On the eve of the new academic year, Rector of Belgrade University Ivanka Popović says in an interview for Kurir that the faculties made additional preparations over the summer for working under the new circumstances arising from the coronavirus pandemic. As she explains, teaching will continue to be conducted remotely in part: a mixed-mode instruction model will be used, whereby the theoretical part will be delivered online, while the practicals will be delivered at individual faculties, but in smaller groups. She admits that there were teachers and students who did not manage well in the spring, when distance teaching began to be introduced.
The new academic year starts in about ten days. In short, what will university teaching look like in this situation, epidemiologically still unstable due to the coronavirus?
The circumstances are really unpredictable. This is why the University of Belgrade has opted for a mixed-mode instruction model, which can be quickly adapted to the epidemiological conditions. In principle, this means that the theoretical part of the teaching will be conducted remotely, while practical classes, such as experiment practicals, will be conducted at individual faculties in smaller groups, to the extent possible. The faculties prepared intensively for this academic year over the summer.
What has the coronavirus situation taught the University? What weaknesses have been revealed?
Each emergency situation is a challenge for the society and its institutions. In such circumstances, the existing weaknesses of the system are unavoidably intensified. We did not have enough experience in distance teaching, and there were teachers and students who did not manage well. We have learnt that we must respond quickly to new circumstances. Not an easy task for a university consisting of 31 faculties, 11 institutes, and about 100,000 students.
You yourself said that it was an ‘enormous effort to conduct distance teaching’.
Yes, everyone put in a lot of effort. Faculty administrations were tasked with organizing teaching and providing IT support and training. The senior and junior staff had to face the specificities of online communication. The success of this undertaking depended largely on personal commitment and responsibility of senior and junior staff and students. Thank you to everyone who recognized the specificities of the circumstances in which we acted and which we are still facing. Unfortunately, a portion of the academic community – small, thankfully – did not rise to the task, and will need to change their habits in the new academic year.
Do you think that lectures and academic assessment are much poorer in these new circumstances? Are there instances of letting students off lightly?
Those who were good at teaching the traditional way were as good teaching online. We have to learn how to make better use of all the possibilities offered by online teaching and student communication. The majority of lecturers were fully understanding of the emergency situation and were very tolerant with students.
Is the work of lecturers also checked in some way perhaps in these circumstances?
Yes. Assuming that all of us participating in the education process – both staff and students – go about our duties scrupulously, there will be tighter oversight of teaching provision in this academic year, not with the intention to control, but rather to provide students with the best possible teaching.
What is the likelihood that the student request to reduce tuition fees by 30 percent will be accepted?
We are all aware of the extraordinarily difficult socio-economic situation. Being fully understanding of the difficulties that some students are facing, I expect that the faculties will accommodate the students who submit detailed requests for a tuition fee reduction or exemption, subject to availability.
You said recently that progress had been made in resolving the big infrastructural problems faced by the faculties. Can you be more specific about this? Which faculties will get new premises or buildings?
The infrastructure of the higher education institutions across Serbia are being improved. At the University of Belgrade, the Faculty of Biology, Geography, and Security Studies should finally get their own buildings, which would free up the building that houses the Faculty of Philology. The Faculty of Organizational Sciences is being expanded.
In line with the Law on Restitution, Belgrade University is claiming considerable property, which was taken away, i.e. nationalized, after 1945. How far has the process gone? What are the best-known buildings that the University is claiming?
The University of Belgrade, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Matica Srpska have launched an initiative with the Government of the Republic of Serbia to pass a special law enabling the restitution of the property belonging to these three important institutions. The University has submitted 35 requests for property restitution. They are mostly buildings in the centre of Belgrade.
Belgrade University has recently celebrated its 212th anniversary. As you have been at the helm of this oldest and biggest higher education institution in Serbia for two years now, how would you describe the significance of this university and its role in history?
I think that we are not even fully aware of the impact that Belgrade University has had on the development of Serbia and the wider area of the former Yugoslavia. The 2017 Law on Higher Education rightly classifies it as a university with national significance. By producing generations of educated people, Belgrade University has made the social and economic development in the region possible, as there is not a single domain which our graduates have not contributed to. And they will continue to do so.
‘Illiteracy is a major problem.’
What do you think are the key problems of this society? Do you agree with the President of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences Vladimir Kostić, who claims that the biggest problem in Serbia is the lack of social dialogue?
I agree with Vladimir Kostić that the reluctance to start a social dialogue and general intolerance prevent the resolution of a multitude of problems. I would also like to draw attention to another important problem which jeopardizes the long-term development of our country – actual and functional illiteracy. According to the most recent census, two percent of the population are illiterate, and about 14 percent have not completed their primary education. The problem of computer illiteracy is only starting to be addressed.