On Sunday afternoon I arrived by prop plane in Sarajevo and was whisked to my hotel by a taxi driver who clearly loved his historic city - my room at the Hotel Astra Garni overlooks the Latin bridge where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. After briefly exploring the old city as the sun set and the temperature plummeted to -9c I settled on Hacienda, a Mexican restaurant, for dinner I was amazed when the Bosnian proprietor served me a huge portion of the very best calamari I have ever eaten. This was accompanied with garlic oil, boiled and buttered potatoes, fried tortilla, a whole loaf of granary bread and draught 'pivo' - after a day of travelling I was sated. My expectations were set high but so far Balkan cuisine has yet to disappoint.
On Monday I sat typing this sat in the ornate rectory of the University of Sarajevo having delivered my presentation on the English Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) to the assembled academics from Bosnia and across the EU. The purpose of the meeting is to update on a project to develop Bosnian and Herzegovinian Qualifications Framework for Higher Education (BHQFHE).
National qualifications frameworks from across the EU map against a Europe wide framework and colleagues have presented on the ambitions of creating a global framework, the real beneficiaries of this would be our students who would benefit from graduating with a qualification that was recognised prima facie anywhere in the world.
The benefits of qualifications frameworks are huge. They ensure not only the mobility of students once they graduate but also their ability to transfer between institutions during their studies; they guarantee a benchmark of quality for all students at all institutions; and they introduce a degree of egalitarianism between institutions. Frameworks ensure that whatever subject you study, at whichever institution, it is comparable to a different subject at a different institution which ensures that your ability rather than your old school tie is recognised. Without a framework the reputation of certain institutions is elevated, not always justly, at the expense of other institutions. History teaches us that institutions regarded as the 'best' are often the least diverse so if we lose equivalency we cement advantage and disadvantage, advancing both positons of privilege and oppression. We narrow, rather than widen, participation and create a less just society.
I was proud to be able to present to colleagues the FHEQ which has done so much to improve higher education. I know that colleagues in Bosnia and Herzegovina are excited about the opportunity of a BHQFHE as an opportunity to advance education in their country and are looking to the UK as an exemplar of good practice. The elephant in the room however was what threat the government's Higher Education and Research Bill poses to this in the UK and the threat posed by Brexit to the very ideology of qualifications as representing global opportunities, and I was asked about both of these things.
The government argues that the Bill will advance social mobility and opportunity by introducing choice and competition. I believe that competition in the form of a weakly regulated marketplace will destroy the former. I have read the Bill and I am concerned that it is silent on the FHEQ - that the government are proposing opening up Higher Education to more providers, at the same time reducing regulation, with no mention of ensuring the preservation of the benchmarks that ensure quality and equivalency disturbs me.
The Bill proposes abolishing both the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) in favour of establishing an Office for Students (OfS), which they describe in the language of being a "market regulator", this language continues with mentions of the importance of "consumer confidence". Further the Bill aims to reduce the burden of regulation, yet it is regulation not the market that ensures compliance with Frameworks.
I am enjoying being in the company of those who recognise the opportunities that a qualifications framework creates and proud that I am able to offer my support as Bosnia and Herzegovina attempts to realise those opportunities. I am worried though that in the UK we have got so used to having the FHEQ that we have become complacent as to its importance, we must all guard against this.