Don's Diary

August 9, 1996

SUNDAY. "How very strange," comments the Bulgarian sitting next to me on the flight to Sofia, bemused that anyone could be interested in the mechanics of university affairs. I have just explained the reason for my visit: as the Association of University Administrators' correspondent for Bulgaria I have been invited by the ministry of education to see how things are going under the new dispensation. In the terminal I am surprised to see Lutchezar, a dentist friend, on the wrong side of passport control. I am manoeuvred from the tail end of the queue to the front. Lutchezar explains that a friend is on duty that afternoon. Some old habits die hard.

MONDAY. At the ministry I meet Ervant Stepanian whom I previously met in the United Kingdom and who now heads the department for higher education. He presents me with a copy of the 1995 Higher Education Act and explains how far things have progressed. The conversation turns to the lack of qualified staff in certain disciplines. Out of a population of more than eight million, there has been a flight of more than 400,000 of the best-qualified people to jobs abroad. This is perhaps not surprising: the basic salary of a professor is $110 per month. Our next call is the deputy rector for international affairs at Sofia's Technical University. We talk about the effects of the economic situation - science departments are unable to buy equipment and there are no funds for student exchanges. Funding for universities has fallen in real terms by half over the past three months.

TUESDAY. I spend the early hours in a mild panic, having received a message to phone my wife urgently and all the lines out of the country seem blocked. I finally make contact through the hotel's business centre and, having woken the household, learn that the message was not for me. Irina, my guide, arrives and my baggage is put in the boot of the ministry's 12-year-old Volga driven by Hristo. Back to the Technical University, where our conversation focuses on the higher education reforms which have to be in place by the start of the autumn semester. By noon we begin the 500 kilometre drive to Varna. The state of the roads reflects the state of the economy, and the most significant sight is decayed countryside - hardly a farm building seems fit for use. We arrive at the hotel where Hristo is concerned that there is no TV in his room: he wants to watch Bulgaria play France in Euro 96.

WEDNESDAY. After a walk round the town for an hour or so, we meet up with Hristo, and proceed to the Technical University of Varna where I renew my acquaintance with the rector and the vice rector for international affairs. The rector is unhappy with the Higher Education Act: every draft seems to have resulted in less autonomy for the universities. He is also unhappy with the new curricula; in particular with the novel bachelor's degree which will be awarded after four years' study. There is a sudden interruption and a message is whispered in the ear of the rector. He explains that the funds for salaries have been received - payment can be made at the end of the month.

THURSDAY. We set off for Burgas in the hottest part of the day. The condition of the coastal road seems particularly bad and the 135 kilometre journey takes longer than expected. Eventually we reach our hotel in the centre of town, and I invite Irina and Hristo to dine later in the evening. During the course of the meal Hristo tells us of his experiences in international road haulage. It seems that he was engaged by an Italian company to transport unspecified goods to Iraq. His complaint about the operation was not its possible illegality but one which I have heard before: the Bulgarians were paid less than the others.

FRIDAY. The morning is spent looking round Burgas and then we take a short trip to Slanche Bryag along the coast. The afternoon is assigned for visiting the University of Burgas which has just received full university status under the new law. The university is smaller than the others visited and the vice rector is confident that everything necessary has been done to meet the challenge of the revised structures. However, the ministry for reconstruction authorised the building of a new teaching block some time ago, but the money was not received and a month ago work stopped.

SATURDAY. We arrive back in Sofia at 8.15 pm. I walk across the square past the parliament building and the Alexander Nevsky cathedral to visit a retired member of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Even though it is clear that I have interrupted their dinner he and his wife insist I join them. It is equally clear that they welcome the opportunity to talk to someone from abroad: a habit no doubt reinforced by many years of restricted contact.

SUNDAY. The first half of the morning is taken up with reading some of the literature acquired over the past few days. Visit Lutchezar's family and en route we pass through his surgery, newly set up with American equipment. I decline a free dental inspection. A leisurely lunch is followed by a hurried taxi ride to reclaim my baggage from the hotel; and so back to the airport. On the plane, I realise that because of the state of the Bulgarian economy with its paper money, I have spent a week without a coin in my pockets.

Head of secretariat at the University of Southampton.

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