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SOFIA, Bulgaria — Petar Stanchev is the kind of student Bulgaria needs to keep. Last year, according to the country’s Association of Private Universities, more than half of its college-bound students applied to institutions abroad. The 23-year-old planned to remain in this mountainous, verdant patch of southeastern Europe. For two years, working toward a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he showed up for classes in sociology and media at the prestigious Sofia University. The problem was, his teachers didn’t.

Bulgarian universities
Sofia University (Photo by Aleksander Dragnes)

“I had a French teacher who didn’t come to lectures for weeks as though it was normal,” he said. “There were whole groups of us who were waiting for a lecturer who didn’t even bother to send us an email or let us know.” Finally, last spring, Stanchev got so fed up that he left home for university in the United Kingdom.

Such problems have sparked a fiery struggle over the future of higher education here. Sergei Ignatov, the brash education minister of Bulgaria’s center-right government, is pushing a raft of market-based reforms aimed at raising quality, shining a light on moribund university programs, and stemming the tide of departing students. His most ambitious initiative is an online university ranking system, which allows students to figure out which programs will help them succeed in the job market.

“I think this is the most transparent and clearly structured university ranking system I’ve ever come across,” said the late Cyrus Reed, former provost of the American University in Bulgaria. “It’s really a major step forward.”

Lessons From Abroad

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Bulgaria’s neighbors are also experimenting with different approaches to improve their higher-education systems. In Romania, the government placed video cameras in high-school exam rooms to combat cheating. Under the camera’s watchful eye, passing rates on the university entrance exam plunged from 81 percent in 2009 to an all-time low of 45 percent in 2011. At South East European University in Macedonia, each professor and staff member is critiqued annually under a rigorous quality control system. Bulgaria, which joined the European Union five years ago, has earned the most praise, however, including a mostly laudatory report from the World Bank.

Still, Ignatov’s efforts have not been wholly welcomed. Critics fear that he wants to fully privatize the 274,000-student system, which includes 37 public and 14 private institutions. Protesters have haunted his three-year tenure, even carrying a black coffin with a mummy made to look like him. The stress, Ignatov said, made his hair fall out.

Bulgarians have reason to distrust the free market, which has offered it a bruising ride since the fall of Communism in 1989. The country escaped the wars that accompanied the break-up of its western neighbor, Yugoslavia, but its economic output plummeted. According to World Bank data, per capita GDP fell from $1,845 in 1988 to $1,373 in 1997, measured in constant dollars.

It took 15 years for GDP to climb back to its 1988 level, only to plunge again with the global economy in 2008. Even as budgets dried up and infrastructure crumbled, university enrollment rates have more than doubled since 1990. “All the quality of education in Bulgaria was destroyed,” Ignatov said of those years. “We lost a lot of ground.”

U.S. businesses look abroad

In the late twentieth century, Eastern Europe’s longest-serving ruler, Todor Zhivkov, presided over Bulgaria when its university system was a point of national pride. Tuition was free, entrance exams were tough, and the nation gained a reputation for technical excellence. Its graduates helped build the Eastern bloc’s first generation of personal computers, while the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences worked on satellite equipment and prepared cosmonauts for outer space.

Hewlett-Packard was sufficiently impressed with the country’s talent pool that in 2006 it opened a global support center here, the Bulgarian capital. The company needed 4,000 highly trained employees, so it forged relationships with three universities, including the public Sofia University, training professors and building state-of-the-art computer labs. High-performing instructors earned bonuses and the company hired many students right out of college.

One of them was Ivan Ivaylo, who was hired as an HP service delivery manager and program lecturer in 2008 following his graduation from Sofia University. There was initial skepticism about dropping Soviet-style lectures to learn from companies. Ivaylo recalled, “We had senior management from the university coming to see with their own eyes that this was working.”

The results are clear: to date, the classes have trained more than 1,000 students, with other companies like Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems, Inc. developing similar programs. They have helped Bulgaria become a magnet for high-tech outsourcing.

Sasha Bezuhanova, director of HP’s public-sector operations for Central and Eastern Europe, is eager to demonstrate the model’s potential. She envisions “an entire ecosystem around innovation” in which Bulgarian universities conduct research and companies like HP turn the results into marketable products—much as happens in Silicon Valley.

But here, too, are obstacles. Under Communist-era regulations, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences—not universities—held responsibility for high-end research. Last year, Ignatov got the law changed and began transferring funds to universities.

But many students, including Stanchev, object to the move. “Why would we basically destroy the Academy of Sciences, which has many successful projects?” he asked. “Create the environment for research, but don’t destroy something that’s already working.”

Rankings use tax and employment data from government

Ignatov is not afraid to challenge the status quo. He defends much-criticized university fee increases that were pushed through parliament without discussion. He dismantled a Soviet-era government commission that until 2010 held exclusive power to award doctoral degrees and professorships. Under the commission’s watch, one applicant returned from England bearing a newly minted degree from the University of Oxford, only to be informed he had to prove that such a university existed.

Ignatov is also pushing university rectors to set up independent governing boards and seek outside accreditation, rather than rely solely on a national body that deemed more than 90 percent of Bulgaria’s universities “good” or “very good” in its first round of ratings.

Ignatov is most proud of the online ranking system, unveiled two years ago. Reed, who served as provost of the American University in Bulgaria until his death from injuries suffered in a car accident in July, characterized the system as miles beyond the popular U.S. News & World Report rankings, because “in this case, they tell you exactly how they got it and they let you manipulate it yourself.” Users can also compare majors and programs according to their own priorities. Looking for professors who show up for class and forge relationships with students? Curious about which biology program is best at helping graduates find jobs? With a few clicks, students can find out.

Boyan Zahariev, program director for governance and public policies at the Open Society Foundations, a philanthropy run by George Soros, oversaw the creation of the ranking system. Zahariev’s team was frustrated by what they saw elsewhere: a hodgepodge of surveys that relied on subjective factors like a university’s reputation, rather than more objective measures of quality. Beginning in 2007, they began pursuing what some consider the Holy Grail of university ranking systems: solid information on student earnings following graduation. Armed with a government contract and extra funding from the European Union, they delved into a rich trove of government data on graduates’ tax payments and unemployment status.

The data don’t include actual salaries or account for graduates who take jobs outside Bulgaria, but they do show which university programs place the most graduates in upper-income brackets within Bulgaria. Such information can be difficult to access in many countries, even among government agencies, Zahariev said. Bulgaria protects privacy by aggregating the data and using an identifying number rather than a student’s name.

Some universities initially balked at requests for data on class size, library holdings, professor credentials and other factors in the rankings. But they knew they couldn’t stonewall a government project, and institutions often found that some of those details actually improved their rankings, Zahariev said.

That information is balanced by 15,000 student surveys administered by an outside research firm. It’s one thing to know the student-teacher ratio or the size of the library collection, but the surveys offer a real-world contrast, said the program coordinator Anita Baikusheva. Does your professor show up for class and make herself available for conferences? How useful is that big library collection?

The government is already using the ranking system to dole out precious supplemental funding. “My purpose is to introduce this more competitive way of financing universities, from excellent to bad,” Ignatov said. He added that though he doesn’t yet have the legal right to say so, “next year, maybe we’ll start to cut the finances of the bad institutions.”

Don Westerheijden, an expert on student information systems at the University of Twente in the Netherlands who acted as a consultant on the rankings, believes Bulgaria’s new system deserves a close look by other nations, including the United States. He knows of no other system that uses government tax or employment data to estimate the earning power of a college degree.

Stanchev, for his part, wishes the rankings had been in place when he was choosing a program—he might have chosen to remain in his native country.

This story also appeared on on September 26, 2012.

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