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A cradle of intellect

Interview - February 19, 2013
Professor Aleksa Bjeliš, Rector of the University of Zagreb (a global top 500 university), meets with PM Communications and shares his view on UZ’s merits and attraction for international students
The University of Zagreb (UZ) has been in existence since the late 1600s. It is the oldest university in South-eastern Europe. Kindly tell us a bit about its history and how it has contributed to Croatia’s educational development.   
UZ has a long and rich history. It has been in existence for over 350 years. It started out in 1669 as the Jesuit Academy of the Royal Free City of Zagreb, and evolved into the Royal Academy of Science (Regia Scientiarum Academia) during the late 18th century. It subsequently transformed into a modern university in the middle of the 19th century, with a strong inclination to research. We engaged people from the late Franz Josef’s empire, working with people from Austria, Hungary, and so on. It was the beginning of more than 150 years of science in Croatia. UZ was a kind of cradle for the development of Science, Arts, and Social Development. Croatia was a member of different political structures and states, and UZ was somehow the representative of the national strength, image, and vision (as well as the bearer of the national message).
UZ gradually introduced more and more disciplines; particularly, between those two World Wars, offering studies on medical, technical, and social sciences. During World War II, the creation of activities of the different faculties helped build highly skilled human resources for the development of the country during that period. 
Since Yugoslavia was quite open at the time, our people were able to make many connections with many universities in Western Europe and the US. We have many examples of these collaborations in the world of Science. Croatia has a lot of talented people who are brave enough to take on challenges. 
The last 25 years saw a lot of political changes. Croatia finally became an independent state. The university found itself taking on a new role, as it entered the higher education space. Apart from this university, we have 6 others—all of which have started their development with the help of UZ. We now have a network of universities and polytechnic institutions.  
How would you assess the size of your current student body? And how is the size indicative of the development of Croatia’s economy?
The percentage of students that we have is quite high. I would not say that. There are also other influences at play. We had the 2008/09 global recession, and the labour market is quite tough. Young people do not easily get jobs. A number of them had to miss secondary school then continue just to postpone unemployment. However, they do get some chances. The system, I would say, is currently getting organised. We have a lot of internal problems and unresolved issues. While they do have a hard time coming up with the funds for pursuing higher education, people are relatively enthusiastic about it. I would say that we have had some successes in terms of the outlook of the people. 
The university is comprehensive. It covers everything. It is among the truly comprehensive universities in Europe—from the arts to medicine, to theology, to technical sciences—everything.   
Free movement within the EU allows 1.5 million British citizens to study and work in the EU and London has the largest concentration of higher education in Europe. What advantages do you believe Zagreb has over other cities of British preference such as Paris, Rome or Madrid?
During the second half of the last century, we have had a lot of foreign students (more than 20% of whom has gone to Yugoslavia and the like). Because of the very good contacts/relationship that we have with Africa and the Middle East, many young people came here to study. They learned Croatian and got their degrees here. Now, they are in their senior years, they have their children and their grandchildren, and they think about sending these kids to Zagreb because they have very good memories of the place. We believe that we can do that.
Zagreb is so attractive because it is quite a pleasant city to live in. There are also lovelier cities by the coast, but Zagreb is quite organised in terms of culture, traffic, safety, and so on. It is not too large. Its size is just about right to fit the needs of the people. We would like to have more resources for further development as we strive to further improve our city. 
When it comes to education, we are now promoting international aviation studies, trying to increase the number of students. We would like to have more programmes in the coming years. There is also a campaign to further enhance English communications. We have English programmes. We are working on strengthening our finance and medical studies, and opening up a baccalaureate programme for engineering. We are looking to offer several courses under Life Sciences. 
Students who come here to study will find themselves enriched by the city’s culture, history and people. Croatia is a very good place. They can take their experience here with them after they have finished their courses in 3 to 5 years.       
Speaking of UZ’s English programme, we understand that it has a bilateral agreement with the University of Salford, and an MoU with the University of Sheffield. Would you be interested in pursuing similar arrangements with other British universities?
Yes, we would like to. In Europe, we have almost 300 agreements, altogether. We would like to increase our exchanges with the British universities. 
How would Croatia’s coming EU membership positively affect its higher education programs?
Through the country’s inclusion to the EU, we can expect more foreign students from the other member countries. Compared to other European countries, the cost of living and studying here is more affordable. That is why we have no problems attracting students in areas such as medicine. The cost of tuition and living here is about a third of what it would cost in the US, yet the quality of the programme is very good. We have students coming from all over the world—Canada, Europe and the US. 
Our continued efforts in ensuring the quality of our courses and maintaining our presence in the global science space, as well as the cost competitiveness of our programmes, make us well-positioned to offer high value to our students. 
What challenges do you face?
This recession is a challenge. We hope to increase our production. Sadly, there is an increasing number of gifted students going abroad because they do not have the desired conditions here. 
We are trying to find the initial funding for our programmes and research. We really have to fight for additional funding for research. In terms of the GDP, the allocation for research is really low. 
We are also organising our research. At the moment, we have a lot of fragmented research groups. 
If you look at the geographic map, all the countries from the former Soviet Union/Soviet Bloc comprise about 300 million people, of which not more than 8 to 10 universities have been included in the Top 500. At the same time, other parts of Europe such as Germany have many universities in the list. This imbalance in Europe largely has to do with funding. 
Unlike the US, Europe is comprised of many countries and cultures—not just confederate states. This is something that we need to understand, and give attention to. We should amplify technology, production and research. Universities like UZ have to contend with political issues. Much has to be understood about Croatian political structures. At the moment, there is a lot of focus on tourism, trade and infrastructure (specifically, roadwork). However, we also need to prioritise research and technology. We need to increase the support for research to achieve the necessary advancements that would make us less vulnerable to fluctuations in the external markets. 
Today, Croatia’s higher education institutions have adapted their study programmes to the Bologna Process and participate in a wide range of exchange programmes. Could you give us your valuation on the benefits and how the Bologna Process is making equivalent European and Croatian education system? 
The Bologna Process makes for a more developed kind of system in Europe, allowing students and professors to find the right way towards what they want to achieve much easily. The system is available for people at all stages, including those searching for jobs. Everything is open. It is very good. I personally think it is an achievement of European Policy, allowing students to easily find their way around the continent in an organised way. It is an opportunity that we did not enjoy before the implementation of this policy. Now, educators and students have better mobility within the European network.    
UZ was among the World’s Top 500 Universities in the 2011 Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities. What qualities have allowed the university to reach such an important rank?
UZ is a comprehensive institution in a lot of ways. We have a lot of research groups. In fact, research is a tradition, and we have several people strongly pursuing it. You can see it in the quality of our published scientific journals. If you publish your paper in Croatia, it has to be very good. This sort of quality is essential for any university’s survival.
This indicator shows that we are surviving. We are not just in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, but also other lists of the same nature, counted amongst the best 300 to 600 universities. Considering our struggle for funds, we have managed to be included in this list. That says a lot about what we can offer. 
What are your hopes for the university?
I hope that we would continue on this upward trend despite the effects of the global recession. I also hope that we get more funding to intensify our research and education programmes. 
I am always pleased with our young people who are taking their undergraduate/graduate/doctorate studies here. They are really hard-working and enthusiastic. They are devoted to research and quality.   

In addition you have been developing the Research Strategy 2008-2013 that aims to fortify your leading role by intensive participation in international research projects. Could you elaborate on some of the results this programme has given? 
One of the 2008/13 Research Strategy’s goals was to better organise fundamental research. As I have mentioned earlier, we have a lot of fragmented groups. We need to form a larger, more unified body and strengthen our roots to increase our competitiveness in the continent (particularly, when you talk about attracting European funds). 
The other aspect is at a university level. We are looking to address the fragmentation within the faculty. We hope to organize the structure to increase the effectiveness of our research programmes. 
We are strong in the Basic Sciences. We are now working on strengthening our Applied Sciences. 
In the spirit of encouraging entrepreneurship, we have a programme to introduce clever young people to companies, so that they can, in turn, open micro-companies that would eventually develop into more formidable medium-sized companies. After all, a lot of good firms start with a good idea. We are doing a lot of work in this regard. The business sector has been very cooperative. We have established good linkages. 
Finally, the strategy seeks to heighten our level of collaboration with the foreign universities and institutes. We have about 25 research institutes in Croatia, the largest of which is the Ruđer Bošković Institute (one of the big names in Croatian history and science). This world-renowned institute has about 400 to 500 researchers. We are trying to coordinate our activities with these organisations.    
You have had a lifelong dedication to the University of Zagreb, having studied your Bachelor in Physics here and started working in 1971. When you look backwards and you think what this University means to you. How do you feel, and what have your greatest achievements as rector been? 
When I was a young researcher, it was in a different time. Now, we are more open. There is more room for mobility. I visited a lot of countries (Russia, Japan, France, Canada, the US, etc.), and had witnessed some good collaborations. I have established a good international network of friends and colleagues. Research was good. Some would say that the university is one of the beacons of Physics in South-eastern Europe. We have a presence in the global sciences space. We participated in several projects, including nanotechnologies. I was able to participate at the time, when it was still at its infancy.   
I guess, you can say, research is a huge part of my life. I do some teaching from time to time, as required. It is always fun and rewarding to interact with these young people.