Posted on April 23, 2013

The rise and growth of private higher education in the Western Balkans - a temporary trend?

The first private higher education (HE) providers in the countries in the Western Balkans region [1] started to appear about two decades ago. The oldest higher education provider is Megatrend University, based in Serbia’s capital – Belgrade. Nevertheless, it was not until 2000s that these institutions started to “absorb” a significant portion of students across the region and be considered competition in the student market by institutions pertaining to the, almost as a rule, better reputed public HE sector. This rising trend in enrolments in private HE was, of course, much facilitated by a broader massification trend in the region.

As it can be seen from the figure to the left [2], the private sector has grown in both relative and absolute terms, when we look at student numbers (both ISCED 5 and ISCED 6). Serbia has the largest private sector in terms of the total number of students enrolled, yet it seems that Kosovo* has relatively the largest sector, when compared to the public one. Still, as the data has not been verified for it, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and FYR Macedonia are also among those with larger private sectors. Croatia is the only country in the region in which enrolments in private HE have remained below 10%, despite continuous growth over the past decade. It is probably the only country in the region for which we cannot say that has undergone expansion of private HE.

However, in almost all countries in the region, the public sector has expanded even more than the private one in terms of students enrolled. At the same time, the private sector has not exceeded 20% of the total student body of respective countries, even though a growth trend can be noted in all the countries.

At the same time, the number of private HE providers in most countries exceeds the number of public (except for Croatia and Serbia), while on average these institutions are smaller than institutions in the public sector. In the figure below, Serbia stands out, which can be explained by its large non-university sector in terms of the number of institutions.

The two largest private institutions are located in Serbia. In the table below we provide a list of largest private providers is given in the table below. The criteria for selection has been that they enrol more than 1000 students. It is estimated that the 20 largest HEIs listed below enrol about one half of all students enrolled in private HE in the region (estimated to enrol between 130.000 and 140.000 students).

The largest private HEIs by the number of students in WBC (2010/2011*)
Institution Country Students
Singidunum University Serbia 8928
Megatrend University Serbia 7177
"Kristal" University Albania 5515
"UFO Dental" University Albania 4814
University Business Academy in Novi Sad Serbia 4781
South East European University (SEEU)* FYR Macedonia 3690
Pan-European University Apeiron BiH 3344
Edukons University Serbia 2717
Union University Serbia 2596
European University of Tirana Albania 2279
European University Serbia 2167
University "Sinergija" BiH 2147
International University Novi Pazar Serbia 2051
FON University – Skopje FYR Macedonia 1722
Univerzitet Mediteran Montenegro 1579
Alfa University Serbia 1359
Univerzitet Donja Gorica Montenegro 1335
"Justiniani i pare" University Albania 1231
University "Slobomir P" BiH 1124
"Zoja Keshillit te Mire" University  Albania 1086
TOTAL 61642
Source: countries’ statistics agencies

*According to the Macedonian HE law, SEEU is a "private-public non-profit HE institution" and is, therefore, not a private university stricto sensu

Note: data for FYR Macedonia are from 2011/2012

As for their characteristics private HEIs tend to be located in capital cities, such as Tirana in Albania, Belgrade in Serbia, etc, yet many are also located in other university centres or smaller towns. Some larger private HEIs have also established branch campuses, such as those of Megatrend University (Serbia). They also tend to focus on applied social sciences, such as management, business, ICT and media, which are oriented to the service sector of employment. An analysis of the offer given on private HEIs websites, one can also come across economics, law, communications, tourism, engineering, electro-technical sciences. There are occasional exceptions to this throughout the region and one can come across programmes in nursing, healthcare, and pharmacy. As it is the case elsewhere in the transition countries, the study programmes in private universities tend to be more interdisciplinary and applied than this is the case in traditional public universities. It should be also noted that many of these institutions offer far more flexibility than public ones, and offer possibilities such as part time studying, distance-learning, etc. and are thus especially attractive for non-traditional students (parents, professionals, etc.).

While in some countries, such as Croatia or Serbia, HEIs cannot operate on a for-profit basis, in Albania this is not the case and some of the universities are openly for-profit, such as the European University of Tirana. Still, the for-profit/non-for-profit debate is an ongoing one, as even though some HEIs in principle should not operate on for-profit basis, in practice they do find their way to bypass the law.

It still remains to be seen until the growth trend will be present and whether and in what way the private sector will expand. At least in Serbia, the overall number of students seems to be decreasing, yet only slightly. Given the demographic changes in most countries in the region, where the total population, including the age group and the total number of students have both started to decrease in the past several years, one could expect the total enrolments would decrease. If this takes place, private HE are likely to be hit harder than the public ones, given that these institutions almost completely depend on the student market and are in principle not eligible for financial support from the public budget (the only case where they are is Montenegro). As only few HEIs (or faculties/departments within HEIs) have managed to establish a good reputation or have found a market niche and focused on particular type of students (e.g. non-traditional), while the vast majority is still considered as the second-choice, after public HEIs, one could expect that the private sector will undergo major reshuffling in the coming years.

By: Jelena Branković, Centre for Education Policy
NOTE: The data on student enrolments provided here are collected by official statistics agencies in the countries of the Western Balkans region [1] (WBC), which are in most cases confirmed when triangulated with data available through the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (for all WBC except for Kosovo*, given its pending status) and Eurostat (only for Albania, Croatia and FYR Macedonia). Data for Kosovo* are only available through the Kosovo Agency of Statistics (if we talk about some primary data), yet descriptions are only in Albanian, hence it is difficult for an outsider to determine what is behind the numbers and, of course, reliability. Still, they do not include data on private HEIs, thus the total number of students is significantly different from what can be found elsewhere [2]. Still, we have made some estimation based on the data we have.
* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSC 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence
[1] Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, FYR Macedonia, Kosovo*, Montenegro and Serbia
[2] Sources for all figures are countries' statistics agencies, except for Kosovo* (see the above Note)
[3] For instance: link. Retrieved on April 22 2013.



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