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Higher Education and the Graduate Labour Market in the Western Balkans

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Western Balkan Economies in Transition

Part of the book series: Societies and Political Orders in Transition ((SOCPOT))


This chapter looks at the effectiveness of higher education systems in the Western Balkans in delivering a skilled labour force to the economy. In particular, it analyses the problems facing university graduates in accessing the labour market and the skill gaps among new graduate employees based on data collected through cross-country surveys of recent graduates and of employers of recent graduates and interviews with key stakeholders. The findings cast a worrying perspective on the ability of higher education systems in the Western Balkans to deliver the qualified personnel that are needed to support future economic growth. Many students drop out of studies leading to a low completion rate; of those students who do graduate, many face the prospect of unemployment; of those who do find a job, many are in jobs that are not matched to their level of qualification, reducing their job prospects in relation to graduates in well-matched jobs. Of every hundred new students entering the higher education systems each year, only 13 will eventually graduate and find a well-matched job. In order for the higher education systems to make a better contribution to building human capital and to the competitiveness and growth of the region’s economies, significant reforms of higher education systems and graduate labour markets are needed, while better cooperation between employers and universities should be encouraged.

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  1. 1.

    Higher education institutions (HEIs) include universities, faculties and a range of tertiary level colleges.

  2. 2.

    After the adoption of the Law on HE in 2005, there was uncertainty about the financial resources that would be available for the new MA study programmes at public HEIs. This led many HEIs to adopt the 4+1 model to be on the safe side (Interview, public HEI).

  3. 3.

    This problem is recognised in the Strategy for the Development of Education in Serbia until 2020 (2012, p. 103): “Having various possibilities for organising studies hampers the continuation of studies at the Master’s level when students move from the 3+2 model to 4+1 and vice versa”.

  4. 4.

    Within this total, 83% of students completed HSS study fields at private HEIs, compared to 36% at public HEIs.

  5. 5.

    Within this total, 6% of students completed STEM study fields at private HEIs, compared to 33% at public HEIs.

  6. 6.

    The terminology “p < 0.01” indicates that the probability that the differences in proportions observed in the sample do not represent true differences in the underlying population is less than 1%.

  7. 7.

    We refer to a distinction between “cognitive” and “interactive” skills, rather than the commonly used terms “hard” and “soft” skills as more accurate descriptors of the different classes of skills involved. This terminology is proposed in Green (2013: 23–24).

  8. 8.

    A “sandwich course” is an undergraduate programme during which spells of work experience outside the HEI in a company are a mandatory part of the curriculum. Such work experience can be for an entire academic year, for example, as the third year of a 4-year Bachelor programme or for shorter spells depending on the course content and objectives.

  9. 9.

    It should be noted that much of the discussion of skill mismatch is really framed within the context of “qualification mismatch”. However, the term “skill mismatch” is commonly used throughout the literature, where “qualifications” is taken as a proxy for “skills”. The OECD has recently begun to carry out skill surveys that get around this problem. In our graduate survey, for vertical mismatch we ask whether the qualifications of the graduate match the skills needed by the job, in order to pin down the “skill” aspect of the issue.

  10. 10.

    Other studies of skill mismatch in transition countries also find a wage penalty associated with overqualification; see, e.g. Lamo and Messina (2010).

  11. 11.

    The efficiency of the HE-LM system can be assessed as the product of these three proportions: 0.53 × 0.52 × 0.48 = 0.13.


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The research on which this chapter is based was carried out within a project on “Higher Education provision and Labour Market Opportunities in the Western Balkans” funded under the Framework Service Contract No EAC/02/2010 of the European Commission DG Education and Culture. We are grateful to the European Commission for funding this research. However, the chapter reflects the views of only the authors, and any errors or omissions are entirely our own responsibility. An earlier version of this chapter was published in Quarterly Monitor, a publication of the FREN research unit at the Faculty of Economics in Belgrade, Serbia.

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Correspondence to Will Bartlett .

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Bartlett, W., Uvalić, M. (2019). Higher Education and the Graduate Labour Market in the Western Balkans. In: Osbild, R., Bartlett, W. (eds) Western Balkan Economies in Transition. Societies and Political Orders in Transition. Springer, Cham.

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