As Mirela Lilek/Novac writes on the 27th of April, 2019, Croatia’s situation still isn’t good: the country is continuing to ”produce” graduates with the third lowest employment rate in the whole of the European Union, and as a result, taxpayers pay more and more money for them. According to new data from Brussels, based on a comparative survey of youth employment among Croats with diplomas earned in the last three years, a third of highly educated people aged between 20 to 34 in Croatia have no jobs. Only Italy and Greece are worse.
Of the 28 countries EU member states, Croatia ranked 26th with a 66 percent employability rate. Four positions above Croatia lies Romania, Bulgaria is six places above, and Slovakia is nine places above. Croatia’s neighbour to the north, Slovenia, is eleven places above Croatia, Poland is thirteen places above (impressively right behind Ireland and Denmark), and the Czech Republic, with an 89.9 percent employability rate which has impressed the European Commission’s experts – has risen to an enviable fourth place.
Malta is in first place in Europe as an employer of its graduates with diplomas, the employment rate of Maltese students stands at a very impressive 94.5 percent, even better than Germany, which boasts a rate of 90.9 percent, followed then by the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and then Austria. The EU average is on the rise, back in 2014 it stood at 76 percent and in 2018 it stood at 80.2 percent. Unfortunately, the Croats have been close to the bottom for years, more specifically for fifteen years, as it has a below-average rate of employability in relation to the EU. Of course, rather than attempt to fix the problem directly, the Croats are doing what the Croats always do – continuing to debate and argue over who is (more) to blame for such embarrassing conditions.
Economists see the issue as being that the Croats aren’t adapting easily to the market, and that Croatia also has an old education system. At Croatia’s universities, they argue that the key issue isn’t Croatia’s higher education institutions, but an underdeveloped labour market, low personal income, and demotivating working conditions. Experts from the European Commission have given a relatively simple answer: Investing in education will benefit everyone in Europe.
Let’s see how they explain their theories in some of the country’s universities, starting with the largest “producers” of graduates in the entire country, the Faculty of Philosophy and Economics in Zagreb.
”We’re aware of the importance of linking study programs and labour market needs. In this regard, the Faculty of Economics makes an effort to make it easier for students to access the labour market by establishing multilateral cooperation with companies and respectable institutions that enable students to perform high-quality professional practices,” stated Sanja Sever Mališ, who deals with strategic partnerships and projects at the Faculty of Economics in Zagreb. The basic message from this particular Zagreb university is that “they connect students and employers so their best students can find work even during their studies.” Therefore, there is no concern for them.
On the other hand, Vesna Vlahović-Štetić, Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, admits that Croatia’s humiliating placement at the bottom of the employability scale of graduates is still something to be very concerned about and therefore the causes of that need to be looked at.
”I assume that part of the problem lies in insufficient development and the ability of the economy and the public sector to absorb newly graduated students. On the other hand, the question is how many colleges and higher education institutions meet the needs of society with their respective programs. At the state level, in some professions there’s hyper-production, and in others there is a lack of experts. Additionally, study programs should be regularly updated and developed to meet not only society’s needs but also predict what competences professionals will need in the future,” the dean says.
Data obtained through the HKO project of the Faculty of Philosophy shows that the employability of their students in the year after graduation is 75 percent. They believe this is the result of “the excellent professional and generic competences of their graduates”.
“We’re convinced at the Faculty of Philosophy that the study programs need to be further improved, so we have just started the study reform process and I’m sure the future employability of our students will be even better,” says the university’s dean.
The rector of the University of Rijeka, Snježana Prijić Samaržija, doesn’t want to run away from the fact that Croatia’s universities do hold a share of the responsibility for this issue but, again, she’s convinced that Croatia’s higher education institutions are’t the key cause of the problem, but the underdeveloped labour market definitely is.
Rijeka University has eleven faculties and four departments. On their official page, they point out that they are a modern European university and a centre of excellence within the region and beyond, and that they are responsible for the social and economic development of the community. Samardžija claims that she doesn’t want to relate the worrying data on the high rate of unemployed with higher education, but that “it should be borne in mind that higher education is a better job-finding guarantee, such as landing a permanent position,”
“Of course, it’s possible to say that the employment rate would be higher if universities, by some automation, increased their quotas for the job-type deficit and reduced those profiles for which the employment bureaus take care of. In that sense, people often say Croatia’s institutions and their enrollment policies aren’t adapted to the labour market. However, the situation isn’t quite that simple.
For example, the market seeks shipbuilding engineers, we have shipbuilding studies and a corresponding quota at the University of Rijeka, but there’s a fall in interest for those studies. We can understand the students’ fears about the situation with Croatia’s shipyards, but the fact is that the need for this profession is still growing. Similarly, despite the lack of mathematics and physics teachers and the excellent studies we have, the interest doesn’t match the employment opportunities,” she explained.
The University of Rijeka decided to put seven studies ”into retirement” this year, and isn’t accepting students for them. Those are acting and media, dental hygiene, computer science in combination with professional studies of medical-lab diagnostics, mechanical engineering, shipbuilding, and electrical engineering.
On the other hand, there’s a considerable level of interest in studies that don’t guarantee quick and permanent employment at all, such as the arts, cultural studies, and psychology.
”Young people choose studies according to their personal interests, not just employment opportunities. They don’t necessarily just want a permanent job, many of them are accustomed to gaining work experience in different institutions, at different places of work, and in different countries. More and more, they prefer to individually define the curriculum through courses and practical competences beyond their study program(s), which will make their expertise comparatively more special and desirable. In the midst of a sluggish and non-ethnological labour market, more and more students enjoy prolonged youthful relationships with their parents or rent apartments,” says Snježana Prijić Samaržija.
“I don’t want to run away from the responsibility of the university, we’re constantly thinking about the jobs of the future, we’re working on increasing the quota for the deficit professions and improving our students’ competences to reduce the unemployment rate. However, time is needed to see the results of these measures because the higher education cycle lasts for at least five years. It should be understood that universities can’t just simply increase quotas for occupations for which there’s a labour market need because new employment is frozen,” noted the Rector of the University of Rijeka.
As Croatia’s paradoxical situation of having no work but plenty of jobseekers, yet plenty of work and no staff, it’s hard to predict the outcome of education system reforms as the market and its needs can alter so rapidly. Will Croatian students simply continue to trickle away on the stream of a proverbial leaking tap out into Western Europe, leaving Croatia with the rather unenviable title of a country that educates its citizens for work abroad? It’s likely such a scenario will continue at least for the foreseeable future. Whether or not Croatia will manage to make the necessary alterations to fix that aforementioned ”leaky tap” in time remains to be seen.