The transformation of higher education in Central and Eastern Europe has occurred within a relatively short period and has been intertwined with broader social and economic changes accompanying the transition from socialist regimes to market-based economies. Most post-socialist countries in the Western Balkans region abolished socialist regimes and survived a devastating civil war over twenty years ago, but are still struggling with political, historical, cultural, and organizational atavisms from the past.
The findings from document analysis and interviews conducted with Croatian academic and government leaders in my recent article in European Journal of Higher Education reflect the state of the nation at large, illustrated through the issues and problems faced by the academic sector. These issues and processes are congruent with the Fligstein’s (2002) rent-seeking state model typically used in political economy to describe and explain processes in developing and post-socialist countries. Many of these countries still invest in public sectors that bring short-term gains, thus neglecting strategic investments in knowledge intensive areas like research and higher education because returns on investment in these sectors are long-term, unclear, and difficult to measure.
Rent-seeking theory also provides an in-depth insight into contextual conditions in these countries, which are likely to predict academic marginalism – a new theoretical framework based on the Alfred Marshall’s traditional marginalism concept in the theory of economics. The academic marginalism can be interpreted as a theoretical framework that funnels larger political and economic state-level issues into higher education, explaining how they influence the academic sector in Croatia and in other post-transition countries.
The perception of value or “utility” of the higher education sector is at the core of the academic marginalism perspective, and it may seem somewhat strange to audiences in Western countries considering the abundance of empirical evidence supporting the human capital theory, and the well-established connection between higher education attainment and individual, public and social returns in the countries with stable market-based economies. Many post-transition societies, however, still do not necessarily perceive higher education as an investment that will bring significant individual and social returns. In many countries personal well-being has been perceived as only loosely connected to educational attainment, due to diminished individual financial returns on education resulting from the rent-seeking governmental practices and historical circumstances.
A quote from a senior university leader in Croatia illustrates this perception:
“We have lost many of our social values because of the war. Some people have made fortunes off the war, and through the privatization of public enterprises which happened after the war. Their success was not necessarily correlated with their education levels and other achievements. On the other side, the number of impoverished people grew significantly. This has led to a public perception that the level of education is not correlated with success and social status. The result of this perception is a systematic devaluation of education at all levels.”
The academic marginalism framework proved to be useful in understanding the discord between the adopted narrative and officially stated public policies, and the actual political, social, and economic reality of peripheral European countries. This reality seems to be very different from what the prevailing EU narrative and policies geared towards investing in knowledge-based economies would suggest.