Can We Address the “Mega” Issues? Why the Leadership of Public Universities Must Not Ignore the “Megatrend” Case

Even if the Minister of Interior resigns and his resignation is followed by that of both the Minister of Education and the Rector of Megatrend University, indeed, even if the entire government falls, higher education in Serbia will most likely remain just as it was the day before all the news about plagiarized PhDs went viral. That is, unless we don’t take this as an opportunity to look closer and do better.

Academic plagiarism and the validity of academic credentials have been given a lot of attention in recent weeks, or at least much more than one could have expected, especially in the aftermath of a major natural catastrophe that befell the people of  Serbia. Had it not been for several dedicated and brave individuals, many in Serbia would still be oblivious to terms like plagiarism, academic code of ethics, references, citation, or, for more attentive observers, the structure of the University of London, Megatrend University’s shady offshore businesses or the fact that its Rector and de facto owner had not one but two PhD degrees. Well, at least one. Maybe.

Of all the actors in this story, here we shall talk the least about the Rector of Megatrend, the Minister of the Interior, Prime Minister, or even the Minister of Education. This article is devoted to those who have not really been in the spotlight in recent weeks and who’ve unfortunately remained largely silent. Make no mistake, it is the public universities and their leaders that we are talking about here – the big fish in the small pond of higher education in Serbia. While the University of Belgrade’s Senate has recently decided to address the Conference of Universities (KONUS), the National Council for Science, the National Council for Higher Education, and the Ministry, with a request to form a committee which would examine allegations of plagiarism regarding the PhD dissertation awarded to Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović, issues related to the status of Megatrend University and the accreditation process itself have been left unaddressed. However, there is at least one important reason why this should not be the case.

There are several questions that could be raised around this matter and perhaps the first one is why this particular university – Megatrend — not to mention others widely believed to endorse suspiciously low criteria in awarding degrees of all sorts, had ever been accredited in the first place. Further, why had the Accreditation Commission, or the National Council for Higher Education, or the Ministry, not done anything to prevent this kind of thing from happening? Why do some bodies, it seems, consciously and without a clear reason, contribute to the weakening of the integrity of the academic profession in Serbia? How is it that dodging and bending the rules, and even cheating and lying somehow become acceptable among academics? And while some may think this is a feature of the private sub-sector of higher education, this is simply not the case, and public institutions of higher education are far from immune [1]. This is why we have the law and the law decides the rules of the game and who the legitimate players are. At the same time, the law also foresees structures and responsibilities over issues and, while they probably could be conceived in a different or better way, there is a reason why they are the way they are.

About a decade ago, representatives of the academic community in Serbia worked hard on the Law on Higher Education that is still in place. They fought fiercely to play a leading role on many issues, mostly in an attempt to insulate higher education from the political volatility of the state authority, given that the memory of the notorious law of 1998, passed while Slobodan Milošević was still in power, was still rather fresh [2]. The University of Belgrade (especially), the University of Novi Sad, as well as other predominantly public universities, had a very prominent role in these developments and they still have the leading position in virtually all of the discussions surrounding changes in legal provisions and regulation in general, as well as in their implementation. In this sense, effectively, the 2005 law empowered universities, and some universities more than others. So today we have the Conference of Universities (KONUS), which comprises all accredited institutions and is an important body in the higher education governance arrangements in Serbia. KONUS nominates the majority in the National Council (which the National Parliament normally then approves without any amendments, which is yet another problematic, though separate, issue [3]) and it is the Council who appoints members of the Accreditation Commission, while all of the appointees are taken as distinguished members of the academic community [4]. The Council is also responsible for upholding the accreditation standards (on which KONUS, by law, provides its opinion), and the decisions taken by the Accreditation Commission over who is to get the licence and who is not. And since the law says that KONUS reflects the size of its individual member organizations (i.e. number of students and academic staff), it is the University of Belgrade, by far the largest such institution in the country, which has the most power over the decisions of KONUS. The number of votes this university has in KONUS’s Assembly is about double the votes of the second largest – the University of Novi Sad. Overall, it holds about one third of the voting power. For the sake of comparison, the “weight” of all private universities combined is about the same as the University of Belgrade alone.

As for the Ministry: in practice the Ministry is to transfer money, facilitate administrative affairs and preferably not ask too many questions. This could, depending on the question, easily be interpreted as the violation of the principle of university autonomy. Heaven forbid the universities be held accountable for anything, especially taxpayers’ money or even worse – the revenue they generate through tuition fees, projects and consultancy. At the same time, the Ministry’s higher education department is chronically understaffed. According to the Ministry’s website, higher education in Serbia can count on 22 staff members (including the Assistant to the Minister) in the Sector for Higher Education, Investment, Pupil and Student Standard, and Public Procurement (Sektor za visoko obrazovanje, investicije, učenički i studentski standard i javne nabavke). Given a very comprehensive task list that these 22 people need to complete on a daily basis, it is not a surprise they cannot meet everyone’s expectations [5]. Apart from their regular activities, they need to meet various requests and react to pressures from both “above” and “below”. Even if its entire staff were super-efficient, extremely effective, excellently organised super-humans — while also knowledgeable enough on the substance of higher education governance and policy beyond administrative tasks — steering a higher education system of more than a 100 institutions and more than 200,000 students would still be a challenge. To make matters even worse for the Ministry, public institutions of higher education are not very happy with the amount of money they are allocated from the state budget, and this fact has been used extensively by public institutions as a reason not to follow the Ministry’s instructions — especially those related to finances, such as the level of tuition fees, about which the Ministry formally has a say. At the same time, higher education, or education in general, is rarely at the forefront of government policy anywhere, let alone in the times when “more important” issues are ailing the state, such as questions over its sovereignty, economic downturn and growing unemployment, integrity of its institutions and corruption, its own political instability, or political pressures from various international actors, to name a few. Therefore, the continuous (financial and political) neglect of higher education as a public sector domain, paired with the legal provisions set in place almost ten years ago by which the largest universities are made the most influential and who sometimes act as veto players, have relegated the role of the state to that of a mere observer. Even if the Ministry dares to challenge the current order of things, there is again the principle of university autonomy – a concept that could mean anything and nothing, depending on who is interpreting it and for what purpose. Many members of the academic community may not like this, but the balance of power between the universities and the state may not be optimal and too much power seems to be concentrated in the hands of a few institutions [6].

What do we make out of this in the light of recent developments around the PhDs of Minister Stefanović and his supervisor, Rector Jovanović? First, it is vital to acknowledge that the responsibility lies not only with the university in question, or its leadership, but also with the academic leadership across the country, and in particular, individuals in various decision-making structures such as the National Council for Higher Education and the Accreditation Commission — not to mention the Rectors of the largest universities, such as the University of Belgrade and the University of Novi Sad. This is true not only because they are directly involved in the politics of higher education, but because, as the primi inter pares of the academic community, they have a moral obligation to defend the community’s interests in the political field of higher education and beyond. What is at stake here is the ethical integrity of the academic profession in the country, and must not be dismissed as the problem of one university only or a single individual. The fact that some faculties of the University of Belgrade have initiated an appeal in relation to Minister Stefanović’s PhD is very much encouraging, yet it should be noted that this case is a mere symptom of a much larger problem which should not remain in the shadow of a political scandal, regardless of the consequences for the minister in question.

Second, this also means that the state, through the Ministry, needs to take a closer look at what is going on in higher education and not only react to pressures and scandals. Volumes have been written on why and in what way higher education is important for a country, and it is time for the state to get its act together and do something about it. With growing competitiveness among higher education institutions everywhere to attract students and staff from all around the world, Serbia will certainly not be on the winner’s team when the scores are settled with this kind of policy of neglect. This is not just the problem of higher education institutions – it is a matter which should concern society at large and especially current students, future students, their parents, employers, industry, and civil society. Even though we have witnessed a sharp increase in privatization over the past two decades, higher education is still part of the public sector and a subject of public policy, regardless of where the money comes from [7].

Third, these issues must not go unaddressed by students. Will the students of Megatrend University use this opportunity to stand up for themselves? The value of their degrees has been called into question and they need to take a firm stand on it. Do they understand that no one else will do this for them? What is more, the fact that student organisations and official student representatives, be they from public or private institutions, have remained silent on the matter is something to be concerned about. Why, we may wonder, do these students seem different from their colleagues a decade or two ago? Why don’t they, along with their representatives, seem to care about anything other than tuition fees and the criteria for passing a year? With few exceptions, the student body appears politically apathetic – a trend coinciding with the post-2005 period in which their role in the university and higher education affairs has been given legal anchorage, a historical achievement of previous generations of student activists. A paradox, one may think, but also one that raises some very important questions.

Ultimately, even if the Minister of Interior resigns, followed by both the Minister of Education and the Rector of Megatrend University, and even if the entire Serbian Government falls, higher education will likely remain just as it was the day before the news of recent weeks went viral [8]. That is, unless we don’t take this as an opportunity to look again and do better. Let us not fool ourselves – the cases in question are a result of a systemic flaw that made these deviations possible. Something went terribly wrong with the quality assurance system and the process of accreditation and this needs to be corrected. It is now time for those who have put the system in place and who are running it to revisit some of their earlier decisions. University of Belgrade Rector, Prof. Bumbaširević is certainly right to remark that it is not up to KONUS to discuss individual doctoral dissertations. Yet, addressing doctoral work in general, as well as other issues in relation to academic integrity and professional ethics in academia, is certainly something KONUS should discuss and at length. As the Assistant to Education Minister Dr. Milovan Šuvakov rightly noted, “university autonomy without accountability for (not) acting in a society of cowards necessarily leads to the devastation of higher education.” And it certainly cannot do any good to the society as a whole.

The author is thankful to Dr. Martina Vukasović and Nataša Andrejić for their comments on the first draft of the article.

[1] Let us just recall the “Indeks” affair at the University of Kragujevac, or to take a more recent example, the case of a University of Belgrade professor, editor-in-chief of a reputable scholarly journal, charging for speeding up the publication “process.”

[2] As a reminder, 1998 was the year in which the infamous Law on University was passed which was and still is interpreted as an extreme violation of university autonomy by the ruling regime of Slobodan Milošević. The law enabled the political leaders of the country to suspend and dismiss many respected members of the academic community on political grounds, and to appoint university leadership of their liking. The law was, in effect, a government backlash against the political dissent of the academic community throughout the 1990s. Curiously enough, the current Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić, was the Minister of Information at the time and the person behind another infamous regulation, which, among other measures, introduced fines for journalists who were critical of the regime and banned foreign TV networks.

[3] The fact that the Parliament does not normally challenge the universities’ proposal may be interpreted as the trust this institution has in the academic community, but also as a general disinterest in higher education affairs. As it often is the case, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, though it more likely leans towards the latter.

[4] Apart from the Conference of Universities, the law also foresees the Conference of Professional Higher Education Institutions, as well as student conferences for both types of institutions. However, their role, at least if we look at the number of representatives in the National Council and their competences, is very limited compared to that of universities.

[5] In recent years, both the Accreditation Commission and the National Council reported that the Ministry’s limited capacity to lend them adequate and timely support affected their work.

[6] The state and universities are not the only stakeholders in higher education. There are also students, employers, regional authorities, local communities, industry, etc., but they are not discussed here. But it should be noted that say in higher education governance in Serbia is more or less negligible, when compared with that of the universities and the state.

[7] It should be noted here, privatization of higher education does not only refer to the entry of private higher education providers, but also to the privatization of the public sector, most notably for the growing share that non-state funding has in its overall budget.

[8] Clearly, none of these things is likely to happen. Even with Rector’s resignation, he still remains the owner of Megatrend University and the question of what this means in practice is yet another for policy makers to address.

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Jelena Branković

Jelena Branković is a PhD student at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent, Ghent University (CHEGG). She graduated from the Higher Education Master Programme jointly delivered by the University of Oslo, the University of Tampere, and the University of Aveiro and holds a Master’s degree in English Language and Literature obtained from the University of Belgrade. Her work experience include the position of Researcher at the Centre for Education Policy in Belgrade, where she focused on higher education in the Western Balkans and previously the position of the National Coordinator for the EU TEMPUS Programme in Serbia. Jelena’s research interests lie in the domain of organisations, change and institutionalisation processes in higher education. She is a member of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER), and the network of Early Career Higher Education Researchers (ECHER).