“I’ll soon acquire a Master’s Degree from Sarajevo University, and I plan to enroll in the secondary medical school. I’ll be done with it in a year or two. Afterwards I’d be able to go to Germany more easily.”
– D.M. Bachelor of Philology, 26 years old, June 2015.
My brother, who graduated from the Medical University in Serbia, recently moved to Germany. He finds Germany to be a highly enriching environment for improving his professional skills. He will be staying there for the next five years — working, studying and earning money that he wouldn’t be able to get in 10 years in Serbia. Two of my friends, who are extraordinary students of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, have moved to Germany without a second thought. Another friend of mine, who completed her masters studies in Belgrade, has moved to Hamburg where she will be working on her PhD for the next three to four years.
They are all part of a well-educated generation of young people who are leaving Serbia in order to acquire additional education abroad. Whether they will return remains questionable. But what seems sure is that a brain-drain is underway.
There are three main driving forces: firstly, the low quality of education in Serbia; secondly, the prospect of acquiring an international diploma, which is perceived as a ‘green light’ for a well paid job abroad, or even upon return home; and lastly, the idea of student mobility as a legal way to gain permanent residence in the European Union.
The ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors for student migrations seem to be complementary; and are mirrored by the state of the respective economies.
Low Education Quality
One of the factors that has challenged higher education in Serbia is the educational reforms initiated by the EU within the framework of the Bologna Declaration. Serbia signed the Bologna Declaration in 2003 and full implementation began in 2005. By 2006, the first generation of Serbian students began their studies according to Bologna.
Based on this framework, Serbian education is a part of the European Higher Educational Area, which means a modernization — and Europeanization — of the Serbian educational system. The most visible reform of the Bologna Declaration is seen through the enforcement of the ECTS credits system, but also through reforms of the curricula. The central aim of ECTS is to make national systems of education more compatible with those of other countries in the EU. As such, ECTS allows students to easily move between different countries, as students can transfer their ECTS credits from one university to another.
The way that the ECTS system works is that for an entire year, the maximum that a student can achieve is 60 ECTS credits. It the student passes at least 48 ECTS credits, the following academic year will be financially covered by the University; if a student doesn’t reach the 48 credits, they are obliged to pay 20 euros for each transferred credit. Students that don’t pass the 48 ECTS credits, also need to pay enrollment fees that range from anywhere between 700 and 2,000 euros. Many students see this as a rip off.
In almost every year since the Bologna Declaration was implemented, the beginning of the school year, in October and November, has been met by student protests. They block the university entrance and protest about what they perceive as theft from students. The protests tend to call for lower enrollment fees, more exam periods and a better quality of education, or at least for the reasonable implementation of Bologna. Some more radical initiatives also call for the reversal of the Bologna Declaration.
“Knowledge is not a commodity,” read a famous banner from the student protests held in Belgrade in 2012, when students of the Faculty of Philosophy carried out a high profile blockade that lasted for more than a month. Two years later, at the beginning of the 2014/2015 academic year, the same action was taken by students of the Faculty of Philosophy, the Faculty of Political Science and the Faculty of Philology.
But today, the banner can be seen as a trampled black and white newspaper. Knowledge is a commodity, and faculties function as business factories. And following protests, everything quickly returns to the status quo. Graffiti is washed off the walls, posters torn down, padlocks disassembled, and all the while, students continue to pay for everything.
Better Quality of International Diplomas
In March of this year, the Serbian government adopted the National Youth Strategy 2015-2025, which aims to establish principles for the development of social standards for youth, and better employability and professional mobility on the basis of international cooperation. This strategy sets out to establish methods of developing a healthy environment for young people to study and work, to feel secure and to be motivated to actively participate in social and economic life. But this strategy, which at its core aims to contribute to cultural, educational and living standards, fails to properly address the alarming facts about ‘brain drain’ and ‘brain waste’ in Serbia.
There are 97 faculties within Serbia’s public university, which enrolls around 32,000 students a year. On top of that, there are another 100 private universities, each enrolling around 1,600 students a year, according to 2014 statistics from the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia.
Currently, 50 percent of the population of Serbia is unemployed, with unemployment amongst the youth (those aged 15 to 24) at 41.7 percent. On top of that, 84 percent want to emigrate, and around 12,000 people between the ages of 25 and 38 are leaving Serbia on annual basis. Although the government states that such numbers were taken into account during the drafting of the National Youth Strategy, issues of ‘brain drain’ and ‘brain waste’ are completely lacking in this 10-year plan.
In this light, there is a general lack of confidence in the government’s ability to improve living and working conditions. New opportunities for studying abroad are not seen as part of a coherent ‘brain circulation’ or ‘brain gain’ strategy within Serbia. With such a strategy, money and education invested in a student during the time of study abroad would be returned to the home country through exchange of gained knowledge and multicultural skills.
There have been some small steps in Serbia in this regard, supported by the Serbian diaspora, local NGOs and state institutions, which are aiming to develop so-called brain circulation. There are also a number of laws that are supposed to help highly skilled workers to return home, including: the Law on Diaspora and Serbs in the Region, the Law on Foundations of the Educational System and the Law on Labor. However, there is still no clear evidence of their success. One predominant challenge is a lack of credible data about people leaving Serbia to study abroad, which in return hinders proper management of the situation.
In the meantime, students returning with international diplomas face many hurdles — the main one being recognition of their diploma, which requires an extremely labored (and often expensive) bureaucratic process. Also, the national framework for qualifications, which should make the necessary links between education and the labor market, does not recognize the skills of people who studied abroad and want to apply for a job in Serbia.
At the opening ceremony of the Future Generation of Erasmus Mundus Students from Serbia conference in July 2015, Marija Filipovicc-Ozegovic from Tempus (an EU program designed to help the process of educational reforms), said that from October 2015 a new law on diploma recognition will come into force. Through this law, every request for foreign diploma recognition should be approved within one month. However, the reality on the ground remains to be tested.
In the meantime, many Serbian students are opting for exchange and mobility programs.
Research from the European Commission for 2014 showed that Erasmus students have a better chance of employment than non-mobile students (those who lack study abroad experience). Empirical results from the 2010 VALERA study on the professional value of erasmus, showed that in terms of career prospects, students from Southeastern and Central European countries profit more strongly from an Erasmus stay than students from Western Europe.
They suggested that there are two closely interrelated factors that play a major role: Firstly, Erasmus participation is highly desired. Secondly, Southeastern European countries are relatively new to the programme, so the Erasmus experience will more often be considered as a unique feature on a graduate’s CV.
The VALERA surveys also showed that the study abroad experience has gone from being an outstanding experience to a prerequisite for young graduates. It is a door-opener into the labor market; VALERA showed that more than 70 percent of former Erasmus students are satisfied with their current job, and that they didn’t have to wait for appropriate employment for longer than a few months.
While to some extent a myth has developed about ‘students abroad’ being more worthy than domestic students, studying outside of Serbia is clearly not only about the international diploma in itself any more. It is also about the experience and assumed European values that a student gains during their studies. With employers valuing such experience, this has also become a ‘push’ factor for migration.
Education as a Legal Way to Migrate
While education abroad can help to open doors back in Serbia, it is seen by many as a legal way out. The socio-anthropological paper, “International Student Migration and European ‘Year Abroad: Effects on European Identity and Subsequent Migration Behaviour,” shows that after spending a year abroad, students develop “migratory behavior”; they are more open to continue living abroad in an EU country.
The migratory trend for skilled workers is nothing new. Historically, one of the sectors in which this has been most apparent is the medical sector, which has been subject to migratory trends since the 1960s, when around 10,000 medical workers left Serbia for Germany and Switzerland. This came to a halt in the early 1990s, as the wars in former Yugoslavia erupted, and migration from this region was merely based on escaping from conflict and war.
But almost two decades later, educated and qualified people are once again seeking a way out. This should be no surprise considering that according to data from the Institute of Public Health of Serbia, more than 2,000 Faculty of Medicine graduates are jobless.
One of the most common ways for student migration is through student mobility, seen as the latest phenomenon that has been partly encouraged by the internationalization of education. Across fields, graduated students are applying for European mobility programs with the purpose of staying in their chosen country.
Even the young people who already have a master’s degree are often applying for a second one in some EU country with a clear migratory plan behind it. After a year or two of studying in one of the EU countries, a student has an opportunity to develop a network of necessary contacts in order to get a job in the country where he or she studied. And many are opting for this solution.
Many students at the Future Generation of Erasmus Mundus Students from Serbia conference, were expressing the will to leave.
“When I’m almost done with my studies, I plan to get a good marriage arrangement in the country of my studies abroad [Germany],” said a student of the Faculty of Law from Belgrade.
Another Serbian student enrolled at the Faculty of Political Science in Vienna said: “Students who believe that they can find a decent job in Serbia have all my respect, but to be honest, I don’t think that my return home is imminent.”
Seen in this light, and given the challenges facing graduates in Serbia, a set of coherent policies is required in order to make the prospect of a career at home more attractive to the country’s brightest young minds.