Romania kicks off debate on university mergers after falling out of Shanghai ranking

22 Aug 2023 | News

Some university heads are saying the country should follow the French model of consolidation after the only university to have featured in the research-focused ranking drops out

Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Photo: Babeș-Bolyai University

Romania needs to start remodelling its higher education sector if it is to catch up with its neighbours in international university rankings, academics say.

In the Academic Ranking of World Universities - better known as the Shanghai ranking - released last week, Romania’s largest university, Babeș-Bolyai, no longer featured in the top 1,000. For the first time since 2017, Romania has no university in the ranking, prompting academics to point to the low level of research funding and a lack of much needed reforms that would enable the country to keep up with its neighbours. 

The rector of Babeș-Bolyai Daniel David was the first to respond to the public outcry, calling for reforms including university mergers and more public funding for research.

Over the past three years, the Cluj-based university was the only Romanian institution to feature in the first 1,000 universities ranked by Shanghai. “The university has not been supported in any way to specifically keep its global Shanghai ranking,” David said. “The university could no longer compensate alone for major errors and indecisiveness in national academic policies.”

The Shanghai ranking is focused on research excellence as measured by Nobel prizes, Fields medals and other awards, as well as the number of publications in prestigious journals. Unlike in neighbouring countries, Romania has not taken steps to merge small universities into larger institutions that can provide high quality tertiary education and generate new knowledge in advanced research institutes.

To the frustration of David and other university rectors, neighbouring countries have at least one university in this year’s ranking. Regional leaders in higher education and research, Poland, Czechia and Hungary have nine, six and four universities in the league table, respectively. Universities in Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia are also feature. Serbia, a much poorer non-EU country has two universities on the prestigious list.

The Romanian higher education and research sector is still working in the framework established by the Communists in 1948, when medical and technical departments in universities were split to form standalone institutions. In addition, the national research institutes and the institutes of the Romanian Academy have not been reformed since the fall of Communism at the end of 1989.

David said the government could fix these structural problems. However, a significant number of academics and policymakers are against merging small universities and research institutes into regional organisation with the scale to compete with the rest of the world.

Consolidation bears fruit

France has been amalgamating universities over the past couple of decades and this is bearing fruit. This year, 27 French universities are in the ranking, four of which are in top 100. Paris-Saclay, a university established through a merger of four technical grandes écoles, is now 15th in the Shanghai ranking, topping all other EU universities.

David is in favour of similar mergers and said he is open to the idea of Babeș-Bolyai creating an alliance with the medical, technical and veterinary sciences universities in Cluj, but the idea has been rejected by the rector of the Medical University, Iuliu Hațieganu. Rector Anca-Dana Buzoianu said mergers won’t help increase research performance and cited concerns about university autonomy if such an idea were to be implemented.

The rector of the West University of Timișoara, who is also an MP, has floated the idea of a ‘metropolitan university’ that would include several higher education institutions. However, it’s unclear if policy makers in Bucharest are paying attention because politicians are focusing currently on how to plug a €7.5 billion hole in this year’s budget. Then next year, the country will hold four different rounds of elections: local, parliamentary, European and presidential, with little time to discuss quick reforms.

Education minister Ligia Deca said Romanian universities have been focusing on delivering high-quality education and paying less attention to research. The Shanghai rankings this year “reflect public policy of the last decade,” she said.

According to UN data, Romania’s expenditure on R&D is under 0.5% of GDP, which is lower than 1996. The government has also failed to live up to many promises and commitments to raise investment in education up to 6% of GDP. The figure currently stands at around 3.5% and has been stagnating over the past decade. In addition, the country consistently ranks last or second-to-last in EU research and innovation scoreboards.

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