A Transylvanian twist

At a seminar in Romania, Jon Baldwin finds that this new member of the EU has valuable lessons for UK universities

July 24, 2008

I'm on a bus from Sibiu Airport heading through Transylvania. I check the phone. My kids still have not bothered to reply to my last text, but then what should I expect from kids?

The country I am visiting is itself a kid in a sense. Romania is a relatively new full member of the European Union. I am travelling with an Austrian, a Swede and an Italian to a seminar on university management and governance at the University of Petru Maior. The three of us are from nations with longer histories in the EU, and we think we have much wisdom to impart to our Romanian colleagues. However, our driver is a Romanian. We are being led by local knowledge and, it turns out, not for the only time that day.

Transylvania is in transition. The two-and-a-half-hour drive from Sibiu to Targu Mures is evidence of that as we pass village after village, downtrodden but flecked with colour, with people reliant on the land. Life has a pace I do not recognise: children run along the roadside and shout playfully, craggy faces stare but the village boundaries seem confining. Can universities really make a difference here?

Targu Mures is a city of contrasts - brash in part, with evidence of wealth. The fortunate mingle with the less fortunate. The university, too, is mixed. Our seminar is held in rather grand surroundings, but the buildings could do with pointing and a lick of paint. Old meets new, tradition meets modern.

The seminar participants are all heads of administration from universities around the world. There is simultaneous translation, but informal discussions are in English. Some colleagues are old hands and have seen much. Others are newer, more idealistic and quick to offer controversial suggestions. The debate revolves around two themes, autonomy and the opportunities presented by being European. My mind wanders back to the UK. I could as easily be at a Universities UK meeting or an Association of Heads of University Administration event as in Transylvania.

The Romanians argue about how much autonomy they have and how much they, ideally, need. This direct grappling with the real fundamentals of autonomy is a chastening reminder of how stale and deadlocked such debates are in the UK. We have become somewhat schizophrenic in Britain. Autonomy is good, and vice-chancellors (and registrars) boast about how low their direct funding council income has become. Political parties of all shades celebrate the autonomy of universities and acknowledge it as a clear reason for the (relative) success of the UK higher education brand. However, the reality is somewhat different from the talk.

Universities revel in having autonomy but frequently do not exercise it, preferring to wait and see what others do (usually nothing). Opportunities to seize market advantage are lost. Ministers strive to preserve university autonomy, but some of the agents of Government continue to intervene and micromanage. Some legislation seems to lose sight of autonomy and labels "universities" as "public" when it comes to the application of legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act.

Romanians, for their part, have a refreshing approach to the possibilities created by European money. They believe that it can make a real difference to them, and rivalries are set aside to share and hone ideas with colleagues.

Romania's universities feel that they are European. We in the UK are getting there, but slowly. We don't tend to see the opportunities as clearly as the threats, and the glass is generally half-empty. (Know anyone who can explain the Bologna Process and its impact in the UK in a paragraph ... ? I thought not.)

In my 24 years in universities, the UK has never experienced change as profound as that now taking place in Romania - and yet, in many ways, I envy the Romanians. There is dislocation, and dislocation forces debate; people and systems have to contemplate stark new realities. This can lead to new solutions, to progress, to a model that offers opportunity to the folk in those villages who have the potential to benefit. Romanians have time, too, to consider collective solutions and to avoid fragmenting an emerging sector. Are they learning from us or are we learning from Europe's youngest children?

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