Problems of Romanian higher education


Prof. dr. eng. Adrian Badea, President of the Academy of Romanian Scientists

I was very happy when, a few days ago, I learned about the debate organised by the joint Senate and Chamber of Deputies Education Committees on the role of education in Romania’s development.
After more than 53 years of activity in the Polytechnic University of Bucharest, of which 10 years I was head of department, 6 years dean, 6 years pro-rector and more than 5 years director of the doctoral school, I would certainly have a lot to say. As I know that I can only spare 5-7 minutes in the plenary session, I have put together a few pages this weekend, which may interest some colleagues.

  1. Quality of students, level of education
    A systemic problem concerns the decline in quality in pre-university education. As a trend, the quality and efficiency of education decreases as education cycles progress. In high school, there are problems with learning, with the level of assimilation, in the fundamental subjects, especially the hard sciences. Some baccalaureate graduates who become students lack the necessary knowledge and skills for university level. It requires additional training, the recovery of notions that should have been assimilated in high school. The situation causes delay, inconsistency and lack of continuity in the preparation process.
  2. Reduction / Suspension of the selection process for access to higher education

In the case of faculties that have experienced or are still experiencing a decline in the number of students – due to competition between higher education institutions or a decrease in the attractiveness of the fields covered – the lack of a selection process for candidates for access to university, access on the basis of competitive entrance examinations alone, is a problem for higher education. Access to student status for underprepared young people leads to a decrease in the level, quality and efficiency of education. A particular problem is engineering education. In the next 5-10 years there will be an acute shortage of engineers on the labour market across Europe. These years, the last generations to enter the labour market on the basis of assignments are retiring and there will be an acute shortage of specialists. Unfortunately, the economic environment is also to blame because often the level of pay is not the fairest. Their involvement in supporting technical education is also low. When they miss it, they will probably change their policy, but it will take a long time to reach normality, as the inertia of the education system has been there for at least 10 years. Today’s low interest among young people in science and engineering leads to a lack of competition for admissions, a drop in the level of applicants accepted for studies and of course the output will be lower. In order to bring young people closer to science, AOSR, together with the major technical universities, proposes a programme to bring high schools closer to explaining to students the main laws and technologies of science in their own language to show them that science is not ‘hard’, but beautiful and open to new paths.

  1. Licensing – too many programs
    The total number of undergraduate degree programmes in all fields in all Romanian universities is 3389, of which 838 for technical fields. According to ISCO (International Standard Classification of Occupations) there are only about 20 fields/qualifications for higher technical education (The qualification covers a given field of the ISCO core group or a family of occupations in the core group). We have gone from a pre-1989 super-specialisation and standardisation to an exaggerated abundance without international and labour market correspondence. We also did not understand and did not apply correctly the Bologna philosophy, with the 3 cycles: bachelor – basic training, master – specialization, doctorate – specific deepening through research.
    In relation to the undergraduate degree in engineering education, the award of the engineering degree after 4 years (240 ECTS), which I admit I have also taken, means that this degree is not recognised internationally unless the studies are accompanied by a Master’s degree (the international engineering degree requires a minimum of 300 ECTS). The awarding of the engineering diploma after 4 years allows graduates to be employed on the Romanian labour market, which creates a break for master and doctoral studies respectively. Thus master’s studies have in many cases turned into evening or part-time courses. The long duration of the full 6-year engineering studies discourages young people and there is now a growing reluctance. Personally (this is not an AOSR opinion, as our debate on this issue will take place in April) I opt for a form: 3 years bachelor and 2 years master, with the removal from the law of the limitation of 50% of bachelor graduates to master students. This form is also used in most EU countries. At the same time, the number of weekly hours of classroom activity, 26-28 hours/week (regulated by ARACIS), is very high. Up to 40 hours per week leaves 14-12 hours of individual study. We have practically the same, if not more, classroom study time as in the last century, when documentation possibilities were extremely limited and everything was based on the knowledge disseminated at school. Today, information/documentation opportunities are different, and the balance between classroom and individual study has reversed. At MIT – USA it’s basically 15 hours in class and 25 hours of individual study! But this has to be cultivated from elementary/primary/high school in Romania!
    At undergraduate level in particular, dropping out remains an active phenomenon. There are still a large number of students who do not complete their undergraduate studies for various reasons. Among these, one very important one is the lack of career development prospects in the field of specialisation. A priority for the system is to analyse the causes and take measures to reduce drop-out.
  2. Mismatch between curricula and labour market requirements
    There is still a mismatch in university education in terms of the relationship between study content and labour market requirements. There are undergraduate programmes that are run by virtue of inertia, promoting the same content, overtaken by dynamic and rapid developments in the labour market. A process of continuous redefinition and adaptation at curriculum level is needed to ensure that university education meets socio-economic needs, that curricula are in line with these needs, developments and trends. Economic agents must also contribute materially to the cost of training specialists, not only through taxes paid, but also through pre-contracts concluded directly with universities.
  3. Specialist practice sometimes a formal approach
    Specialised practice in the undergraduate cycle is, in many cases, formal. However, the internship is of fundamental importance for the students’ training in the field and their professional integration. There is a need for partnerships between higher education institutions and employers, consortia between universities and companies relevant to the labour market, the development of effective internships and traineeships, and a scholarship scheme for future employment of graduates in the institutions. I remember how hard the management of Politehnica Bucharest managed to impose a 4-month individual internship at the end of the third year. We were afraid we wouldn’t have enough practice places. Today there are hundreds of cooperation protocols with economic agents, who want to receive students for 4 months. I wonder how many people would want it if this internship was for a semester like the Engineering Schools in France. I think this is all down to the university management, some of whom feel that this is a ‘loss’ of teaching standards.
  4. Master’s degree – redundancy compared to bachelor’s degree?
    One problem is the relationship between the bachelor and master cycle. There should be a logical continuity, in the sense of evolution and focus on specific themes, the Master’s being a cycle of specialisation. In many cases, Master’s programmes repeat subjects already studied at undergraduate level. This creates a redundancy that undermines the effectiveness of the Master’s degree as a specialisation and qualification programme, fundamental in the academic and professional preparation of the student. Also, as I pointed out above, the employment of bachelor’s graduates makes the master’s degree no longer really a second cycle of university training, but more a kind of “advanced studies”, which we have abandoned due to their inefficiency.
  5. Avoidance of the teaching profession by graduates
    The teaching profession remains an unattractive prospect for most graduates. This is due to the modest salary conditions offered by the teaching profession, especially in pre-university education. The avoidance of the department affects, in particular, the field of exact sciences, fundamental disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, physics, chemistry, etc. The phenomenon generates a critical situation where these subjects are covered by substitutes, sometimes even unqualified substitutes, throughout the education system, especially in rural areas. There are also such difficulties in Bucharest and other big cities. Substitute filling leads to a decrease in the quality and efficiency of education.
    The situation is no better in university education. Pay levels are also an issue. If for lecturers and especially professors we can perhaps talk about a certain degree of acceptability, at the lower grades, especially assistants, salaries are unacceptable (2500 lei net), which does not encourage graduates with good performance to stay in the university and it will end up what has already happened in pre-university education, where they often hire those who can not find work elsewhere!
  6. Involving technology in education and research
    A major need in education remains the increasingly complex and substantial integration of technology into teaching-learning and research activities. There is still a conservative mentality in many parts of the system, reluctant to embrace the new, to innovate, to involve digital tools in education.
  7. Doctorate in free fall
    A fundamental problem in the current structure of university studies is that of doctoral studies in the Bologna System. It is designed as a continuation of university studies. The reality shows that, for various reasons, in particular because doctoral students are integrated into the labour market, the doctoral internship remains more of a wish, the full-time doctorate being, in fact, a doctorate without attendance. I have more than 25 years of experience as a PhD supervisor, I have supervised 51 PhD students who became PhDs, 14 of them in cotutelle with universities in France and Italy. I was until recently the director of a doctoral school and for more than 15 years I have been a member of the CNADTCU, 4 years as vice-chairman of the Council of this institution, so I hope I am aware of the evolution of this form of education.
    All over the world, PhD students and postdocs are the driving force behind research in universities, provided they work a minimum of 8 hours in research laboratories. Those of us who have worked or had PhD students in these universities know that the working hours are 9-10 hours a day and sometimes also on Saturdays or Sundays in “continuous fire” laboratories. This is only possible if they have a decent scholarship. It has been proven that this was also the case in our country during the period of the POSDRU European scholarships, when PhD students or post-docs had acceptable scholarships for all three years of study. We had 8 PhD students at that time, all of them finished in the best conditions and are now teachers. Unfortunately, this “miracle” did not last long either, as the failure rate of PhD students sometimes exceeds 50%. How can we imagine that a good bachelor and master graduate would want to do a doctorate with frequent, because there is no other form of master, without any scholarship (50%) or with a very small scholarship, compared to his offers of employment or doctorate in a foreign university, this even in the context that research is underfunded and most of the leaders no longer have research topics from which they could fund doctoral students. One solution for very good PhD students would be to employ them, by some artifice, as fixed-term assistants, but the high teaching load, which takes up a lot of their time at the beginning of the course, means that they delay the completion of their thesis.
    In France, PhDs get a government grant of 1450 (20% higher than the minimum wage) or 1800 euros, which is paid half by the government and half by the business sector. The doctoral topic is chosen by mutual agreement between the university and the economic agent, which has the advantage that, on the one hand, it solves a technical problem and, on the other hand, at the end of three years it has a well-trained doctor of science.
    There is only one solution – adequate funding for doctoral fellowships and the relaunch of research.
  8. Teachers – the disappearance of assistants
    Under the provisions of the current education law, which requires a doctoral degree for access to the teaching career, difficulties arise with regard to the position of university assistant. People with a doctorate are of an age at which they aspire to a higher teaching degree. The crisis in the position of academic assistant is causing problems in teaching and research. One solution could be that in France, where there are no longer titles of assistant and lecturer/chief of thesis, and after completing the doctorate a young person is directly employed by national competition as a lecturer, and the post of professor has several grades, with the application, laboratory and project classes being largely held by doctoral students.
  9. The bureaucratisation of education
    Bureaucratisation is not only a feature of education, but those who have had or have had senior positions in education know how many thousands of man-hours are wasted on often useless reporting. Funding and assessment in education is mainly based on numbers/counts, which does not encourage quality. And often these figures do not reflect reality either. For example, the number of places financed by the state budget remains practically unchanged, while the population is decreasing demographically, the number of high school graduates is decreasing, many are going abroad! Why wouldn’t these figures decrease and increase individual funding? This would obviously increase competition, hence quality! Why do we have to report a lot and with questionable quality? ARACIS, for example, requires for accreditation a lot of information, often useless to assess the quality of a study programme by real specialists. The funding system is also unnecessarily complicated, asking for dozens of pieces of data for a funding difference of a few percent. And the system of rules for habilitation and promotion are also riddled with figures, from which we should reveal the quality of candidates. But the evolution over time of those appointed as doctoral supervisors, lecturers or professors shows us that sometimes numbers can be deceiving. How did the teachers of the period between the two world wars, but also our teachers, manage to choose their team of collaborators without analysing too many figures, but by knowing the professional training of the candidates and their ethical and character qualities? Most of the time they were not wrong and so they created great teaching and research schools.
  10. The need for a modern law
    A new education law is needed, a modern, up-to-date, European law that responds to the reality of education and research today, to the demands of quality, efficient and competitive education, to developments in knowledge and technology, to the needs of the socio-economic environment and societal requirements.
  11. Funding education and research
    Education and research remain under-funded areas. The 6% of GDP target set by law, which declares education a national priority, remains a distant horizon. In terms of funding, the worst situation is in research. Research is still an under-funded field, which undermines its chances to develop, to achieve notable results, to become internationally relevant. It is a question of political will and I am convinced that this is the only way Romania can become a country with a competitive economy and a truly European standard of living.
  12. The position of Romanian universities in international rankings
    An important problem of Romanian university education is the low ranking of many Romanian universities in major international rankings. The situation is explained by the insufficient level of scientific research carried out in higher education institutions, research results being an essential criterion in their evaluation and ranking in international rankings. A relatively short-term solution would be to group universities into larger structures. This method has been used by the great schools of Paris or the INSA engineering schools. A Consortium: Wouldn’t the Polytechnic University of Bucharest, the Technical University of Construction, the University of Architecture, the University of Oil and Gas and the University of Medicine and Pharmacy and the University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine be in a much better position in the university rankings? I am convinced that it would bring other advantages to these universities without essentially eroding their identity.
  13. Youth migration, loss of human resources
    The exodus of talented young people – students, graduates, PhDs, researchers, professionals – is creating a serious shortage of qualified human resources in academic education, scientific research and professional fields. The brain drain phenomenon, although natural in certain limits, present in other countries, but carried out to a large extent in our country, affects the field of scientific research and, at a broader level, the development of the country. Measures are needed to create an attractive framework for integrating young people with potential into research and professional scenarios in Romania.