The Rector of the University of Belgrade (UoB) Ivanka Popović ends her term in office on 1 October.
In a farewell interview with Kurir, as she summed up what had been accomplished in the past three years, she said that she had achieved a lot with her team, but that others should be the judge of the results.
Half of her term in office was marked, among other things, by working in a pandemic environment, which was a challenge, she pointed out. The effects of working in such circumstances would be felt in all walks of life, she added, not just in the education sector.
Popović also openly acknowledged that she was surprised by the low coronavirus vaccination turnout among university students.
Your term in office as University Rector ends in about 20 days. Could you sum up the results?
"This has truly been an unusually intense term in office. Half of it has been marked by the pandemic, during which we have faced nearly daily operative challenges of organizing the operation of the University in extraordinary circumstances with our colleagues and relevant authorities. We have focused on improving the quality of work at the University and on greater transparency of work. There were many challenges, and I would like to point out our efforts to reduce plagiarism at the University to a minimum and to provide a safe environment for the university community, by drawing up new regulations or innovating the existing ones, e.g. the Rulebook on the Prevention of, and Protection from, Sexual Harassment. The University has increased its visibility in Europe through the membership in the Circle U. European University Alliance, which aims to create a harmonized university system consisting of nine well-known European universities, and in this way allows our students, lecturers, and researchers to participate in the exchange of experiences, mobility, and joint activities. The University has made the courtyard of the Mansion of Miša Anastasijević available for the Summer Stage of the Teatrijum theatre, enriching the cultural life in Belgrade."
How would you grade yourself and your team for the work that you have done in the past three years?
"When I was at school, I didn't like teachers who would ask me what grade I should get – that was their task. We have worked diligently to improve the operation of the University and strengthen the UoB as an institution. Others should be the judge of our efforts and results."
Did you make mistakes?
"We have done a great deal of work, and when you work, oversights do happen. It's always easy to know what should have been done in hindsight. We have made every effort to ensure there were no oversights, but in a system with multiple decision-making levels, things can slip through the net."
Were you successful at saving the autonomy of the University and resisting the sway of politics?
"My colleagues sitting on the University bodies, the pro-rectors, and myself have worked hard to maintain the dignity and autonomy of the University. We have had partial success, and the sway of politics cannot be avoided. Using the University for political purposes inevitably results in its weakening. The University has the strength and will to face up to any challenge, whether independently or together with other institutions. There is no need to impose solutions on it. As a public good, the University goes beyond daily politics. Time will tell how we have contributed to the university community."
What do you wish for Vladan Đokić, your successor as Rector?
"It is an honour and a privilege to fulfil the duties of the UoB Rector. I hope that the new management will work diligently to improve the working and studying conditions at the UoB. I wish my colleague Đokić and his team all success in fulfilling their duties."
You will be resuming your work at the Faculty of Technology and Metallurgy?
"I have never stopped working at the Faculty of Technology and Metallurgy. I was involved in teaching throughout my term in office. Now I will be able to devote myself more to my university base, which I'm very much looking forward to. I have always found teaching and working with students the greatest part of my profession. On top of that, I will have duties on the Board of the European University Association, which gathers together over 800 universities across Europe."
Do you think that working in a pandemic has a serious impact on education?
"Working in a pandemic is very different from working under normal circumstances, but we don't have a choice here. There isn't enough live group interaction, which gives optimal results in education, or enough practicals and seminars. All universities around the world are facing this problem. The universities located in environment with a high percentage of those vaccinated will return to normal operation sooner. The students who have used the time of the pandemic to study will be able to fit well into work processes based on the theoretical knowledge that they have gained. We all must accept that we live in extraordinary circumstances, and that we will feel the effects of the pandemic in all walks of life."
Were you surprised at the low coronavirus vaccination turnout among university students?
"I was indeed. I believed that students would understand the importance of protecting themselves and others, and that they would set an example for social solidarity. Students have given precedence to the (dis)information coming from social media. I find this disconcerting, as it shows that young people harbour a deep distrust of the public media and the recommendations of the state institutions."
On UoB going down in Shanghai Ranking
'Science needs more funds urgently'
Is the fact that UoB has gone done in the Shanghai Ranking of the best universities in the world a cause for concern?
"Unfortunately, we found ourselves in the 501st position in the Shanghai Ranking, which moved us from the 401-500 range into the 501-600 range of the world universities. That is still an exceptional result for us, but it certainly points to the need for a change in implementing science-related policies.
"New laws on science have been passed, and now they must be put into practice alongside a suitable increase in funds earmarked for science. In line with the positions taken in the new and previous national science strategies, it is necessary to increase the funds allocated to science to one percent of the GDP. For years it has hovered around 0.3 percent, which isn't enough, no matter how diligent our scientists are. If this doesn’t happen, the UoB will continue to slide down the Ranking."