Romanian universities are becoming increasingly homogeneous

Higher education reforms promised differentiation, but a failure to implement bold changes and a lack of desire for innovation are resulting in the opposite trend, says Liviu Andreescu

March 3, 2021
LJUD group from Slovenia performs “Invasion” on a street in Sibiu, Romania, 2013
Source: Getty

A decade ago, Romania adopted a new law on education to replace its previous mid-1990s statute. As far as higher education was concerned, the major novelty was a university classification scheme and ranking of academic programmes, set to be carried out every few years.

It was a policy response to a state of crisis. A decline in high school cohorts, caused by the very low birth rate in the early 1990s and by migration after Romania joined the European Union in 2007, generated a massive student number crunch. The latter was amplified by a measure as simple as tightening invigilation at high school graduation exams, halving the number of potential students overnight. After almost two decades of sustained growth, matriculation figures dropped abruptly. Today, undergraduate enrolment is roughly 60 per cent of the figure 10 years ago, and well below half of the late 2000s peak.

The university classification and programme rankings scheme was advertised as an ambitious instrument aimed at restructuring higher education. It would place universities in three categories based on their research intensity, enabling funding agencies to allocate resources accordingly. Somewhat ambiguously, better funding was promised to the top institutions in each category, although the official rhetoric suggested that every institution should aspire to the category that was commonly called “first class”. In time – the thinking went – institutions would be motivated to choose a niche and the system would become more diverse. No longer would all universities teach the same kinds of students (the vast majority, fresh out of high school) and deploy the same curricula (for the most part, following a nationally prescribed template). The rankings would similarly inject resources into the highest scoring programmes in each field, stimulating research performance and adding an additional incentive for differentiation.

The classification and rankings were only carried out once. The results proved completely unsurprising. The old public universities in the big academic cities came out on top, as did their programmes. Insiders who expected at least minor revelations – such as one or two flagships being cut down to size – were disappointed. And yet even these results were considered threatening by smaller public universities. The classification and rankings got bogged down in the courts after one institution took legal action and others joined the fray. They never became a policy tool and were not repeated, despite the legal mandate.

In the meantime, the university system has contracted. Most private universities, creatures of the wild post-communist expansion, entered a phase of programme reduction. Without access to public funding, several closed their doors completely. A few bold changes were contemplated by policy entrepreneurs, although never officially. There was talk of mergers, but except for one or two marginal cases nothing came to fruition. The notion was entertained of amalgamating the comprehensive and specialist universities in each academic city, but it proved a non-starter. Bringing research institutes – either those under the Romanian Academy of Sciences or organised as independent entities according to a Soviet-inspired model – under the umbrella of universities was vaunted for a while, again to no effect. In short, the system has stayed the same. Always under the firm grip of university leaders, higher education policy has shown no real appetite for innovation.

Despite the failure of the classification exercise, universities and academics have recently discovered a taste for performance metrics and international rankings. The latter are not yet used for policy purposes, but each iteration of the best-known league tables commands the loyal attention of university communications offices, specialised reporters and many academics.

Regarding performance metrics, the National Council for Higher Education Funding redesigned its “supplementary funding” scheme in 2016 to allocate resources (more than a quarter of the total) partly based on programme performance. Data on faculty publications and individual research indices have been collected annually and used somewhat to the ends announced by the 2011 reforms.

Here, though, there have been surprises – unlike a decade ago. The latest results at the end of 2020 showed that, at least with respect to faculty performance, the large, respected departments in the old universities occasionally fared no better than comparatively recent and smaller newcomers. It is not yet clear whether this is due to faulty reporting, limitations in the methodology or academics’ newfound drive to publish as much as possible. But whatever the answer, it suggests that, far from increasing differentiation, Romanian universities are becoming – or are being incentivised to become – even more like each other.

Liviu Andreescu is a professor in the department of public administration and business at the University of Bucharest.

The THE Emerging Economies University Rankings 2021 will be published at 3pm GMT on 9 March. 


Print headline: Excellence comes from diversity, not sameness

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