Higher Education Reform in Moldova: Any Chance?

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Sergiu CEBAN
The higher education system in the country has been in decline for years. But a politically motivated attempt to reform it without careful preparation will only worsen the situation   
In recent weeks, the suddenly initiated upcoming higher education reform has been in the headlines. It is planned to be completed by the end of this year. The intention to optimize the number of state universities and research institutes, some of which they want to reduce, and others to merge and strengthen by increasing funding, has caused a heated debate not only in the academic community, but also among acting and retired politicians. The unexpected public outcry provoked a flood of collective appeals from faculty members, public indignation, and angry tirades to the country’s leadership. Even three former presidents did not stand aside: Mircea Snegur, Petru Lucinschi and Nicolae Timofti. They asked Maia Sandu not to liquidate the Academy of Public Administration, as well as the Tiraspol State University, which was a symbol of the 1992 resistance. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education continues to claim that the reform will improve the quality of teaching in Moldovan universities, making graduates of Moldovan universities and the institutions themselves more competitive on both domestic and international labor and educational markets. The main argument of the “reformers” is the small number of students/ applicants and the disproportionate number of state higher education institutions. We must admit that higher education in our country is indeed, to put it mildly, not in its best shape, being in a state of protracted crisis. Most applicants tend to continue their studies abroad, saying that education in Moldova is not prestigious and of low quality. Facts are stubborn things, and they indicate that the popularity of local universities is rapidly declining. The highest number of students in the country’s history – 128 thousand – was recorded in 2006. By 2019, it had halved to 56,000. Slightly that number rose in 2020, but according to experts, mostly due to COVID restrictions. A crucial factor that has had a negative impact on Moldova’s educational system is the unfavorable demographic trend and the ongoing depopulation of the country.  In 2010 the country had almost 424 thousand young people of student age, now there are only about 245 thousand. If this trend persists, experts predict a decrease to 220 thousand by 2025. Besides the difficult demographic situation, among the additional reasons contributing to the decrease in the number of students at universities is a wide range of alternative opportunities for Moldovan youth to go abroad to receive a quality education there. For example, Romania alone annually provides about 6,000 scholarships for our applicants. Also note that many of our young compatriots have regained Romanian citizenship and have direct access to almost all the EU academic opportunities. The rapidly decreasing numbers of Russian-speaking citizens don’t pass the adaptation process in the Moldovan higher education system and partially move to the Dniester’s left bank and then leave for Russia. At the same time the quotas provided by Moscow to our country for studying in the Russian universities also grow: in 2020-2021 academic year about 500 places were allocated, and in the next few years Russia plans to increase this number threefold. Another downside is the reduction of state financing of higher education and the increase in the number of fee-based educational institutions. Experts say, if the situation doesn’t change in the next few years and the state maintains the same level of science funding, our universities will drop even lower in the international rating. In five years the higher education system will have to be restructured again, or begin the process of its gradual elimination due to the critical decline in demand for higher education in the country. According to qualified experts, the introduction of the Bologna education system in Moldova in 2005 should have been accompanied by corresponding changes in the material and financial supply, the creation of additional incentives, the attraction of qualified personnel and the provision of academic mobility. However, apart from procedural changes, no profound transformations took place. Therefore, the republic’s higher education was actually in a state of transition. The irresponsible and indecisive approach, which has dragged on for 15 years, has resulted in disturbing dynamics that may have irreparable consequences for the country. The World Bank’s reports already say that Moldova’s higher education system has all the signs pointing to its inability to adequately respond to labor market needs, not to mention the demand for innovative professions, which will only grow. Researchers point out that almost half of Moldovan employers systematically face a shortage of qualified personnel. The accelerating globalization of education leads to outflow of Moldovan students abroad; that is why Moldova has a difficult task to do its best to make its own higher education more attractive not only for our young people but also for foreign students. However, the suddenness with which the authorities approached this task without any thorough informational or other preparations, without ensuring the necessary level of transparency and preceding public debate, obviously suggests political motivation. It is possible that the high concentration of socio-economic problems has prompted the Moldovan leadership to divert attention at least temporarily to another issue. However, it is also a very serious one, and if the attempt to reform for the sake of politics fails, the country risks losing the higher education system as such.