30 years, 30+ stories: The ETF and Serbia work closely on EU integration through dual education

Since 2000, the European Training Foundation has built a dynamic partnership with Serbian institutions, aligning efforts with the country's European Union integration goals and promoting policy dialogue processes.

As the ETF celebrates its 30th anniversary, its long-standing cooperation with Serbia is a testament to the transformative power of investing in education and fostering cooperation around shared goals. Serbia's journey towards EU integration is now making good progress, with 22 out of 35 negotiation chapters opened by 2023. Recent steps forward, such as the opening of chapters covering the green agenda and sustainable connectivity, underline Serbia's commitment to harmonise with EU standards.  

Another area of positive development is Serbia's participation in EU research and innovation programmes since 2007, which has driven progress in national research and innovation policy. Taking advantage of initiatives such as Erasmus+, the Smart Specialisation Strategy and Horizon 2020, Serbia has excelled in areas such as ICT, agricultural research and energy cooperation, positioning itself as a regional leader in innovation. As an ETF paper noted in 2021, Serbia is "the most successful country in the region in Horizon 2020"

In line with Serbia's EU accession ambitions, strategic documents such as the Education Strategy 2030 reflect the country's commitment to education reform. Over the period 202123, the Serbian government has demonstrated steady progress in improving digital skills, expanding lifelong learning opportunities, and bridging the gap between education and the labour market.  

"The ETF is working closely with the EU Delegation and the European Commission to engage with Serbia on a reform-driven agenda. Our close cooperation with the Office for Dual Education in Serbia and the ministries provides a platform for discussion, policy advice and participation in events and activities," says Gordon Purvis, human capital development expert and country liaison for Serbia at the ETF. "In parallel, the ETF is providing targeted and regular support to the Commission and the Delegation in programming and, more generally, in policy dialogue focused on the accession negotiations.” 

Produced in 2017, this short film shows how good governance is working to put IT and software at the heart of the
national development in Serbia. 

The Commission's 2023 Serbia Report highlights that while Serbia has made progress in education and labour, challenges remain and further action is needed in the sector, in particular with regard to Chapter 19 (Social policy and employment) and Chapter 25 (Science and research). 

Improving the National Qualifications Framework and ensuring compliance with European quality assurance standards in higher education are, for example, of paramount importance. Efforts are also needed to focus on widening access to early childhood education and reviewing labour market policies in order to stimulate employment. 

In 2023, Serbia launched the Youth Guarantee initiative as a pilot project in three regions to tackle youth unemployment by introducing subsidies for access to employment and training. As part of a comprehensive strategy, Serbia plans to gradually expand the programme across the country, with a targeted roll-out expected in 2026. 

Although the Youth Guarantee Plan has now been adopted, progress in the area of labour market policies remains sluggish, with stagnating budget allocations for active labour market policies (ALMPs) and the absence of a new labour law. Going forward, a functional review of ALMPs and the workload of National Employment Service counsellors could optimise the allocation of resources and better target marginalised groups, while the Youth Guarantee pilot project offers one way to address the challenging issue of youth unemployment. 

Lida Kita, former human capital development senior expert and country liaison for Serbia at the ETF, who recently retired after decades of building bridges between Europe and the Western Balkans, and not only, stresses the importance of young people's engagement.

“Cooperation between Europe and Serbia is not embedded in many generations, but it is a pleasure to see how enthusiastic young Serbs are: they are breaking barriers with their hope for the future,” says Kita. “Over the years, the focus of the ETF's work has shifted from technical assistance to policy advice. The geographical scope of the ETF was extended with the Balkan countries that emerged from the disintegrated former Yugoslavia, as well as North Africa, the near Middle East, and the former Soviet states including central Asia.” 

“Serbia has its diversity like all the other countries in the Western Balkans: the social fabric and the different groups are very fluid, influenced by the Yugoslav past,” continues Kita. “A lot of work has been done by the EU to address the social inclusion of marginalised groups, but it remains a challenge, and not just for Serbia. Social inclusion should be part of every area where the ETF works.” 

In 2019, the ETF followed the Mihajlo Pupin Electrotechnical High School in experimenting with learning through play.
Students recycle electronic components and use them to create new working systems, including toys and ornaments.

Social inclusion starts with education, as evidenced by Serbia's commitment to the Education Strategy 2030. Improving vocational education and training (VET) is a cornerstone, with an emphasis on practical learning with employers. Integration with the European Framework for Quality Assurance in VET (EQAVET) is also a priority, supported by Serbia's membership of the EQAVET network. Notable achievements include the establishment of the National Reference Point for Quality in VET and efforts to monitor and evaluate the national dual training model.  

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Serbia (CCIS) initiated the development of a dual model of VET in Serbia in 2015, based on requests from businesses.

“From the very first steps of this process, we had the support of the ETF to assess the skills and knowledge needs and find ways to match labour supply and demand,” says Mirjana Kovacevic, Head of Education and Dual VET Centre at the CCIIS. “The ETF has also made a significant contribution to analysing the impact of new business trends on labour market trends (such as the digital transition), as well as the introduction of the fifth level of VET qualifications and many other issues.” 

The CCIS is also a member of the working groups for the implementation of the Youth Guarantee Programme, with the aim of promoting the programme among companies in Serbia.

“Companies should support young people and give them the opportunity to gain knowledge and experience in real work situations,” continues Aleksandra Milićević, Head of the Department for Dual Education and Education Policy at CCIS. “Dual education is a way to give young people the opportunity to learn from professionals in companies and gain modern knowledge that is valuable in the labour market. In addition to the activities prescribed by the law on dual education, we are also working on organising various types of activities aimed at young people and companies, which are also part of the European Year of Skills.” 

These many forms of cooperation around dual education, youth, VET excellence as well as “Serbia's involvement in the development of the Erasmus+ programme has been impressive and demonstrate the win-win nature of cooperation between Serbia and the ETF,” highlights Purvis. 

Serbia is striving to develop its own model of dual VET, applicable in a specific socio-economic context, and not to copy already developed and existing models. The partnership and cooperation with the ETF has made it possible to learn about different experiences and good practice, which in certain situations have made a significant contribution to, or had a key influence on, the design of processes and activities in the Serbian model of dual VET. We are grateful to the ETF for the cooperation so far and we hope to continue in the same way,” concludes Kovacevic.

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