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Sergei Ignatov was appointed Minister of Education, Youth and Science for the Republic of Bulgaria in November 2009. He previously served as deputy education minister, president of New Bulgarian University in Sofia, and professor of Egyptology at the University of Sofia. The Hechinger Report spoke with Minister Ignatov about how the Bulgarian higher-education system has changed since the end of Communism, and how the country is moving to ensure quality across its institutions of higher learning.
Lessons From Abroad
This story is part of The Hechinger Report’s ongoing series on what the U.S. can learn from higher education in other countries.
Q: Part of the challenge for nations and universities in Eastern Europe is to move beyond the Soviet model of teaching, where someone is lecturing at the front of the room and it’s just a question of imparting knowledge. How do we know schools and universities are providing quality?
A: From one point of view, the educational system [in Bulgaria] is good. Because, for example, our school-leavers are between the excellent students of Germany, [and] the United States and France. The biggest group of international students in Germany is Bulgarians; the second position is occupied by China.
But the system now is still conservative. We inherited from the Soviet system the model of management of universities and the model of development of academic staff. Two years ago, my first step was to change the development of academic staff. We had a central qualification commission belonging to the government… This commission was designed by Stalin himself in the Soviet Union in the ’30s, and after World War II we inherited this system… If you wanted to defend your Ph.D. thesis, you had to go in front of this commission, not in front of your department. And this commission made a decision to give or not give you a Ph.D. It depended on your personality, whether you got your diploma in two or three years…
Now we have this new act, and I’m very proud because every university—there are 51 universities in Bulgaria—now has its own autonomy. Every department has the right to establish a jury for Ph.D. theses and professorships. Now all of this becomes the job of university authorities, and the minister of education is no longer responsible for these procedures.
But it’s striking that it took until 2011 to do it. It was a real struggle, wasn’t it?
We had a two-year struggle. I had in front of this window two or three thousand representatives of the academic community of Bulgaria. They carried one black coffin with my mummy in it. They used to say that this commission guaranteed the quality of higher education and research in Bulgaria…
The next step in this field was to create a national research strategy, because the Bulgarian research system is very fragmented. After World War II, there was a decision by the Communist Party to divide the research work from the universities, and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences were transformed into this Soviet model. And according to this ideology, all research work is in the academy, and [not] in universities, which is the second or third level of education for future teachers and bureaucrats and so on…
But the university should be the place where we do research, create knowledge and deliver this knowledge to our students. We divided the finance of fundamental research and more practical research. And now, because this is an act of parliament, only 15 percent of public finance goes for fundamental work. And we sent this money on to the universities. The Academy of Sciences can receive the money if it works with, for example, departments or different structures of universities. I suppose with two acts we managed to destroy this Soviet system.
Bulgaria’s national accreditation agency found that the majority of universities were “very good.” And it took them 10 years to reach that conclusion. How does your new, online university ranking system help?
The national agency of quality and accreditation—this is a good instrument, but it works in an old-fashioned way. There is no discussion in this commission of what happens with the students or what happens with them after they graduate… The national accreditation system, they’re professors in Bulgarian universities. We all know each other, we’re friends. This is a problem… The problem of quality assurance is—I can say this, but it will be a scandal—I believe the right way is to say that every university should have independent accreditation from Europe or the United States…
The new ranking system is a big step, because now we know what happens with everyone after graduating: what kind of work is he doing, what is his salary, what is his future, what is his connection with the mother university. This ranking system is very important because we can investigate even the level of market [penetration] in the regions, and what is the influence of universities in that region…
When we introduced this ranking system, we also changed the system of finance for our universities. Last year in June, we decided to give 10 percent more to … excellent departments, not excellent universities. Because the system is trying to [recognize] not which university occupies the first position in Bulgaria, but which department in arts, economics, history or philosophy. And with the budget of 2012 we’re [giving] 25 percent more to these excellent establishments… My purpose is to introduce this more competitive way of financing universities, from excellent to bad.
I’ve heard some talk of people being frustrated about the increase of student fees happening very quietly at the last minute.
If you have cheap education, you don’t have any education. But here is the problem of responsibility for public finance. Because it depends on university authorities. The average fee will be about 300 or 400 Euros per year. I suppose that political parties from the left positions will now try to speak through students about raising the fees. Of course education [is] very expensive… But we have to change the mentality, because according to our parents and grandparents, it is not good to go to the bank to [borrow for education].
The question is, what are their goals? You believe you have this great future, and if you have this great future, I don’t believe that 2,000 Euros for five years is a big change. This comes from the time of socialism, [the idea] that education and medicine are free of charge. I don’t believe that… But now raising prices is in the hands of the rectors of the universities. They can make this decision, for example, for academic achievers or [those with financial problems] not to pay. But what to do with the student who’s staying at the university for 15 years? This is a public institution, and right now the taxes pay for this excellent life on the campus.
It seems like part of the challenge is giving people, or institutions, without much knowledge of how things work in other parts of the world some exposure to that.
Speaking about quality, after the changes [of 1990] we lost a lot of the quality of education. All society, all of the community of Bulgaria was destroyed…
The problem not only in Bulgaria but even in Romania is the transformation from closed society to open society, and from closed community to open university community. It takes time. Because Bulgaria 22 years ago was a very closed society, and I suppose there were a lot of changes for those 22 years… At the beginning of the changes, I was 29 years old. I believed that in three or five years, Bulgaria would be a normal, Western country. But it needs time. There is a need for a change of generations. It’s not possible to change the mentality.
… But I suppose the discussion is more normal now than two years ago. When we started on the first day, changing this mentality, it was terrible. Even for my personal life. Because I had, during the nights, discussions here on what will happen. They said [that] I and the minister of finance had the purpose to kill education, kill the Academy of Sciences, kill research. It wasn’t easy.
Now we know what to do… Because the problem in Bulgaria is we don’t have communities and the society is not very active, because of these feelings from the past. People still believe the government is responsible for all things. We have to change this.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.