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THE DEMOCRATISATION OF BULGARIA'S POSTTOTALITARIAN UNIVERSITY SYSTEM


Vladimir Chukov, Pavleta Krasteva, Evgeni Tsonev and Mak Stanchev



    With the transition from totalitaran to a democratic society, and from centrally planned to market economy in Bulgaria, there has been a shift in the principles underlying its higher education system as well. Competitiveness in terms of knowledge, skills, and professional adaptability are of the utmost importance in a market environment.
    The necessity emerged for the post-1947 model of five-year-long narrow specialization to be rejected in favor of returning to the model of four-year broad-based study. The information society poses new requirements for university graduates. Radical changes are vital in higher education: from elitist to mass-scale; from comparatively short- term to life-long; from narrowly specialized to broad-based qualification guaranteeing professional mobility.
    Academic autonomy in universities was unknown under the Communist regime, within its centrally-governed university system. In 1990, the Grand National Assembly passed the Act of University Autonomy. This Act determined the nature of subsequent processes in higher education, similar to those in other European countries, including an increase and diversification in the number of specialties and a restructuring of the national university system.
    Thus conditions are being created for fuller integration of Bulgaria into European-wide education structures and programs, as well as drawing Bulgarian university legislation closer to that of the European Community.
    The first democratic changes in higher education after 1989 took place with the amendments to the Act of Higher Education in 1990 and 1992. The next crucial step was in December 1995 when for the first time ever it was promulgated that no privileges or restrictions should be tolerated in higher education in relation to age, race, ethnicity, gender, social background, political or confessional views.
    The new Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria (Article 23) promulgated as well that "The state creates conditions for, and promotes the free development of science, education, and the arts". The above concept underlies Article 8, paragraph 2 of the Act of Higher Education (AHE), according to which the state guarantees the academic autonomy of universities.
    Since 1996, the AHE has been developing unified state requirements, and in 2002, delineated the fields of academic study and set the standards for professional accreditation in higher education.
    After the AHE was passed in 1995, there followed some changes in the procedure of appointing university teaching staff. According to the old Act, the Ministry of Education and Science had central control of staff appointments, whereas now each university has individual authority over recruitment.
    Another change that took place with the AHE concerns the composition of the University Governing Boards. Whereas the former structure comprised the Chancellor, the Vice - Chancellors, the Faculty Deans, the secretaries of the local Party structures, representatives of the Faculties and students, now the participants are as follows: the Chancellor, the Vice - Chancellors, the Faculty Deans, and the Chairman of the Students' Council.
    In 1999, for the first time with an Act of Parliament were determined the other constituent units of higher schools besides the Faculty: the Department, the Extension Programs, the College, the Chair, as well as the Institute (a unit comprising academic staff for supplementary research). Also in 1999, Article 34a of the AHE provided a body for internal control within the university, the Supervisory Council.
    The system of higher education includes the following three degrees: Bachelor, Master and Doctor. In addition, the degree of "expert" was introduced for college graduates with a minimum period of education of 3 years.
    Thus Bulgarian higher education conclusively parted with the totalitarian model based on the Soviet educational concept. According to Article 36 of the AHE, aiming at reinforcing the democratic spirit of the Act, private universities may have different structures and ways of management or of determining the governing bodies as long as academic liberties are not violated.
    For the first time after 1989, a National Agency of Accreditation was established to assess the quality of higher schools, its functioning being organized by the state.
    In 1996, by a number of government decrees, were adopted the unified state requirements for acquiring a degree (Bachelor's or Master's) in all university specialties. The main purpose was to put a stop to the excessive commercialization of educational services. At the same time, the unified state requirements threaten to undermine the idea of a flexible and mobile system as they have led to the increase in the percentage of compulsory courses. In any case, the unified state requirements regulate the process, and not its final result, and that seems to be the major drawback.
    The new democratic Constitution adopted in 1991sanctioned private, along with state, universities in Bulgaria. Consequently, a number of private educational institutions were established, including 5 private universities. The extraordinary growth of the network of state and private universities, colleges, and faculties may have been an adequate response to market demands, but it is quite possible that in the future, the negative demographic tendency and unattractive economic conditions may cause a significant reversal in this trend. The culmination was reached in 1995/6 when, as a consequence of the academic autonomy granted to universities, as many as 14 law and roughly 20 economic faculties and colleges were opened, with 75,000 and 80,000 students respectively.
    The ways of financing universities are as follows:

  1. financial aid;
  2. aid from local councils;
  3. donations;
  4. wills;
  5. inheritance;
  6. sponsorship.

    State universities only are granted subsidies by the state budget, but they are extremely insufficient. Universities can be self-financed through:

  1. revenues from research, consulting, artistic, curative and sports activities, as well as from rights over industrial property, royalties, etc.;
  2. revenues from application and tuition fees;
  3. other activities related to the teaching process.

    Another way of financing is participation in international programs sponsoring particular projects as well as gifted students. At present, Bulgaria is involved in the following international programs: Sixth Framework Program 2000-2006, NATO, Fifth Framework Agreement 1998-2002, COST, Young Talents 2002, European Science Foundation, INTAS 2000-2001, SCOPES 2002-2003, Jean Monnet Project, Ministry of Flemish Society Project, Projects of the World Bank, PHAR and CEEPUS.
    The gradual transition to the European credit transfer system (ECTS) required by the Socrates Program will secure at least partial international mobility. This mobility, however, affects our economy in an adverse way: the best young specialists leave Bulgaria, seeking (and finding) realization in other countries.
    In 2002, the Minister of Economy launched the initiative of organizing summer internships and specialization for students in this country or abroad. Thus they were given the opportunity to prove themselves in the labor market, both internally and internationally. On its part, the Open Society local branch has been funding students grants abroad and other projects while the American University in Bulgaria traditionally helps its best students continue their education in the USA.
    The Bulgarian state is seeking to take the appropriate steps (and means) to fight the lowered quality of higher education. For the first time ever in Bulgaria, AHE assessment and accreditation was introduced at a national level in 1995, as part of building a quality university system. The Council of Ministers oversees the National Agency for Assessment and Accreditation (NAAA), which consists of 23 members. Following the amendments from 2 July 1999, the assessment and accreditation procedures in progress were suspended. This is how the work of the first Accreditation Council of the NAAA was concluded. The new Accreditation Council consists only of a President and eight members.
    The institutional accreditation ensures that universities are structured and function as required by the AHE, and that there are the proper quality-guaranteeing mechanisms.
    The program accreditation assesses the potential of the specialty and the outcome of the training, the main purpose being determining the level and improving the quality of the process. Bulgaria is applying the British model of accreditation, which employs a system of ratings based on the level of research work, quality of teaching staff, etc… Initially however, accreditation in Bulgaria was considered as a means by which the state would get rid of inefficient and unnecessary universities and specialties. Unfortunately, universities looked upon assessment and accreditation as something external, imposed from above, and not as a means of self-regulation and improving its quality. This attitude contributed to the formal character of the procedure during the first stage. The end result of imposed and overly formalized accreditation procedures (real or perceived), was the devaluation of any set of national standards and criteria, and in general, an undermining of the desired goal to improve the quality of education in Bulgaria.
    The accreditation process seemed to be more successful during the second stage; however, for objective and subjective reasons, it developed at a very slow pace. The encouraging aspect of this process is the shared view that moving Bulgarian educational standards closer to European procedures of accreditation is a necessity.
    The NAAA is playing a decisive role for achieving a new stability and a shared understanding of the tasks and responsibilities of university/State relationships. Market mechanisms also have an impact on the higher education system, which reflect the changing needs of Bulgaria. The information to be published by the NAAA will contribute to market-orientated policies. Although state control is not as strict as in the past, the continuing dependence of most universities on state subsidies presupposes the need of efficient distribution mechanisms and a better accountability. Obviously, the NAAA will take part in both. Universities will continue to change at a rapid pace in response to both developments in science and changes in social needs. The NAAA is both a means of encouraging changes and supervising the outcome.
    The NAAA is the basic provider of information which creates a wide range of possibilities and standards for a richer and more varied system of higher education. With the proper financial support, the NAAA could become a key institution facilitating relationships among universities, the State, and the Bulgarian society.
    The quality of higher education is closely related to university teaching staffs. The proportion in number of teaching staff to that of students is quite below average compared to that of EU countries. In addition, there is a marked tendency of aging faculties throughout the country. Considering young people's weakened interest in academic careers for different reasons, we can anticipate a 'habilitation' crisis of the whole system before long.
    The universities' capacity for research is also more limited. Financial means for research and development constitute an insignificant part of their budgets. Furthermore, Bulgaria inherited the Soviet model of dividing science into university science, and science developed in the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAN). The latter possesses the better part of the financial as well as human resources in the country. Therefore, the Ministry of Education should develop an efficient mechanism to integrate universities and BAN institutes.
    The way of conferring the academic ranks remains the last totalitarian bastion within slowly democratized university system in the country. As far as the highest academic ranks are linked to social and administrative favors conservative pattern is still safeguarded since Communist era. As a matter of fact, current and still on place in Bulgaria regulations in this academic realm is stemmed from mediaeval Russia. So, strictly centralized regulating system is not ideological product, but invention of an autocratic political regime. It seems that it relies on East European dictatorship, which enforced its political monopoly upon spiritual, not only upon material and administrative fields of life. In such a way, Russian tzars (especially Peter I) invented state body, which principal duty was to refer academic ranks to scholars lecturing in remote (from Moscow) areas. Political loyalty was included among the list of requirements and criteria for obtaining highest academic rank. Another quit characteristical clue for this academic body non-democratic nature revealing is the fact that in the same time and by the same Russian ruler was built the Holy Synod institution. The latter was designed to implementing political control upon the Church and to promote highest clerics' privileges. Thus, the considered academic body provided similar functions and ensured congenial favors to the highest ranked scholars. It maintained the conservative-elitist character of academic profession.
    The problem of reproducing university faculties is a key problem of the system's development. Since a part of the problem is of a legislative nature, it is necessary to pass a new Act of Academic Degrees and Ranks creating favorable conditions for career development of scholars in Bulgaria.
    Under the totalitarian regime, conferring degrees and ranks occurred with the permission of the respective party organ. The party- state interfered directly by building parallel party structures at all levels of the higher education system. In spite of the increasing academic autonomy of higher schools after 1989, there are still preconditions for post-totalitarian development.
    Conferring degrees and ranks still takes place through a complicated, slow, and clumsy procedure. Although the Act of Academic Degrees and Ranks has been amended five times since 1989, no significant changes have occurred in actual fact. There has been considerable resistance among the senior faculty members, who have been consistently supported by all successive governments during the period in question. In addition, the Supreme Attestation Commission, consisting of a Presidium and academic subcommittees in the respective fields or specialties, has maintained its position of power, and has been slow to accept necessary changes.
    It is imperative to create favorable conditions that attract quality young people capable of developing in their respective fields, and make possible long-term career commitments within the sphere of higher education.
    A comparative study would be the main methodological approach. The research team aims to make in use it on two levels: firstly, a study in details different European models higher education models, especially British, German and French one; secondly, overseeing higher education development of countries with similar economic, political and social problems e.g. states in transition. A parallel study of Romania or other post-Communist countries would be very useful for better completing appropriate recommendations in the fields of legal basis improvement, objective accreditation pushing forward and especially radical shift of the Act of Academic Degrees and Ranks. Special attention and detailed research would be conducted in and practical recommendations would be provided to the way of conferring academic degrees and ranks as it remains the last threadbare, totalitarian spot within post-Communist Bulgarian higher education system.
    The expected outcome of the following proposal is drafting a book outlining theoretical pattern for further Bulgarian university' education development. The research will be based on the historical traditions, the accumulated roughly one-century academic experience, the local post-totalitarian peculiarity and European Union aspirations' impact. The collective work would include information from a wide-range personal contacts and meetings with officials and experts of Ministry of Education and Science, parliamentary commission of Education and Science, field adviser of the President of Republic of Bulgaria, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and representatives of NGOs working in the field. The colleague Nikolai Yovchev would certainly contribute with his experience in Westminster University in UK in striving to compare both British and Bulgarian models of university education and in tracing European perspective for Bulgarian university system.