Bosnia and Herzegovina — Not Quite As I Expected

Jennifer Widom
Jul 10 · 5 min read

I’ve visited Bosnia and Herzegovina once before, just a couple of years ago on a family trip. We spent most of our time in the mountains, though we did stop in the main cities, including Sarajevo. It was a very different experience visiting Sarajevo to teach, and in the process learn a bit about what’s going on there in my familiar territory: higher education.

Overall, Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter BiH, the official abbreviation) is a country still trying to find its footing after a devastating war in the early 1990’s. Unemployment is extremely high (though apparently not as high as reported, if you count under-the-radar work), the government is ineffective (they currently have three presidents), there’s plenty of corruption and collusion, and tens of thousands leave the country each year, mostly younger people. That said, I didn’t get the general feeling of a downtrodden population — most people seem fairly upbeat day-to-day.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is still struggling after a devastating war, but that doesn’t stop people from enjoying their summer evenings out.

Higher education in BiH is complicated. The large public universities are nearly free for students, have crumbling facilities and overfull classes, all faculty have job security (not just because of tenure), many have been teaching the same material in the same way for decades — when they show up at all that is — and faculty hiring is based largely on government and family connections. Private universities started emerging as an alternative, but most of them are for-profit and funded by foreign enterprises. At first, many of the private universities were aimed at families who had enough money to pay for what’s effectively an automatic diploma, with students not really needing to pass their classes or do much work at all. However, some private universities have tried to get away from that reputation, offering a sincerely better education than the publics: small classes, new facilities, more modern curriculum and approach, but on the flip side less job security for faculty.

The private university that hosted my visit, International Burch University (IBU), falls into the latter category. In addition to requiring its students to actually work for their degrees, it has a focus on entrepreneurship, which seems to be fairly successful with a thriving startup incubator in the basement of one of its two academic buildings. (IBU is trying something else unusual: giving special consideration to athletes, so far just basketball players; basketball seems big in BiH. Faculty have mixed feelings about whether that’s a good idea, although as far as I can tell there’s been no admissions scandal around it yet.)

International Burch University hosted my visit. They’re a relatively new private university specializing in entrepreneurship.

There were about 90 advance registrations for my three-day Big Data short-course, including students and faculty from several universities and a number of people from local industry. No-one seemed surprised on the first day when fewer than half of them showed up, and as we got going I realized that the material was fairly challenging for some of those who did. I had triangulated my experiences in Poland and Azerbaijan and assumed the BiH participants would be highly engaged and prepared, but it wasn’t really that way — they found the days long and rigorous, and drop-out was relatively high. Granted it was a record-breaking heat wave in Europe, and lack of air conditioning made for a stifling classroom, but that wasn’t all of it. I didn’t get the sense, as I have in many other places, that most participants were eagerly seizing an opportunity to learn new topics and tools, perhaps even elevating their opportunities for the future. On the other hand, those who did stick with it were a dedicated and delightful bunch; I especially appreciated that the hardy ones were about 50% female.

There was an unusually high drop-out rate in my Big Data short-course, due to some combination of a stifling classroom and long days compared to what participants are accustomed to. I appreciated these six women, who were stalwarts at the front of the classroom.

Chatting with participants during breaks, I heard a lot about the immense bureaucracy in BiH, though not all of them realized things can be different elsewhere. For example, while my role as Stanford’s dean of engineering usually garners a bit of respect, in BiH they assumed it was an unfortunate posting — they pitied that I must spend all my days on bureaucracy and paperwork. (In the USA some people assume I spend all my days listening to faculty complain. In reality, neither is true!) As another example, finishing certificates were very important to the participants, who only half-jokingly said if there’s no piece of paper then it might as well not have happened. BiH isn’t alone in this regard — many locations have been anxious to give certificates at the end of my visit. I have three rules around certificates: the hosts need to produce them; I don’t verify that people actually did the work (so “participation” is a better word than “completion”); and by Stanford policy the word “Stanford” can’t appear anywhere except as my affiliation. Other than that, I’m willing to sign any size stack of certificates, and I’ve signed some big ones! In BiH we had few enough finishers that we held a much-appreciated little graduation ceremony.

In addition to the three-day Big Data course, I conducted a one-day Design Thinking & Collaborative Problem-Solving workshop, with a nice mix of participants drawn from students, faculty, and alumni. The design challenge chosen by the host was how to improve the giving and taking of exams. It didn’t take me long to appreciate just how high-stakes exams are at IBU, and apparently at all universities in BiH. They constitute most of the course grade, failure rates are high, and even in the private universities many aspects of exams are regulated by the government. (How the automatic-diploma private universities circumvent the regulations, I’d rather not think about.) IBU has three separate exam weeks at the end of each semester: the regular one, a first make-up week for those who failed or skipped some of the regular exams, and a second make-up week. Some universities have even more than two make-up weeks.

Teams in the Design Thinking & Collaborative Problem-Solving workshop brainstormed how to improve the giving and taking of exams.

Tackling the design challenge of improving exams, the workshop teams came up with solutions that are familiar to many of us in the USA: graded assignments and multiple exams instead of just one final; motivate faculty to create exams that properly reflect and assess the course material; combat cheating; and introduce activities to reduce student stress during exam periods.

Next stop on the instructional odyssey is a part of the world I haven’t been to yet for teaching: Central Asia. In September I’ll spend a few days each at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan and the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan. Stay tuned!

Professor Widom’s Instructional Odyssey

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