Crowds of nervous university applicants and anxious parents who have come from near and far, huddling together in front of faculty buildings; thousands of relatives tuning in to the national radio to hear the exam question or clutching their phones to learn whether their “boy” or “girl” has passed. Soon this is going to be a thing of the past. Not only because of the new compulsory matriculation examinations, but also because fewer and fewer young people care to apply to Bulgarian universities.A recent international survey of the quality of education has shown that about 30 percent of 15-year-olds in Bulgaria are practically illiterate (more here).
If a similar survey was conducted among university students, the results would probably be similar. Under Communism, Bulgarian higher education was largely modelled after its Soviet counterpart. Heavily centralised, under the total authority of the Ministry of Education and the Bulgarian Communist Party, it was meant to “produce” the specialists needed for the planned economy. University lecturers were seldom allowed to have contact with their Western colleagues and a State Security officer was employed in each university to sneak on the academics.
At the beginning of democracy in the early 1990s, Alma Mater, as Bulgarians fondly call their universities, was understandably not amongst the hottest issues. Standards gradually declined and so did staff's salaries. Professors of history of the Bulgarian Communist Party or Marxist-Leninist philosophy became professors of ethics or market economy almost overnight. This was also the time when hundreds of other lecturers, those who spoke foreign languages and taught “convertible” subjects, began leaving the country to find better-paid jobs abroad.
Despite the widely recognised need for reform, the situation is not much different today. The quality of higher education has declined dramatically. University facilities are antiquated and professors often teach using blackboard and chalk alone. Many curricula are inadequate and light years away from the demands of the present-day labour market. Research often has little to do with the needs of a modern economy and there are no stable links between higher education institutions and business. Assistant professors' salaries are even lower than those of primary or secondary school teachers and extra teaching is often paid at a rate of two leva an hour.
Understandably, academics are ageing as young people are not particularly attracted to such a job. Neither, in fact, are most of the professors themselves. To make ends meet they sometimes resort to doing odd jobs which are completely unrelated to academia. As a result, they neglect their professional development and some can't even use a computer or speak a foreign language. And yes – reportedly, there have been cases of corruption.
It is true that universities received academic autonomy and their rectors and general assemblies can take a variety of decisions regarding their structure, curricula, courses and so on (as a result, they all have their own entrance examinations and admission criteria). What they did not get is financial autonomy. Every year, the Ministry of Education decides on the number of students they will admit for each subject and the subsidy that state universities receive from the government depends on this. The number, as the current minister jocularly admits, equals last year's figure multiplied by a coefficient that corresponds to the relationship between the rector and the minister of education.
In other words, non-private higher education institutions are in the grip of the ministry, which can practically close a whole faculty.Some say that this is what should actually happen. Bulgaria has too many small universities which provide courses in a single area. As a result, they are financially inefficient and should be consolidated into a large, multi-discipline university or shut down.
On the other hand, higher education can be a lucrative business, as many universities in other countries prove. Organised along business lines, they attract multitudes of good students and never fail to make a profit. This, however, necessarily involves good management, modern and relevant courses that reflect the needs of the economy, well-established links with prospective employers, quality and effective research and development, student incentives such as scholarships and grants, and international recognition. Unfortunately, the latter is what Bulgaria definitely lacks. No Bulgarian higher education establishment ranks among the top 500 universities in the world. Dissatisfied with falling teaching standards, an increasing number of young Bulgarians are choosing to study abroad and at present about a 10th of all Bulgarian students are in foreign universities.
With Bulgaria's accession to the EU, union nationals can be admitted to and study at a Bulgarian university in the same way as local candidates. Predictably, no one is queuing for this. As the 2007 edition of Eurostat's Key Data on Higher Education in Europe shows, the country is not among the preferred academic destinations. Foreign students are under three percent and most of them are enrolled in the field of health and welfare. One of the main reasons is that only a few universities offer courses read in a foreign language. This means that they have to learn Bulgarian first to be able to understand what they are taught.
Will Bulgaria dare to make the badly needed reforms? It should start immediately, the World Bank warns. Higher education is a critical factor for productivity growth, and hence for the country's convergence with economically developed Europe in the next 40 years – hopefully.
MUCH NEEDED REFORMS
In a 2007 report entitled Accelerating Bulgaria's Convergence: The Challenge of Raising Productivity, the World Bank stresses the need for reform because “effective tertiary education investment increases a country's ability to make leading-edge innovations”. The reforms that the bank suggests include the consolidation of universities and tertiary institutions - especially of the small, single-discipline ones - to raise their fiscal efficiency, and quality of education and research; basing state funding on actual enrolment and thus promoting competition among universities; strengthening university governance through the establishment of a board of trustees and a tertiary education council, which will enhance accountability in terms of quality, relevance of programmes and use of resources; instituting the Matura as the entrance exam and thus simplifying the application process; strengthening accreditation and quality assurance of universities and their programmes; developing links with the labour market; providing continued teacher and faculty training and encouraging university research.
WHERE TO STUDY?
According to Article 95(7) of the Bulgarian Higher Education Act, students who are citizens of an EU or EEA member state are admitted into Bulgarian universities in the same way and pay the same tuition fees as Bulgarian citizens. These range from about 110-180 leva per semester for humanities, 150-260 leva for sciences, 250-380 leva for arts and about 350 leva for medicine. Universities also offer Bulgarian language courses for applicants who do not speak the language. You can find information about the accredited higher education institutions and degree courses at http://mon.bg/opencms/opencms/top_menu/registers/vishe/registar_eng.html. Unlike the rest of the Ministry of Education website, this page is also available in English. Since universities are autonomous and each of them sets its own standards and enrolment criteria, you should contact the admissions department of the university you have chosen.