28 March 2014
With the end of 2013, the EU funded Tempus project “Strengthening the Implementation of EU Modernisation Agenda in WB Region by Building Capacity for Structural Reform - STREW” was successfully brought to a close. It was one of the most significant projects in the domain of structural reforms of higher education in the Western Balkans to date, which gathered all key higher education stakeholders in the region, under whose umbrella many significant activities were organised, and which gave birth to the Regional Platform for Benchmarking and Cooperation in Higher Education and Research.
The Platform was launched in 2012 in Dubrovnik and was built on the foundations set by the Novi Sad Initiative. The founders of the platform - representatives of ten universities in the Western Balkans, six higher education authorities and one parliamentary committee for education from seven countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia) committed to working together in promoting regional policy in higher education and research, encouraging strategic debate which will impact on the regional development, enhancing higher education institutions’ responsiveness to European, regional, and national needs and fostering a collective voice in higher education and research through coordinated initiatives and actions that resonates internationally, regionally, and nationally. To this goal, the Regional Platform is set to closely cooperate with other regional and EU initiatives including the Western Balkans Platform on Education and Training (WB PET) and the Education Reform Initiative of South Eastern Europe (ERI SEE). With regards to its operational structures, the Platform operates through its Council, the Board, and the Secretariat based at the Centre for Advanced Academic Studies of the University of Zagreb in Dubrovnik.
The Platform was built around a number of national, regional and international events, on structural reform in higher education which took place within the framework of the STREW project, namely, conferences, forums, panel discussions, seminars, and trainings. These events gathered more than 300 individuals from all levels of a system from the region and beyond and engaged them in a discussion on a broad range of themes of national, regional and international relevance. The themes covered during these events involved, inter alia, professionalisation of public administration and governance of higher education, quality in higher education, reform and change, funding, leadership and management, internationalisation, recognition, rankings and benchmarking, private-public partnership, the role of evidence and research in decision making, regional cooperation, etc. Apart from the stakeholders and other participants from the region, a number of eminent European experts with international experience were engaged in exchanging views and addressing challenges on relevant issues in higher education, both in the region and internationally.
Furthermore, a number of strategic seminars were organised within the project which were attended by senior representatives from higher education authorities, higher education institutions, and ministries in the Western Balkan region, with the purpose to discuss, finalise and approve the Regional Roadmap, a document built in the foundation of the Platform. It is important to highlight the importance of the series of trainings on the role of evidence in decision making in higher education delivered within the STREW project, which the first initiative of the kind to gather both administrative and academic staff, as well as higher education authorities to jointly address challenges in their respective institutions and countries. In total, about 150 individuals from 10 universities and 5 system-level institutions (higher education authorities) from 6 countries participated in the trainings.
Importantly, within the STREW project, a number of documents has been produced to further support the structural reform process and regional cooperation which would further facilitate this, i.e. Regional Roadmap for Higher Education Structural Reform, Regional Platform Founding Document, Set of Recommendations on Higher Education Structural Reform, and Regional Report on Higher Education Structural Reform. These draw on and complement other key documents in the area of higher education, such as the European Modernisation Agenda, Bologna process related documents, Europe 2020 initiatives, as well as national and regional strategic documents.
STREW project also gave rise to a number of structures with expertise in higher education, which represents an important pillar in the future development of the Regional Platform. One of the structures is the Regional Pathfinder Group, established as a follow-up of the Bucharest Communiqué in which participating countries committed to achieving a long-term goal of automatic recognition of comparable academic degrees. The inaugural meeting of the Regional Pathfinder Group took place in 2013, which was followed by the Joint meeting of EC and Regional Pathfinder Group which took place in September 2013. In parallel, the Platform also incorporates the Regional Higher Education Expert Network which represents a forum for exchange of knowledge, information and ideas on higher education reform in the Region and to facilitate mutual benchmarking and cooperation. The Network is an open referential pool of expertise with an ambition to grow and constantly develop including experts from the region and beyond. Last but not least, the project set foundations to the Regional Administrator Network which includes participants from the training courses. This network is built around the idea that the role of administrative expertise in higher education, its strengthening and further professionalisation are crucial in structural reform process in the region.
Finally, it is important to stress that the initiatives such as the STREW project and the Regional Platform, are vital not only to regional cooperation but also in the context of broader European developments. Indeed, these initiatives do facilitate interaction between the countries involved, as they also provide a logical framework, inform the dialogue and lead the region forward in a way which is both mutually coordinated and embedded in larger European and international processes. Yet, the cooperation under the European umbrella must always be a two-way street. By being in a permanent dialogue with higher education institutions and stakeholders in the European Higher Education Area, these regional initiatives feed into the broader European higher education dynamics. Only thought facilitating intra-regional and cross-regional cooperation can Europe be a truly diverse and fertile higher education soil.