Aspects of Internationalization of Higher Education: Attracting Students from Abroad to the Republic of Croatia

The national agency for quality assurance in science and higher education in the Republic of Croatia conducted a study on internationalization in the Croatian higher education area; there is a significant interest of higher education institutions in recruiting international students as one of the ways of enhancing the quality of study programs and higher education institutions; due to its geographic position, both a Mediterranean and Central European country, Croatia is a very attractive study abroad destination: five out of ten Croatian universities in total are located on the Adriatic Coast while others are situated in the continental area, including the largest Zagreb University.


 

The globalization of higher education has in the last couple of decades increased like never before. The implementation of the Bologna process in Europe removed many administrative and academic obstacles to mobility of students, teachers and researchers, while European research framework programs further stimulated cooperation between European and international higher education and research institutions in planning and conducting scientific research.

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Professor Jasmina Havranek, PhD, Director of Croatian Agency for Science and Higher Education

For most of her professional life, Professor Jasmina Havranek has been promoting importance of quality standards and culture and raising awareness about the importance and improvement of public policies in science and higher education. In the period 2003 – 2005, she was a President of the National Council for Higher Education of the Republic of Croatia, and in 2007 was appointed a Head of the Croatian Agency for Science and Higher Education. Professor Havranek participated at numerous national and international conferences that covered topics of higher education and science, and also was an invited lecturer.

The internationalization of higher education and the mobility of students and teachers are powerful tools for strengthening mutual understanding of educational systems within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

The importance of internationalization of higher education can be observed at three levels: individual, institutional and broader social level. With regard to the individual level, stimulating employability of graduates is certainly one of the most important features of internationalization, but the experience of living and studying in another country, which contributes to the personal development of the individual, is also worth mentioning.

As for the institutional level, through internationalization the higher education institutions improve their quality culture, and enhance the quality of their study programs. Internationally mobile students and teachers bring back new ideas and contacts, and influence the increase of international cooperation between higher education institutions, allowing for the exchange of research experiences and creating favourable conditions for the development of innovation. This ultimately benefits the economy and society as a whole, which leads us to the third level of importance of internationalization - societal.

Seminar on internationalization of HE in Croatia

From the positions of higher education institutions, internationalization is reflected in a better quality of teaching, better alignment of study programs with labor market needs, more effective institutional management, access to additional resources for teaching and research, as well as in raising the reputation and attractiveness of programs and institutions at both national and international level.

Given that the countries of EHEA have different starting points and different indicators of mobility, the document Mobility for Better Learning: The Mobility Strategy 2020 for the European Higher Education Area states that higher education institutions should develop and implement their own strategies for internationalization and mobility, as well as measurable and realistic mobility goals in line with institutional profile, and that different stakeholders (e.g. students, young researchers, teachers and other staff) should be included in its development.

 

Internationalization in Croatian higher education area

The Croatian Strategy of Education, Science and Technology defines national goals with regard to the increase of incoming and outgoing mobility of students and teachers, teaching in foreign languages, joint studies with renowned European and international higher education institutions, and the increase of the number of international academic staff at Croatian higher education institutions. Increasing the international mobility of students and teachers can therefore be considered a strategic interest of the Republic of Croatia, with a special focus on the outgoing mobility of young researchers who plan to return and continue their academic careers at Croatian HEIs, and also on the increase of incoming student mobility - not just the one-semester stays, but also the mobility of students who plan to complete their studies and obtain their degree in Croatia. In addition, one of the goals is to fund the short- and long-term research stays of eminent researchers from abroad, as well as of Croatian researchers working at leading universities around the world.

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Mina Ðorđević, Head of Department for International Cooperation

Responsible for Agency’s international strategic engagement, including participation in European and international associations for quality assurance (QA) in higher education (HE), establishing partnerships within international developmental projects, representing the Agency in working groups and similar bodies in HE, promotion of Croatian higher education institutions at international HE exhibitions, organization of international conferences in Croatia, etc. Mina is also involved in strategic planning of development activities at national level and preparing project proposals for grant support from a range of EU funding schemes as well as in implementation of project activities and dissemination of results.

Through its standards for the evaluation of quality of higher education institutions in the re-accreditation procedure, and through continuous educational, support and networking activities with higher education institutions, the Agency for Science and Higher Education (ASHE), Croatian national authority for quality assurance in science and higher education, encourages HEIs to develop internationalization strategies with regard to the outgoing and incoming mobility of students and teachers, deve­lopment of joint studies and study programs delivered in fo­reign languages, internationalization of internal quality assurance, institutional management, etc.

In its external evaluation procedures, ASHE is particularly focused on the elements of mobi­lity and internationalization; for example, in the re-accreditation of Croatian higher education institutions, it assesses whether the institutions provide their students with opportunities for international experience, as well as whether they provide adequate conditions for the incoming students. The standards in question require that Croatian students are well-informed about the possibilities of completing a part of their study abroad, and that they are provided with competencies and skills required for study in an international environment.

In the re-accreditation procedure, ASHE assesses whether the higher education institutions provide support to students in applying for and participating in student exchange programs, whether they recognize ECTS credits obtained at other higher education institutions, and whether they collect student feedback on satisfaction with institutional support in practical issues related to student mobili­ty. The standards require that information on the enrolment and study opportunities is also available in foreign languages, that higher education institutions provide adequate support to international students in applying for and studying at universities in Croatia, and that feedback is collected on their satisfaction and needs. International students should have the opportunity to attend classes in foreign language (English), and lessons in Croatian language should be organized for them at the level of university or university constituent.

 

Higher education institutions and attracting international students - an overview

In order to gain a more comprehensive insight into the  incoming student mobility (as one of the key aspects of internationalization of higher education), as well as the challenges faced by Croatian higher education institutions in attracting students from abroad, in June 2019 the Agency for Science and Higher Education published an e-publication titled "Aspects of Internationalization of Higher Education: Attracting Students from Abroad" as a result of a study that was conducted with Croatian higher education institutions.

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Silvija Vrgoč, Public Relations Specialist

Member of ASHE public relations team since 2009. She is focused on the activities of planning, conducting and coordinating public relations activities in accordance with the institution's strategy, business plans and communication trends. She is engaged in planning and managing communication with media, developing communication strategies, preparing and editing annual reports and other publications. She is also participating in communication activities related to international projects and cooperating with public relations services of other stakeholders in the system of science and higher education, public sector and economy.

In addition to the collection of data, the main objective of this study was to provide guidelines for the future activities of ASHE (as the national body respon­sible for enhancing the quality of higher education institutions): activities related to support and networking opportunities for HEIs, aimed at encouraging good practice and the exchange of good practice, as well as those aimed at removing key obstac­les in recruiting students from abroad. Aside from conducting surveys of activities related to internationalization of higher education, ASHE continuously encourages dialogue and invites higher education institutions to share information and ideas, and jointly respond to rapid changes in the global higher education and labour market.

An overview of collected data and HEIs’ willingness to participate in this study shows that there is a significant interest among the Croatian higher education institutions for recruiting students from abroad, as one of the ways of improving the quality of study programs and institutional qua­lity in general.

University of Zadar

According to the available data, there are currently 53 study prog­rams delivered in English at Croatian higher education institutions, with plans for 74 more by the academic year 2025/2026. In addition, HEIs that participated in the study also offer a total of 3007 courses in English for the incoming foreign students, delive­red at all study levels.

As for the strategic approach to internationalization, 25 percent of higher education institutions stated that they have developed a separate strategy for internationalization of their institution, while 91 percent of the respondents confirmed that internationalization is included in their existing mission, vision and institutional strategy.

More than half of the respondents (54 %) stated that all the activities and processes related to internationalization and recruiting foreign students are handled by professional service officesat their institutions. The tasks of these offices include PR and marketing activities, organizing  various events and presenting study programs at higher education fairs, raising the visi­bility of study programs and HEI via the official website and social networks, publishing brochures (International Student Guide) and information packages in English, organizing info days for students and staff, cooperating with international student recruitment agencies, organizing workshops on the academic exchange of students, teaching and non-teaching staff, organizing study visits to universities abroad, organizing International Weekends and similar events, etc. It is also important to mention the support activities for teachers, which include helping them design syllabi in English, motivating them to improve their English language competencies, organizing, updating and publishing curricula in English, monitoring the need for new study programs that could be delivered with partners from abroad, initiating and coordinating international summer schools and lifelong learning programs, encouraging and strengthening the development of study programs in English, encouraging the involvement of teachers/researchers from abroad in teaching and research activities, coordinating the development of web pages in English, monitoring the study experience of  incoming students, providing counseling for foreign students, etc.

University of Zagreb

International student recruitment services at higher education institutions also invest significant efforts in establishing contacts with higher education institutions abroad, preparing bilateral agreements on international cooperation, administrative activities related to the outgoing and incoming mobility of students and teachers within ERASMUS +, CEEPUS, BASILEUS, E-TEAM and other mobility programs, providing support to incoming students and staff in terms of their integration into program and institution, but also in terms of their overall stay (organizing arrivals and departures, finding accommodation, providing help with scholarship payments and their integration in academic and social life, organizing info days and workshops, organizing study visits to partner institutions, providing various other forms of support, etc.) In addition, they are an important source of help for students who have to choose courses and modules at foreign higher education institutions and ensure their interchangeability (as well as vertical logic) with their study programs at home.

By establishing these professional service offices, HEIs wished to improve the quality of study programs, strengthen the integration and competitiveness of their institution in the international arena, enhance the quality culture within the institution, and provide support to strategic planning and operational processes in the area of internationalization.

Higher education institutions also recruit students through project and other forms of cooperation with international partners. In addition, HEIs organize various summer camps and workshops, as well as regular visits to high schools where study programs, institutions and academic environment are presented to prospective students. Participants in the ASHE study emphasized the importance of positive student experience of previous generations, considering that students are the most reliable source of information about studying, as well as the creators of a positive image of a country as a desirable student destination. Some HEIs also highlighted the importance of acquiring relevant international accreditations in order to improve their international visi­bility.

Regarding the integration of international students in the academic and social life, surveyed institutions stressed the importance of activities that involve both international and domestic students, as well as efforts in encouraging their cooperation in achieving various academic and extracurricular goals.

The study also pointed to some challenges the Croatian higher education institutions have with regard to internationalization. Considering Croatia’s remarkable and internationally recognized potential in tourism, participants in the study believe that there is a need for stronger promotion of Croatia as a desirable study abroad destination. The administrative obstacles many international students face when coming to Croatia need to be removed, and various aspects of non-academic student provision improved. The challenges that higher education system and institutions face also include motivating teachers to develop and deliver study programs in English, improving teachers' competencies, and developing staff and spatial resources, which would need significant capital injections.

Libertas International University in Dubrovnik

The Agency for Science and Higher Education, as a stakeholder tasked with ensuring and  continuously improving the quality of programs and institutions, strives to support Croatian HEIs and their efforts towards recruiting international students, as well as to raise awareness of the fact that internationalization contributes to the profile of higher education as a sector that - in addition to education and development - has an increasingly important role in Croatia's international position in economy and trade. Considering that higher education institutions operate in an international environment, internationalization processes contribute to quality of study programs and effective institutional management, which raises their competitiveness both in Europe and globally. Feedback on desirable forms of support that the Agency collected will serve as valuable guidelines for future joint activities and cooperation of higher education institutions and other stakeholders in this area.