The Precarious Life of Students in Serbia

Who can afford education in Belgrade and how do students live? Students of the University of Belgrade answer these questions and present the obstacles they face.

Neoliberalism has left no aspect of student life in Serbia unscathed. From tuition, to housing, to the general quality of education and student living, the logic of profit has made it difficult for most and impossible for many to pursue higher education studies. The result has been 27 percent of young people in Serbia abandoning their studies solely for economic reasons.

We present to you the basic results of the student survey that we published in the series of texts by Anastazija Govedarica Antanasijević.

Tuition Roulette

In Serbia, the state allocates a part of its budget to finance the studies for a certain number of students. The selection of these students is primarily based on their academic performance, not financial needs. Thus, other students that have great potential but other challenges, be it economic, familial, or otherwise, must find alternative ways to independently finance their studies. According to the Ministry of Education, for the academic year 2023/2024, 8,723 students received scholarships while 6,535 were using loans. As tuition fees and inflation continue to increase, many who do not receive scholarships decide to give up on their studies altogether.

Beyond tuition, studying includes other hidden costs. Marina Krstić, a second-year psychology student, spoke to Mašina about this, saying “Materials for learning or other forms of activities at the faculties (such as architecture or some art courses) are also very expensive, so not everyone can afford them, nor can they achieve the highest quality of study. In principle, it is only available if you are on a state scholarship.”

Student life is also so much more than just the academic aspects. Meeting other students, exchanging ideas, and developing relationships with them in social settings is also an integral part of the experience. But again, going out for a coffee or a drink requires a financial standing that is increasingly out of reach for many people.

Student dormitory; Photo: Mašina

Scarce and Inaccessible Housing

The inaccessibility of housing also contributes to the precarious status of students. Like with tuition, the state finances student dormitories that can accommodate a small subsection of the student population at a relatively affordable price. In Belgrade, there are approximately 17,000 spots in student dormitories for a student population of 91,869. While the student residences are more affordable, the conditions are not always optimal. Marina told Mašina that some rooms only have one desk for two students, no air conditioning, and sometimes no internet.

The majority of students in Belgrade must search elsewhere for housing. Besides the stress of finding an apartment and roommates, rent in Belgrade has skyrocketed in recent years. On the outskirts of the city, far away from universities, rent is approximately 400 euros a month. Meanwhile, the average salary in Serbia is approximately 590 euros. Students from working class families must often-times search for a job to supplement their families’ income. But this task also ends up being next to impossible since most jobs demand a full-time schedule. Even if students find a part-time job, juggling their academic obligations along with work is mentally and physically taxing.

Rectorate of Belgrade University; Photo: Matija sa VMO / Wikimedia Commons

Education: A Means to an End?

For some of the students that overcome these barriers to entry, their feelings have been mixed on the education itself. While many feel that the quality of education rivals that of universities in the United States, Australia, and a large part of Europe, they also feel that sometimes the curriculum is too theoretical and mechanical. For example, Nikola Milković told Mašina that “there is also a lot of unnecessary and non-functional knowledge that we will acquire at our faculties. When I speak from the perspective of an electrical engineering student in Belgrade, we are forced to learn by heart some lessons and definitions that most of us will never understand and that are forgotten two hours after the exam – that kind of short-term knowledge is, not always, but mostly unnecessary and time-consuming. There is too much theory and too little practice.”

This focus on theory and regurgitation of definitions is tied to the goals and objectives of studying. At the birth of higher education, universities were exclusive to the wealthy elites of a population. This section of society was always divorced from production and work, and therefore, their participation at universities was dominantly (but not always) to naval-gaze and pontificate about various academic fields of study.

At the same time, higher education in the last century and a half has uplifted the consciousness and critical thinking skills of many. But unfortunately, with the larger economic crisis and the pressures put on students, many are viewing studying as solely a means to an end. Konstantin, an architecture student, spoke about this, saying:

“I think that in the world there is a campaign to degrade higher education, some anti-intellectualist campaign – that college is a waste of time and that all the same can be achieved with some courses or independent work, which is true. Some of the most basic skills can be learned through courses or books, but I think that ignores the fact that college is an institution that gives a person intellectual breadth, and that these things narrowly educate people specifically. I think this is one of the reasons why it is propagated that college is not something that is necessary to earn a lot of money if that is someone’s goal, but I think it is also a kind of degradation of society that earnings in work are valued most in choosing a college or career.”

Under capitalist logic, all aspects of life are seen in terms of what they can be exchanged for financially or otherwise, as opposed to the value they bring to people, the environment, or culture. These attacks on access to education in Serbia and across the world serve as a call-to-arms for all sections of society to not only fight for access to the current educational system, but to radically transform it and the society around it.


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