Cash-starved and hopelessly out of date, Bulgaria's universities need a major overhaul, but the government only offers half-measures
Asen Tzonev got his first taste of Bulgarian higher education in March when he attended a lecture as part of an Internet technology course at St. Kliment Ohridski University in Sofia.
"It was depressing. I looked around [and saw] 20 computers, of 20 different brands and configurations, wretched desks, high ceilings, gloomy yellowish light, and a professor who speaks only of theory. ... I was in the most prestigious Bulgarian university."
Tzonev, 23, is a Bulgarian who earned a graduate degree at London City College. He now lives in Sofia, working for the Japanese embassy.
Most disturbing, Tzonev said, was the professor's remark, "Do you buy things over the Internet? You should. Believe me, the future belongs to electronic trade. I've personally never done it because I'm not very good with computers, but trust me - that's where the future is."
Alarming as it may sound, Tzonev's experience was not unusual. Just ask Ivaylo Vasilev, who graduated from the same institution, which is also known as Sofia University, last year with a degree in economics.
"The professors were absent for at least one-third of the lectures," he said. "None of them even tried to remember a student's name. The textbooks were 10 years out of date. None of the professors made an effort to get up to date in their field or to use real-life examples. Eighty percent of the lectures were dictations. The most important lesson I got was that if I don't have the initiative, no professor will inspire me or introduce me to current economic trends."
Like Tzonev and Vasilev, many students, employers, educators, and experts say Bulgarian higher education is in crisis and that it could drag the country down with it. A new reform proposal from the Education Ministry that would give universities more freedom - and responsibilities - is a small but crucial step, they say.
THE REAL WORLD
It's difficult to rate and compare the country's institutions, as there are no statistics on graduate placements and salaries. But no Bulgarian university appears among a highly respected list of the world's 500 best, compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Institute of Higher Education.
A common complaint from employers is that even graduates with a solid academic grounding need an on-the-job education in practical matters.
"The current boom in the economy suffers from the lack of a competent labor force," said Ivo Prokopiev, president of Bulgaria's Confederation of Employers and Industrialists.
Likewise, Sasha Bezuhanova, manager of HP Bulgaria and vice president of the employers group, said, "Most often the people who graduate have to be pre-qualified. And this is a waste of resources."
"What we studied at the university had nothing to do with the business realities," said Petar Zumbulev, director of training for the Bulgarian office of software developer SAP. Zumbulev, a graduate of Sofia University, says his most valuable training came as a result of starting at SAP as a freshman.
More young Bulgarians are abandoning the system. According to UNESCO data, 10,024 Bulgarian students were enrolled in foreign universities in 1999. Today, the number is 54,000.
The reasons for the decline all depend on where you sit.
Bojan Biolchev, the rector of Sofia University, believes the solution is simple. "The problem of Bulgarian higher education is the acute shortage of money. Therefore, the only solution is [for a] greater percentage of the GDP to be allocated to the universities."
Some economists and employers, on the other hand, say the problem is not the amount of money but the way the Education Ministry doles it out to universities. They say the current, centralized system of financing, through which the ministry determines tuition fees and allocates money, eliminates competition among schools.
"Universities need more financial autonomy," said Georgi Angelov, an economist at the Open Society Institute in Sofia. "They should be responsible for their own incomes and expenses, and not complain to the government that they can't pay their central heating bills. Thus they would put the money into better schedules, professors who keep up with their fields, and better equipment to attract students. The best universities will have greater incomes, mainly from tuition fees and projects, and the worse will disappear."
Since 1996 the law on higher education has been amended more than 20 times, creating a patchwork that lacks an overall picture.
During the last 17 years of transition, governments have refused to increase substantially the subsidy to the universities, arguing that it is pointless to pour money into a broken system. At the same time, no government has tried to fix it.
The minister of education, Daniel Valchev, has repeatedly called for reforms. In late March, he unveiled a draft law on higher education that stresses liberalization, transparency, autonomy, and competition.
Valchev said the strategy is still subject to negotiations, but on one subject he was firm, saying, "Higher education needs a radical change in its method of financing." Valchev said universities need much more money to be competitive, but it cannot come from the state. Therefore, he said, the additional funding would have to come from tuition fees and new university projects.
Currently, all students pay fees determined by the Education Ministry. For example, an economics student pays 100 euros per year, and studying law costs 125 euros. Valchev has suggested that universities set their own tuition fees, beginning this fall, as long as the amounts do not exceed what the ministry calculates would be the actual cost of educating a student, usually 500 euros to 4,000 euros, depending on the major.
The introduction of tuition fees - higher than the nominal amounts paid now by students - has been controversial in some European countries. The idea provoked protests in Slovakia and Russia, and polls in the Czech Republic consistently show a majority opposed. Still in the talking stage, Valchev's plan has not yet elicited such a backlash.
The ministry's proposal also would allow universities to determine how many students to admit. According to Valchev 50,000 places go unfilled each year because subsidies do not cover the costs of educating them. Even the new system, however, would include a cap on the number of students admitted.
But economist Angelov says these are half-measures. Limits on fees and the number of students would be set by the market in a truly liberalized system, he said.
Angelov also suggests that per-student subsidies do not go to the universities but instead follow students.
Critics say the current system, restricted as it is by state funding, creates stagnation because the number of placements at each university tends to remain stable. Subsidies, therefore, tend to be handed out along the same lines each year. If universities were able to admit more students, and those students brought money with them, schools would be forced to compete with one another, according to this argument. Presumably, the schools that would win out would be those that could offer a more practical and contemporary education.
Valchev agrees with this argument but says complete reform will take time. "I am sure that this will happen in the long term, but I am also sure that the system is not ready to accept it today."
The rector of New Bulgarian University, Sergei Ignatov, calls Valchev's proposal "the best thing that has happened to Bulgarian higher education since the mid-1990s. I'll be extremely happy if it turns into a law."
But some people cannot wait that long.
Tzonev, who is about to pursue a master's degree, says he has not decided where he will go, but one thing is certain. "It won't be in Bulgaria. I don't want to emigrate. I just want a good education."
Those in the system usually cite inadequate state funding. Each year the government funds each university based on how many students attended the previous year. In 2006, government funding for Bulgaria's 53 universities amounted to about 131 million euros. Nearly 260,000 students are enrolled this year, or about 3.4 percent of the population.
According to data from the Education Ministry, Bulgaria spends 0.8 percent of its GDP on higher education. That compares with the EU average of 1.2 percent, 2.3 percent in Canada, and 2.6 percent in the United States. Public money spent on a student per year in higher education in Bulgaria amounts to about 1,100 euros, according to the ministry. It's 8,600 euros in the rest of the EU and 20,000 euros in the United States.