic impacts of their education and research activities. However, the change dynamics experienced and challenges faced by some countries and regions have been essentially different than others.
The countries often described as “the Western Balkans” (former Yugoslavia, minus Slovenia, plus Albania) during the last couple of decades have faced two interrelated sets of challenges. First, they had to re-establish their own national higher education systems following the institutional upheaval of the break-down of former Yugoslavia or the fall of the autocratic regime of Enver Hoxha in Albania. This required the development of new laws and regulations, the establishment of new governance and funding systems, and the adequate handling of problems with respect to the quality, efficiency and relevance of higher education institutions. Second, the countries had to adjust these newly developed systems to European developments, not least the Bologna Process and more internationally oriented higher education institutions while maintaining national and regional relevance.
The Re-Institutionalization of Higher Education in the Western Balkans. The Interplay between European Ideas, Domestic Policies, and Institutional Practices is the 5th volume in the series Higher Education Research and Policy issued by Peter Lang Publishers. The book analyses the changes in both policy and practices in the Western Balkan countries predominantly through a comparative approach. Both regarding the deconstruction and the reconstruction of national systems of higher education, the Western Balkan countries make up quite unique cases that have thus far received relatively little attention from higher education researchers.
The analysis in the book is concentrated on three dimensions: governance, quality, and the regional role of higher education. Indeed, the Western Balkan region is currently lagging behind the rest of Europe as measured by the typical performance indicators of higher education and research. However, at the same time the region is an interesting laboratory where new policy ideas and initiatives arise, some potentially also interesting for the rest of Europe. As resource constraints are increasingly being an issue elsewhere, it is not unlikely that increased privatisation of higher education may evolve throughout the continent in the years to come. Here, there might be lessons to be learned concerning how public and private higher education can co-exist, and how increased privatization may challenge the diversity of the higher education sector in general. In the same way that systematic accreditation in Europe first developed in countries in the east of Europe, one should not rule out the possibility that issues related to privatization and creative ways to link higher education with regional needs, are areas where we could look to Western Balkans for inspiration in the future.
As the book has shown, the Western Balkans form a particularly interesting region to study since in-depth studies can shed lights on several theoretical and policy related problems in higher education. Theoretically, these countries make up a natural laboratory for comparative studies enabling a testing of a number of theoretical assumptions and hypotheses about policy choices and policy change. Since most of these countries used to be part of a unified, albeit federal system of higher education, it is of interest to understand to what extent such structural path-dependency influenced the formations and developments of the new systems. Yet, it can be argued that the new countries face very different political and socio-economic challenges and that they develop unique national solutions. As such, comparative analysis may identify the relative importance of factors that have been influential in the formation of the new higher education systems. Politically, improved knowledge on the situation in the Western Balkan region may be of value to those that conduct policy making at the European level where new knowledge is acquired as to how European initiatives and measures are received in various regions and settings. Finally, the contribution of higher education and research to economic, social and political development is very important but also severely understudied.
The book proved a useful exercise in identifying change and continuation in the different countries in the region. Notably, it has been useful in ‘normalizing’ the challenges found in the Western Balkans, indicating that this region is perhaps less special and shares many of the same challenges as the rest of Europe in trying to reform and develop their higher education systems to future needs.
The book is the result of the project European integration in higher education and research in the Western Balkans. Based on a belief that reliable data and solid analysis of systems of higher education and research are crucial for the on-going processes of reform and change that are taking place in a number of policy areas, the project aimed at strengthening the capacity in the Western Balkan countries necessary for this kind of analyses. To find out more about research conducted in the framework of this project, visit the project website Research page.