Perhaps the best way to describe the current predicament the Serbian higher education institutions (HEIs) are facing would be to paraphrase the Bard: to change, or not to change, that is the question. Yet, as with the Danish prince, the real question is not whether, but how: how to change? How to reconcile the conflicting forces that on one side strive for sameness and on the other ask for uniqueness? How to internationalize, but retain your specificity? The aim of this thesis is not give a definite answer, but to explain in more detail how two HEIs in Serbia have reacted to external pressures of internationalization and how it impacted their reality; what choices they made along the way, and where did they finally arrive – if they have arrived anywhere.
In Europe, the Bologna process and reforms that followed it, including the increase in mobility between European HEIs, have profoundly influenced HE systems and put the internationalization in the spotlight (Brandenburg et al., 2014). Internationalization and mobility have become one of the priorities of EU; not surprising considering the amounts of public funding that have been used to support these programs (Brandenburg et al., 2014; European Commission, 2007; Flander & Klemenčić, 2014).
In the last 10 years Serbian HEIs have undergone major changes since Serbia joined the Bologna process. Unlike in EU countries in Serbia the mobility rate remained very low due to the fact that Serbia as non-EU member state does not have access to funding for mobility programs. Research also suggests that the decentralized nature of Serbian universities – with faculties as separate legal entities – is the main reason for lack of real reform and strategy (Turajlić, 2004, 2009). Funding and governance are the main issues researchers of Serbian HE have been complaining about, along with the lack of relevant data (Babin & Lažetić, 2009; Turajlić, 2004, 2009; Vukasovic, 2009; Vukasović, 2014). When EU decided to expand Erasmus Mundus (EM) program to include credit mobility with Erasmus Mundus Action 2 in 2008 this presented Serbian HEIs with an opportunity to internationalize.
Serbian HE could be described as non-internationalized considering the factors such as that there are hardly any English-taught programs; that outgoing mobility is well below 1 percent of the student population and that is mostly degree mobility; that the number of incoming mobility is even lower; and that foreign academic staff are virtually nonexistent.
With all of the above in mind, this research set to explore the impact of the EM program on the internationalization practice in Serbian HEIs, using the case of two institutions that participated in EM program from 2008 to 2014. The aim is to show what kind of push and pull factors influence the success of the internationalization process. Hence the main research question that this thesis will try to answer is:
How has participation in Erasmus Mundus program influenced the view and practice of internationalization in two Serbian HEIs ?
In order to understand the topic in more detail, the thesis will also pose two additional sub-research questions:
Internationalization and globalization are frequently used, but less understood words (Altbach & Peterson, 1998; Scholte, 2005). They have the tendency to “mean different thing to different people” (Knight, 1999, p. 13). One recent definition of internationalization in HE starts from the classical Jane Knight formulation (Knight, 1994, p. 3) and expands on it saying that is “the intentional process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions and delivery of post-secondary education, in order to enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff and to make a meaningful contribution to society” (Hunter & de Wit, 2015).
The effects of participation in Erasmus program have become an interesting topic for researchers and funding bodies alike. Studies conclude that Erasmus has become a very important factor for internationalization of HEIs and that the participation in mobility has gradually raised awareness. Study by Brandenburg et al. (2014) shows that cooperation and number of mobilities are positively correlated and that rely on Erasmus for funding also enabled some HEIs to focus their internationalization strategy on cooperation with EU partners. Study on Slovenian participation in Erasmus (Klemenčič & Flander, 2013) revealed a strong symbolic meaning of participation in Erasmus, but less visible change, as well as great differences within the same institution. They concluded that “it is not Erasmus that drives the internationalisation of Slovenian higher education, but it is a strong internationalisation strategy (both national and especially institutional) that creates enabling conditions for the full utilisation of Erasmus and its contribution to and impact on internationalization” (Klemenčič & Flander, 2013, p. 10).
Pervasive motives for internationalization can vary according to the institution, but can generally be divided into four categories: economic, academic, political, and social (Knight, 1999; Williams & Evans, 2005). These rationales are by no means mutually exclusive and their individual importance and weight may differ from country to country and depend of the current context (de Wit, 2013).
The open system perspective emphasizes the open-nature of the organization, which interacts with its environment (Scott & Davis, 2007). That means that the organizations are highly influenced by the environment they are in. That environment can be political, economic or social in nature or can be represented by other organizations. In this sense many researcher view universities as open systems (Bess & Dee, 2008; Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978; Weick, 1976). For the purpose of this research I have used the modified two-dimensional perspective of institutional strategy of internationalization from Davies (1995) (see Figure 1).
Using the list of enablers and barriers of internationalization adapted from Knight and de Wit and Green (Green, 2007a; Knight & de Wit, 1995a) I compared them with the Davies’s dimensions in order to try to better understand the situation at two case institutions. List of enablers includes: Support from the management, involvement of critical mass of staff, involvement of international office, adequate funding, regulations and strategies, and incentives. On the other hand the blockers are: Lack of support from the Institutional leaders, lack of institutional strategy, absence of coordination and connection between activities, lack of funding, curriculum is not internationalized. In order to better understand the changes and why attempts to instigate an enduring change fail at universities, I have also employed the three-step change model developed by Lewin (1947).
Figure 1: Dimensions of internationalization; adapted from Davies, 1995
Considering the timeframe and scale of this thesis, I have decided to utilize the qualitative case study research method. This method is also considered most appropriate when dealing with ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions and allows to understand experiences and attitudes of people towards certain phenomenon (Creswell, 2003). The method of exploratory case study has been widely used in HE research as a “classic approach to small scale research” (Tight, 2012). Two main reasons for the choice of research method revolve around the contemporary nature of the research phenomenon and the process nature of the object of study where the boundaries between the case study institution and environment are not completely clear (Yin, 2009).
In total 16 in-depth semi-structured interviews with representatives of two case universities (including current and former rectors, vice-rectors, deans, vice-deans and representatives of international office) were used as the primary source of data for the thesis. Secondary data in the form of official policy documents (on state or university level), adopted internationalization strategies, statistical information on mobility, and reports were also used when possible in order to confirm or rebuff the information obtained from the interviews (Marshall & Rossman, 2006). The two case institutions, University of Novi Sad (UNS) and University of Nis (UNI), were selected due to their similarities and differences in internationalization approach.
Throughout the process of data collection attention was paid to data storage and documentation. All interviews were taped and conducted either live or over Skype. Interview questions were developed and sent to each interviewee beforehand. All interviewees are anonymous and are only mentioned by institution.
There are two types of limitations regarding this thesis: firstly in the way research was conducted and secondly in the research task as such. Time constrain was major factor influencing the research process as the study schedule only allowed about five months for thesis completion including theoretical and practical part. Although methodology employed in the scope of the study limits the degree of generalization, there are lessons to be learned by other HEIs seeking to initiate internationalization process thorough participation in mobility programs. There were some issues with obtaining secondary and statistical data, as the collection procedures vary from institution to institution. The availability of some of the intended interviewees, as well as their interest to participate, partially influenced the final list of participants.
The topic of the thesis explores new territories in the context of Serbia since no such research has been done before. Considering the possible scope of research and the thesis not all topics could be explored in full detail.
For both case institutions analysis suggests that internationalization is not a key priority area – particularly on the faculty level – and that there are many obstacles to establishing a well-running sustainable system. Thus, both institutions have remained in the A quadrant of Davies’ institutionalization matrix even after some seven years of participation in EM program. However, the degree of change and the direction of change at UNS has been much stronger oriented towards quadrant B and to lesser extents towards a more strategic approach. UNI has only made small steps in the desired direction and mainly in the recent two years (see Figures 2 and 3).
Figure 2: Position of UNI at the end of EM program (adapted from Davies, 1995)
Figure 3: Position of UNS at the end of EM program (adapted from Davies, 1995)
UNS has started the process with more experience and more established role of the central administration and this can be considered one of the deciding factors that enable it to better utilize the opportunity the EM program has presented. Therefore, UNS, compared to UNI, has succeeded in developing an overall better functioning support system and created certain critical mass of proponents of internationalization that is able to gradually move the process forward. UNI has failed to demonstrate such progress. Only in the recent examples of strategy adoption has UNI demonstrated some sort of development towards more systematic and qualitative approach to internationalization. However, the question remains how the policy will be interpreted and implemented by faculties. UNS has demonstrated inclusive approach to internationalization issues, which resulted in higher level of acceptance of the results, while the approach from UNI seems to be more top-down oriented. It is questionable how successful it can be in a de-coupled environment.
Participation in EM program has contributed to some changes in legislation, but has so far failed to change the nature of institutions and has rarely penetrated beyond the dean’s or international office. Internationalization is mainly debated but less so enacted. This has mostly been caused by relative small number of mobilities and low awareness on the part of faculty management. There was clear evidence at several UNS faculties that the larger the number of mobilities the higher the awareness and thus better results in the longer run. However, unlike with Erasmus program (Brandenburg et al., 2014), and despite hopes from the EACEA (EACEA, 2013), EM has so far only sporadically produced tangible results beyond mobility. Those kind of results were only mentioned at UNS. At UNI the evidence has shown that the low number of mobilities only perpetuated the vicious circle of unawareness. Only in the last year there was considerable improvement in interest, which can also be attributed to the ongoing Tempus project and start of Erasmus+ program. At least at the central level UNI has become aware of the dangers of being left behind and has thus reacted proactively: pressuring faculties to react and adopting strategy documents that should provide basis for future enactment.
The central level at both case institutions have exhibited more interest in internationalization process initiating changes. Literature suggests that the role of management and international office plays a crucial role in creating the push for change (Green, 2007b; Knight & de Wit, 1995b). Both case institutions exhibited their fair share of issues, but the main difference is the position and role of the international office (IRO) at UNS compared to UNI. IRO at UNS seems to be engaged in the internationalization process directly; it acts as the information hub and switch between various levels. The faculty management and IRO colleagues at faculty level alike have confirmed this position. Interviews have shown a degree of trust that can play an important role to how the information coming from the IRO is received and interpreted. Issues that surface are part of the individual’s reaction to internationalization and are not connected to their perception of the work of IRO. On the other hand, at UNI the work of IRO has almost never been mentioned either positively or negatively. Evidence suggest that the role of IRO is unclear and that there are overlapping authorities in respect to internationalization issues between the university management, Center for International Cooperation, IRO, and certain faculties. These authorities seem to function is a de-coupled manner contributing to overall lack of success.
The non-integrated nature of both institutions has had consequences to internationalization process as faculties could effectively decide which actions of the central administration to implement. However, the awareness at the faculty level at UNS has been higher than at UNI, which is proven by the number of faculties that have IRO. The extent to which EM program has contributed to establishment of IRO at faculty level can hardly be precisely determined but their engagement has to some degree provided proof of their importance for internationalization process as suggested by interviews. Still, management support is still highly contributing factor for sustainability of any change or process. The critical mass at either institution has still not been reached as to generate strong-enough impetus for sustainable and irreversible change.
At both case institutions English teaching has been late to develop and only recently the faculties have started accrediting courses to teach in English. This shift can be contributed to EM program but also to upcoming Erasmus+. EM has, however, raised awareness with some institutions at to importance of English reaching. This is, again, more present at the faculties in Novi Sad, than in Nis. While at former the decision to accredit all programs in English was/will be made at the management level of the faculty, at Nis this seems to be more in planning or part of an individual effort. The course offer remains small due to low number of incoming students and lack of incentives for professors. Questions of whether the faculties will be able to realize teaching in English or it will remain offer on paper have been raised frequently at both institutions. Interviews suggest that, apart from management support, motivation and funding at both institutions are the main blocking factor in changing this situation. The funding scheme employed by the Ministry, only emphasizes the de-coupled nature of Serbian universities, which are rarely able to react as one entity (Spender & Grinyer, 1996).
UNI has started to put emphasis on international cooperation only after 2012 (IND, 2015) and has recently adopted some strategic documents. In that respect it has performed better than Novi Sad, which is still in the planning stages of internationalization strategy. However, that strategy needs to be put in practice, as one interviewee remarked “we always talk what we could do, but rarely what we did do” (UNS_6, 2015). Both institutions have high hopes for the participation in Erasmus+ and plan to use it to prioritize the internationalization process. Hopefully, some future research into the topic of influence of Erasmus+ program will be able to provide more evidence of actions than plans.
In a final conclusion: internationalization should not be understood as something that that happens in the international office, but rather as a cross-cutting issue that should be equally important for all segments of HEI, if the true internationalization is to be reached. Until this notion is able to spread from the top and spills over to the faculties, departments, every professor, assistant, as well as clerk, we can talk about it, we can invest a lot of hard work, we can create strategies, but we will not be able to fully internationalize. Yet, even if you could reverse the internationalization process, you will never end up where you started; or to paraphrase Alice in Wonderland: one cannot go back to yesterday because one was a different person then.
Considering that Serbia has still a long way ahead in the process of internationalization, this topic could and should be more researched. The participation in Erasmus+ program opens new opportunities, but at the same time will most likely uncover new issues. This thesis has mainly focused on one particular aspect of internationalization and future research may take the research in other directions. Numerous research opportunities present themselves from the state level and governance reform, to student view and experience (both domestic and foreign) in internationalization and moblity. Insight in human resource management and hiring practice at HEIs could also provide more evidence to support some argument made here. A more broad quantitative research could also be conducted based on the results of this thesis.
The opinion of the author, which is also pervading in the interviews, is that funding for internationalization is inadequate and that state lacks resources to increase it. However, purposeful redistribution of certain portions of funding could create impetus for change and direct HEIs towards other sources of funding. On the institutional level the main recommendations of the author are:
Future research on these topics and more hard data could help lead to research-driven policy making in the future.
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