The result of the public-private partnership between the State Bulgarian University from Veliko Tarnovo “Ss. Ss. Cyril and Methodius” (VTU) and the Macedonian private International Slav University (MSU) is the offer of master studies for Macedonian students taught by Bulgarian professors. Apart from educational and scientific cooperation, both universities are connected with Russian links which they are getting rid of slowly. At a time of a difficult race for new students at the six state universities and double the number of private ones, a logical question to put forward is – is it a political decision to let a Bulgarian university in the Macedonian educational area or just a natural flow of the multi-annual cooperation, as claimed by the management of both universities?
The State Bulgarian University “Ss. Ss. Cyril and Methodius” from Veliko Tarnovo, registered in the Central Register of the RNM on 14th September 2022, officially established its foreign branch abroad. The entrance of the Bulgarian State University in Macedonia was approved by both governments – Macedonian and Bulgarian, with a positive review issued by the Accreditation Board of Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (AKVO).
The branch office is registered in Sveti Nikole, according to the Central Register of the RNM, the same place of registration and operation of the International Slav University “Gavrilo Romanovich Derzhavin”. Director is Borce Serafimovski, who stands in the capacity of Vice President of the Executive Board of the University in Sveti Nikole.
The opening of the branch office of the Bulgarian University in Macedonia was accompanied by contraversies regarding the name that is almost identical with that of the oldest Macedonian State University “Ss. Cyril and Methodius” from Skopje. However, both governments were eager to implement this project.
Sveti Nikole instead of Vienna
Six months after the registration, the Bulgarian University is still awaiting the enrolment of the first MA students. The branch office of “Ss. Ss. Cyril and Methodius” from Veliko Tarnovo in Sveti Nikole aquired accreditation for second cycle study programmes, specifically for Anglo-phonic Studies, Regional Development and Computer Science. Instruction and training will be carried out in English language, while subjects will be taught by professors from Bulgaria who are part of the Veliko Tarnovo University. Tuition fee for the study programmes of VTU for Macedonian students varies from 1.300 to 1.500 Euro per annum, depending on the selected studies.
The multiannual friendship was one of the reasons why the Veliko Tarnovo University decided to give up the idea of opening its first foreign branch in Vienna, Austria and to establish it on Macedonian territory. This was the answer of the University from Veliko Tarnovo’s Rector, Hristo Bondzholov, who added that red-tape issues in the EU contributed to the decision to come to Sveti Nikole instead of Vienna, since North Macedonian did not have such a problem.
I wanted to open a brach office of VTU in Vienna, and we applied with MA studies in economics in German langauge. Things got out of hand, however, and at the time we started working together with MSU successfully on PhD studies, so we decided to offer MA studies. For such a thing, it was good to officially register in the RNM, as we did in Austria. We are a legitimate institution and we abide by the laws and operation rules, says Bondzholov.
The idea for a branch office of VTU in North Macedonia was by no chance a new one and the negotiations lasted several years. The proposal for opening studies in North Macedonia, according to the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science, came from the Rector of the Veliko Tarnovo University, Bondzholov, while he claims that the initiative originated from the Macedonian side, i.e. MSU chose the Bulgarian University to come to North Macedonia.
Bulgarian media carefully followed the process of establishment of the Bulgarian branch in North Macedonia. The Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science was delighted to announce that ”Veliko Tarnovo University will educate students from North Macedonia”:
By opening a branch office of the Veliko Tarnovo University “Ss. Ss. Cyril and Methodius”, a higher degree of international competitiveness will develop thereby supporting the multi-annual policy of the Bulgarian State for attracting foreign students and deepening good interaction in the area of education and science in the Republic of North Macedonia.
The approved establishment of the branch office of VTU in Sveti Nikole for the former Prime-minister, Zoran Zaev, was support of friendship, good neighbourly relations and cooperation.
When a higher education institution from Bulgaria requests to open an university here by fulfilling all the requirements, and if we do not allow that to happen despite the met conditions, then we are not friends, said Prime-minister Zaev, replying to a query of a Member of Parliament in June 2021.
The university website of VTU registered the visit of the Minister of Internal Affairs, Oliver Spasovski of Veliko Tarnovo University in 2019 where he was present during the defence of the PhD disertation of Metropolitan k. Joseph. As the news states, Spasovski assured Rector Bondzholov that he was dedicated to ”swift implementation of this project important for both universities”.
“Secret” Bulgarian professors
How much Minister Spasovski managed to “push” the project establishing the Bulgarian university is unknown, but the study programmes of VTU on MSU in Sveti Nikole were approved by the Government that has the final say following the Opinion of the Agency on Quality Assurance of Higher Education (AKVO).
The competence of the Agency for Quality Assurance of Higher Education i.e., the Higher Education Accreddition Board as its body, is only in the part of ussueing an Opinion, in terms of whether the requirements of the Law on Higher Education are met (Article 25). The Government of the RNM is the final and competent institution that decides whether or not to issue an Approval and to assess the need for issueing such an Approval to a foreign HEI to undertake a higher education activity in the RNM, says the Director of AKVO, Agim Rushiti.
From the report of the Accreditation Board (AB) giving the “green light” for the studies of the Veliko Tarnovo University, it is obvious that the signed statements of the Bulgarian professors teaching graduate students in Sveti Nikole are missing.
In compliance with the Law on Higher Education, when a higher education institution is established in the country, the institition must submit a list of the secured number of teachers meeting teaching requirements as well as written statements of teaching candidates stating their readiness to establish working relations with the university. Precisely that is one of the many remarks of the Board regarding the shortcomings of the submitted documentation for accreditation of the studies of the Veliko Tarnovo University “Ss. Ss. Cyril and Methodius” as noted in the first report.
Although the Veliko Tarnovo University submitted a list of professors who will be teaching on the three study programmes, written statements proving the readiness of the professors to teach the listed subjects in the study programmes were not submitted. Having received the first report from the Commission of the AB, the Veliko Tarnovo University instead of supplying written statements of each teaching candidate as the Law requires, submitted a letter signed by Rector Bondzholov explaining to the Board members that the persons signed on the document will be involved in the educational process. The Covid pandemic, apparently, was the reason why the professors could not sign a statement as required by the Law.
Although the Rector ensures that the professors will be included in the teaching process, and the enrolment deadline ended last December, up to date, none of the two universities reveals publicly the names of the Bulgarian professors teaching and training Macedonian students in Sveti Nikole.
MSU University says that the selection of teachers is just a “technical issue” and that their names will be published with the start of the academic year 2023/2024 when the decision will be made regarding the mode of instruction.
The idea is not to involve only professors from Bulgaria and Macedonia, but also professors from other universities in other countries. Although specific names were listed in the submitted document, that does not mean that those names cannot be changed, says Jordan Gjorcev, Rector of MSU.
We asked Rector Bondzholov who from the professors from VTU will be teaching in North Macedonia and he answered:
The best in their fields of expertise – distinguished linguists, IT experts, geographers.
We requested the entire documentation on the basis of which the studies of the Veliko Tarnovo University received a positive Opinion, but AKVO did not deliver them as to see the language of the documentation submitted and the names of the professors that Bondzholov ensured will be teaching in Macedonia.
About the Veliko Tarnovo University
Veliko Tarnovo University was established in 1963 as the High Pedagogical Institute “Brother Cyril and Methodius”, inherenting the tradition of the literary school Trnovo. In 1971, the school was accredited as Veliko Tarnovo University “Ss. Ss. Cyril and Methodius”. Today the University has 9 faculties, 42 departments and several pedagogical colleges and centres throughout Bulgaria, with over 18.000 Bulgarian and foreign students. Before Bondzholov to inherit the post Rector in 2015 – the job was performed, in two mandates, by Plamen Legkostup (2007-2015) and Ivan Haralampiev (1999-2007).
Currently, Legkostup is an honorary President and a Board Member of the Chinese Institute Confucius located in Veliko Tarnovo, while in the 1980s, he was unofficial collaborator of the Communist State Security.
Haralampiev was a professor at the Tver State University in Russia, and many of his rewards and honours were awarded by Russian institutions and organizations. Haralampiev, inter alia, was declared “honorary doctor” of the Russian Bashkir State University.
The connections with the Tver State University were sustained by the current Rector, Hristo Bondzholov who, as reported by the Bulgarian media, in 2015, together with his deputy, Stoyan Burov, became honorary professors.
The thing in common of Veliko Tarnovo University and MSU is the Russian link that they seem to be slowly losing. If twenty years ago that kept then together, now – according to the management of both universities – what is keeping them tgogther is the scientific work and educational cooperation.
A month into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Academic Council of Veliko Tarnovo University relinquished the honorary doctoral title of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, awarded back in 2009.
9th March 2022, MSU, almost two weeks into the aggression announced its rebranding, thereby deleting “Gavrilo Romanovich Derzhavin” from its title – a name that the university is currently sharing with its previous strategic partner – the Russian Tambov State University. The new name of the university established in 2004 should read International Slav University St. Nikola.
In accordance with our mission, we developed our Internationalization Strategy 2025 back in 2018, including a new university brand that must be easily recognizable for international students who will study in English language. For us it was important to adjust the brand as well as all of our contents and study programmes in English language up to 2025. Even back in 2018 we knew the brand had to be in line with the new global trends in higher education and to be easy to recognize for English-speaking areas, says Gjorcev.
While the graduate studies in English language are being developed, the Russian language at MSU is taught this study year. Looking at the subjects, one can notice that Russian language is taught on the four out of the five faculties as an electoral subject with the exception of the Faculty of Economy where Russian language is a mandatory subject.
Rector Gjorcev answered our question saying: ”linguistic subjects are not included in all study programmes and they are electoral, therefore students can choose whatever language they wish”.
An information published by MSU included the news that professor Zoran Panov had his first lecture of the free of charge course of Russian language on 16th February 2022. The lecture was successful, with online presence of 350 participants.
MSU seat, address of Russian associations and alliances
International Slav University “Gavrilo Romanovich Derzhavin” was accredited in 2004 in Macedonia as a foreign higher education institution and is a representative of the International Slav Institute – Moscow, Russia. It started with the name “International Slav Institute” and worked as an institution for correspondential – part time studies (Decision No.: 12-8157/1 dated 20th July 2005). Apart from Sveti Nikole, MSU has a campus in Bitola also.
The seat of MSU is in Sveti Nikole, “Marshall Tito St.” No.: 77. Several associations, businesses and an alliance are registered on the same address:
- Association of Citizens (AC) “Lipa” (Linden) for Macedonian-Russian Friendship;
- Union of Associations for Macedonian-Russian Friendship;
- Association of Russian-speaking Citizens “Euroasia”.
The Rector of MSU, Jordan Gjorcev has been the President of the Union of Associations for Macedonian-Russian Friendship of Macedonia for many years.
This is also the address of Rotary Club Sveti Nikole, the World Centre for Development and Cooperation, Student Association of the Slav University, AC for Breeding California Worms “Agro Worm”, ZRK “Ovce Pole” – SMU.
Jordan Gjorcev is the owner of 100 percent shares in MSU. He was also a mayor of Sveti Nikole for one term. For approximately twenty years, he expanded the activity of the university with cinema activity, publishing and in the last few years with catering activities through the restaurant “Moscow” with a seat within the building of MSU, and two hotels in Prespa and Sveti Nikole.
Dozens of administrative clerks keen on career advancement, Members of Parliament, politicians and public figures have graduated at the MSU. From the younger generation politicans who completed their MA studies at MSU is the mayor of Stip, Ivan Jordanov. The leader of Single Macedonia, Janko Bacev, was one of the professors of the Law Faculty at MSU.
Cooperation with Russian Educational Institutions
Both MSU and Veliko Tarnovo University have a history of professor-student cooperation with Russian universities. However, the last few years, according to Samoil Malceski, professor at the Economic Faculty at MSU, that practice was lost.
In the last four years – since I am employed at the University – I have never heard that our students or professors were part of a cooperation with an educational or other institution from the Russian Federation. What I have heard is that the moment the war started in Ukraine, the University discontinued all contacts with the partner universities from the Russian Federation, replied Malceski.
Asked whether the war in Ukraine was discussed on any of the official university gatherings, Malceski gave a negative reply.
The University has daily activities related to its main purpose, which is science and education in the interest of our students. Thus, during our meetings – formal or informal – we discuss those kinds of issues and we hardly debate political topics, says Malceski.
With the Tambov State University “G. R. Derzhavin” from Russia, MSU started to organize the science conference “International Dialogue: East-West” in 2010. Although claimed that the connections with this university were discontinued, on the conference that took place last June, professor Irina Bezukladova from the Russian Tambov University held the opening address.
European diplomas and contemporary education
As claimed by the Rector of Veliko Tarnovo University, that was the motive for establishing a foreign branch in Sveti Nikole. The graduate studies are not the ultimate ambition, but the undergraduate studies.
If there is interest for our work, why not?! There are so many other possibilities and countries where we can offer our programmes. Only the active accredited MA studies of VTU for the academic year 2022/23 are 124, on almost all European languages, says Rector Bondzhalov.
He also added:
We are an educational institution and we offer good opportunities to young people. I hope that politicians and media will not prevent our good intentions and relations with our partners from MSU, says the Rector of the Bulgarian University.
Enrolment of a hundred graduate students are the ambitions of the Macedonian-Bulgarian university partners. That was the number that the Veliko Tarnovo University was planning with the accreditation and registration, offering bank guarantees for such a number. Bulgarians are expecting the beginning of the studies in March, while the Macedonian partners in the beginning of the next study year. For the time being, noone is talking about the influence of tense political relations between the two countries. Both universities use vocabloary dominated by expressions such as European education, recognized diplomas, cooperation, young people.
Authors: Vesna Kolovska and Gose Nikolov