South-Eastern Europe – terra nova for me, shamefully enough.
Belgrade is a normal-looking city where people worry about the things everyone else fusses about, with much the same shops and the same graffiti as anywhere else. At the conference I spoke at, the big concerns were university standards in a land of falling population, low growth and low incomes, and the moans of employers about the underpreparation of graduates for the world of
work. Still, the Saturday morning drive to the airport brought a sharp reminder of recent history, as we
drove past several blocks of buildings wrecked by NATO bombs or rockets and still not cleared.
Despite these issues, Serbia has eight public and eight private universities. So that’s about one per half-million people, comparable to the UK. The private providers are needed because the state institutions lack capacity and tend to offer a traditional curriculum (one speaker cited an oversupply of art historians and agricultural economists). But their political standing is shadowy. Apparently the constitution says that the state will support promising students, and the constitutional court will at some point have a test case brought on whether state money can be used to support students at private institutions. One of my fellow-speakers called for university ranking to be introduced to allow the various types of institution to be seen in the same light, and indeed rankings were launched earlier this month for Madedonia. But the real problem seems to be that the state system is underpowered in terms of capacity to drive change.
The economic and social crisis in Serbia means that medics and other professionals who might expect automatic employment are not finding it. The 9 per cent of the workforce that has higher education is suffering 14 per cent unemployment, still less than the 29 per cent overall rate.
Still, Igor Markicevic and his colleagues running the event are themselves a fabulous advertisement for Serbia’s young professionals, and
they deserve to succeed.
And Igor taught me a great Serbian expression, often used about his own government. “Lots of buzzing, but not much honey.”
Flying home on the spartan but effective JAT (ex Jugoslav Air Transport), no records were being broken for capacity utilisation. I had a row of seats to myself. I very much hope to increase my knowledge of this fascinating and complex place.