A bid by Croatia to become a passive member in joint Central European programmes for higher education and research has been given whole-hearted support by the Danube Rectors' Conference.
The conference, which met in Croatia's Brijuni Islands and focussed on the transformation of higher education systems in Central and Eastern Europe, was attended by representatives from 13 countries in the region.
Drawing up a legal framework for Croatia's five universities took three years to complete, and legislation was introduced in October 1993.
Marijan Sunjic, rector of Zagreb University and president of the DRC's new permanent committee, said that under the new law constitutions could be tailored to the requirements of individual institutions. Zagreb University's constitution has already been approved by government.
Professor Sunjic pointed to special problems arising from the legacy of the Yugoslav Communist Party. "Party power all but destroyed higher education," he explained. "Universities were a threat to the party's dominance, so they were dismembered.
"Universities became unable to train new blood, and this resulted in a considerable brain drain. And universities had less and less contact with other people," he continued. The faculty structure of the institutions was also virtually powerless in relation to the state.
The war with Serbia has put additional strain on Croatia's higher education. University buildings in Osijek have been ruined and the Dubrovnik International centre destroyed, while accommodating and caring for victims of the war is stretching institutions' resources.
Of about 50,000 students at Zagreb University, nearly 4,000 are refugees and displaced people. "The situation is disastrous," said Professor Sunjic. "Some of these people have experienced the Serb concentration camps in Vucovar. Many of them are injured both physically and mentally. Of course they need special attention." Statistics on the Bosnian share of refugee students are not available.
Professor Sunjic said that higher education institutions in Croatia are eager to anticipate international developments and join in with changes. The flexible framework provided by new legislation ought to help with this. "Proper academic procedures have been introduced instead of built-in privileges for loyalty to the party. But in the academic community, there are still mental attitudes from the past."
The new law emphasises the mobility of academic staff and the reintegration of research. Experts in individual fields who were previously confined to faculties will be able to impart their knowledge in broader study programmes.
Professor Sunjic is confident that the law will help trim top-heavy administrations. At Zagreb University, 1,200 people administrated the old faculties, many of which will be now be combined in departments.
The Zagreb parliament has approved new bodies linking government and institutions in order to facilitate the changes. A board of trustees, comprising university and ministry members nominated by parliament, will oversee management, funding, and general organisation. Academic affairs will be dealt with by deans, department chairs, students, and university senates.
A non-university sector in higher education is also being considered. But its teaching staff requirements could put a further strain on universities.
The conference agreed to set up a database to help develop new courses. It will also consider credit transfer, higher education legislation, university constitution and the evaluation of teaching and research.
It acknowledged that disintegrated higher education and research structures were still present in a number of former Eastern Bloc countries, and recommended that an integrated model that worked as a single legal entity would best serve institutional autonomy.
A 1993 agreement between Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia has already established a framework for the development of such a Central European university network, the Central European Exchange Programme for University Studies, was designed to stimulate academic mobility and promote cultural and academic cooperation.
The scheme is based on individual networks which link at least three universities, two of which belong to two different member countries. Partners develop joint curricula and a system to facilitate the mutual recognition of studies.
Sorantin Elisabeth, of Ceepus's Vienna headquarters agreed that Ceepus could help draw up a comparison of the curricula in the DRC member countries to establish minimum credit transfer criteria. Universities in the region are now to send information about their programmes to Ceepus in Vienna. Ceepus would like to see more Central European countries join the agreement.
The meeting also gave DRC members an opportunity to reflect on their common links. They attempted to define the significance of the Danube region in a coming united Europe, and referred to the histories of the region's various universities.
But while there was mention of "cultural and political goals of the Danube Rectors' Conference" and a "common language which we had and could have again", the members of the conference stressed that higher education institutions in the region had the same basic goals as universities all over the world. The distinctive asset of the Danube universities was that they could communicate easily with each other.