Minja Petrovic always wanted to be a teacher. She spent her undergraduate years in her home country of Serbia at the University of Kragujevac School of Education. After spending a semester in Hungary as an exchange student, her path shifted, eventually leading her to the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.
Petrovic said it was in Hungary that she began thinking about different countries’ educational systems.
“I had international friends from different parts of the world, and because we were all students of education, we compared our experiences with our countries’ educational systems,” she said. “That’s when I found out about the whole complicated situation of the Hungarian system.”
While having coffee with a friend one day, Petrovic learned about a bill that was just adopted by the Hungarian government, under prime minister Victor Orban. The bill increased state control over the Hungarian Academy of Sciences by moving the jurisdiction of the research institutes from the Academy to the newly founded national research network.
“Many of my Hungarian friends were deeply concerned about academic freedom in Hungary, due to the controversial bill Orban’s government adopted,” said Petrovic. “They told me that Hungarian student unions were organizing a big protest in Budapest.”
Hungary and Serbia are among 49 European countries who belong to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), and their universities conform to an agreement called the Bologna Process. The process was established to benefit students by ensuring compatibility between EHEA universities and to protect academic quality and freedom.
“One of the main aims of the Bologna Process is to protect European universities from the strong influence of the state and to maintain academic freedom,” explained Petrovic. “Hungarian students highly rely on the stakeholders of the Bologna process, such as the European Commission and European University Association, to prevent state control over EHEA universities and to help Hungarian students. Unfortunately, the only response from stakeholders [on the bill adopted by Orban] was that they would ’follow the developments in Hungary,’ and eventually, there was no action.”
Through this and other examples, Petrovic observed that the Bologna Process was not reaching its ideals to benefit students. She decided to pursue graduate studies to find out why.
In her search for graduate programs, she looked for a university that would allow her to design her research from an interdisciplinary perspective.
Just one month after completing her BA in Education in Serbia, she started her journey at Indiana University, pursuing the East European Studies MA program in the Robert F. Byrnes Russian and East European Institute (REEI).
“When I was researching area studies schools this one seemed the best, in terms of to what extent the program was interdisciplinary,” she said.
Coming to Indiana was Petrovic’s first experience in the U.S. and an English-speaking environment. However, learning the educational system was one of the biggest challenges.
“My first semester was hilarious,” she said. “I had to learn fast. I remember I got a grade and I didn’t know what that grade meant,” she said. “I didn’t know if an A was a good grade or not. Imagine that!”
In Serbia, students have multiple chances to take an exam, so she was shocked to learn she only had once chance in the U.S.
“I was freaking out. I was one hundred percent sure I was going to fail everything. But of course, that didn’t happen because I was working hard for everything,” she said.
Petrovic made close friends in the East European Studies program, including other international students who could relate to her situation, including her friend Jeta, from Kosovo.
“We were both freaking out together,” she said. “And then we both finished our first semester with all As and A plusses. Jeta would stop by my place every day, and we would discuss class and give each other advice. When I was not sure if I had a case for my graduate essay, Jeta told me ‘Minja don’t worry about it, just sit and do the research every day. Just read, read, read, and something will come up.’ Those words of support from somebody who understands my situation, it’s much more helpful.”
Aside from adjusting to the academic system, Petrovic said the freedom she had at Indiana University to design her own research was empowering.
“What I appreciated the most about Indiana University is that I had the opportunity to decide what my research was going to be,” she said. “To work on something that I’m really interested in, that is the thing that I appreciated a lot.”
Petrovic’s research led to the completion of her graduate essay, a critique of the Bologna Process, called Post-Socialist Neoliberalization of European Universities through Bologna Process: Comparative Analysis of Serbia and Hungary.
In it, Petrovic contends that “The Bologna Process has led to the adoption of a market-oriented organizational model in state-controlled higher education institutions in post-socialist countries, which puts academic freedom and integrity at risk.”
She outlines how the Bologna Process led to a high level of government control in faculty activities, including grading.
Her essay also gives voice to faculty, students, and administrators of universities in Serbia and Hungary, who she notes were insufficiently represented in the establishment of the Process.
Petrovic enjoyed presenting her research at an REEI graduate poster presentation event because the issues she examined are not yet widely researched.
“As a student that experienced both educational systems in Hungary and Serbia under the Bologna Process, I was unaware of how many flaws this system has,” she said. “To some extent, I even benefitted from it because I had a chance to study in a foreign country. However, after doing this research I realized this has so many problems that no one is talking about. [For example], I was unable to find sources especially in Serbian language on this topic.”
She says there are many reasons that research has not been done on this topic, especially in Serbia and Hungary. Government oversight, coupled with reduced government funding to universities, has resulted in the reduction of full-time faculty positions, limiting professors’ resources to pursue research at all, yet alone on educational policy.
“In the future, I will try to voice this problem more,” said Petrovic. “I hope I will be able to publish my essay and continue to do research on this topic and pursue a Ph.D. in educational policy in Eastern Europe.”
Petrovic will be applying to Ph.D. programs in educational policy and will make a decision to stay in the U.S. or return to Serbia.
While she began her academic journey wanting to teach, her research lays the groundwork for making a different kind of educational impact: one that may even influence the future of East European educational systems.