A Romanian renaissance

June 2, 1995

Romania's struggle since the winter 1989 overthrow of Ceausescu to loosen the state's grip on society has finally turned to higher education.

Here an ambitious and far-reaching reform programme is underway promising greater university autonomy based on western, and specifically United Kingdom systems of management and funding.

The reason for this, according to Ioan Mihailescu, vice rector of Bucharest University, is the "flexibility" of the UK model. "It allows for the transfer of some financial responsibilities from the state to local authorities," he says.

"There is room to manoeuvre within such a system - its legal mechanisms are flexible. At the same time it has a set of rules," he says. "Romania has just left a long period of authoritarianism and is unprepared for coping with a completely 'free' situation as there is, for example, in the United States."

Romanian academics with foreign financial and advisory assistance hammered out the strategy, which was adopted in principle by the ministry of education in early 1994.

The foundation for reform is the decentralisation of authority from the government to the universities and inevitably the main thrust of this process is the transfer of financial responsibility - undoubtedly the most serious challenge facing the architects of the programme.

The highly bureaucratised structures built up by the Communists have remained virtually intact in education since the collapse of the pre-1989 regime and have so far been resistant to change.

"Up until now all funding was approved by government and given directly to the various departments," says Mihailescu. "Now we are talking about competition, responsibility, demonstrating the need for specific funds . . . There are many people in the system who are good academics but not good managers. How to manage a budget? It's a cultural challenge and many will find it impossible to adapt. Inevitably there will be some losers."

The state budget is still the chief source of revenue for public sector higher education, its share averaging about 90 per cent last year. Under the reform proposals financial autonomy would be achieved in two phases, with baseline funding from the state budget and a Special Fund for Education prevailing until complementary financing in the form of revenues from tuition fees, services, research and other sources is established.

A National Higher Education Funding Council, set up in 1994, will begin piloting some schemes this year and is expected to be fully operational by 1996.

In February the Romanian government began negotiations for a $40 million loan from the World Bank towards supporting the reform programme up until 2001 at which point, according to the schedule, higher education will be 30 per cent self-financing.

The reforms will also address the curriculum, degree structure and student intake. Although the higher education system inherited from Romania's Communist past did have its merits and even its high points - excellence in mathematics and sciences, for example - its structure was distorted by the increasingly dictatorial and irrational character of Ceausescu's policies.

Ceausescu's vision, particularly in the last decade of his regime, of national scientific and technical self-sufficiency led to extreme bias in favour of engineering and technical studies. In 1989/90, fewer than 10 per cent of students were enrolled in arts and science disciplines and only 1 per cent were registered in law and public administration.

It has been estimated that by the year 2000 Romania will need about 400,000 specialists in banking, marketing and economics-related fields: it is currently producing only 10,000 graduates a year in these areas.

"These subjects are a priority of the reform programme," says Mihailescu. "But we must balance social demand and academic quality and at the same time maintain critical mass in other academic subjects."

The need for reform has been increased by the chaotic growth since the 1989 revolution: student enrolments rose from 164,507 in 1988/89 to 256,690 in 1992/93; the number of faculties has more than tripled, and the number of private universities now stands at 73, accounting for more than a quarter of total higher education enrolments in Romania.

Added to this is a chronic shortage of teaching staff. While the number of teaching positions grew by 116 per cent - from 14,485 to 31,249 - between 1989 and 1993, filled positions grew by only 64 per cent. The reform process must also deal with the structure of a five-year degree course and the fact that students' compulsory attendance remains at 36 hours a week, well above western averages.

The proliferation of private institutions in Romania, which have emerged in a legal vacuum unchecked by any coherent regulatory framework, is a major problem in terms of quality control. The National Council for Academic Evaluation and Accreditation, set up in 1993, is monitoring all programmes started since 1989.

It was expected that the survey, due to be completed by the end of May, would result in the closure of at least 50 of the private universities, affecting some 90,000 students. The most able of these students will be soaked up by public universities through an examination system, while 1994/95 graduates may compete for an authorised degree through a nationally licensed examination, the legislation for which is currently in parliament.

A similar process of rationalisation is to be extended to the university hierarchy. The council, by encouraging universities to define more accurately their strategic goals, will also play a crucial role in the autonomous development of all higher education institutes, both public and private.

However, even a very decentralised education system which allows a great deal of autonomy to individual units retains reponsibility for a large number of functions at central level and to this end it is proposed that the macromanagement of higher education will comprise a variety of professional-type institutional mechanisms to run independently of government.

These councils, several of which have already been established, were again "inspired", according to Liviu Maior, the education minister, by UK models studied as part of a British Council-sponsored visit in 1994.

They include the National Higher Education Funding Council, the National Council for the Attestation of Academic Degrees and Teaching Grades, the National University Research Council and the Academic College, which will be concerned with development strategy.

Many education ministry functions, including responsibility for curricula and the payroll, will be delegated through such bodies. It is in this context that Maior is attempting to dispel suspicions, fuelled by slow progress in the decentralisation process elsewhere in Romanian society, that the government is reluctant to give higher education its head.

According to Maior, himself an academic historian: "The universities will have autonomy from every point of view. I want them off my back!" He admits however that obstacles remain in the area of university management: "There is much resistance to change among academics. Publicly they're all in favour but back in their fortresses it's a different matter. At the moment nobody's taking any reponsibility. We need managers and only 3 or 4 per cent of rectors feel able to face such a challenge."

This problem has been the main focus of much foreign assistance. Universitas, a team drawn from higher education managers in Britain, has been working with Romanian university management since 1990.

One of the biggest problems from Maior's point of view is full implementation of the reform without legal back-up. An education bill, although passed by the Romanian senate, has been stalled in parliament since 1992. "The law is a good one, based on democracy and equal opportunities," he said. "We're making radical changes. Although the legal element is only part of the reform it's very important because everything will be contested if the legal framework is not well drafted."

He is confident that the law will be applied in the next 12 months and then "things will settle down".

How then is such a major reform programme being viewed by education experts? Andrew Murray of the British Council in Bucharest has worked closely with external consultation bodies and the Romanian education ministry since 1992. A crucial factor for him is that the programme is "in essence" Romanian.

"This is a reform led by Romanians, not by foreign donors as is often the way. There is a group of people high up in the education system who want change, who have a vision of how education in this country could be in five years and are doing their best to realise that vision." Universitas consultant Paul Temple agrees that while there are difficulties in adapting to the UK experience of positive change in higher education, "the Romanians are now on track to achieve this".

Romania's education minister meanwhile remains slightly more cautious: "As a historian I am more used to writing about history than trying to make it," he says. "And I can tell you that writing about it is a lot easier."

Inherited problems

* centralised bureaucracy * chronically underdeveloped at postgraduate level * overspecialisation * teacher shortage * five-year undergraduate degree courses * no independent validation of degree results * lack of university research programmes (research confined to specialised institutes) * generation gap between staff over 50 and younger staff (less than 10 per cent are between 30 and 50 years of age) * huge private expansion following revolution with little quality assurance * decline in public spending on higher education after 1980 led to rapid deterioration in educational conditions * unequal access by social strata (eg 1986/87: agricultural workers 2.6 per cent; industrial workers 32.8 per cent; clerical workers .7 per cent; intellectuals 36.9 per cent). Problem exacerbated now by privatisation in agriculture and trade, rising cost of living

Targets

* restructure system to meet needs of an economically competitive society "based on pluralism and democracy" * change relationship between government and universities (ie central governance by ministry of education)

* develop mechanisms for assessment and accreditation of institutions and curricula * cut undergraduate degree courses from five to four years * cut compulsory attendance from current average of 36 hours per week * incentive scheme to encourage research * review salary scales and promotion/status system * introduce tuition fees

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