The Rochester Institute of Technology in Croatia is celebrating their twentieth anniversary in Croatia this year. Hundreds of students, both from Croatia and international, have graduated over the years and are now working in positions all over the world. On this important birthday the Dubrovnik Times caught up with the President and dean of RIT Croatia, Don Hudspeth.
This year RIT Croatia is marking an important anniversary, your twentieth anniversary in Croatia. Why was Dubrovnik the first location for RIT in Croatia?
The start of our story in Dubrovnik happened when the Rochester Institute of Technology in the USA received an invitation from the Ministry of Science and Technology. At that time they were interested to see if there was a market for private education in Croatia. The other point was to help the country’s tourism industry with a new model, because the mass tourism model that had been a part of tourism in the former Yugoslavia was quite clearly not the right model for the future. A new approach was needed and the Ministry understood this. They approached Rochester because RIT had a MBA program in the Czech Republic and had experience in working with emerging countries in the region. The Ministry and the Croatian government obviously knew the potential of Dubrovnik as a brand. Obviously we arrived in Dubrovnik in a post-war period and the decision of the Ministry was connected to the city’s redevelopment. I would also like to add that we found great partners here at that time, the University of Dubrovnik. I can honestly say that the University was a major help in RIT in Dubrovnik getting started. They were extremely flexible and they also had a faculty that was big enough for us to use when we first started.
You once said that your biggest success is the success of your students.
How I ultimately judge how successful we have been is when the students graduate and find employment. Many of our students have made a contribution to the tourism industry in Dubrovnik, and in fact not only Dubrovnik but beyond. Whether in the hotel section, travel section or restaurant business, we have seen our students in some of the most important sectors of the tourism industry. We really judge ourselves, and our success, by our students outcomes and by their futures.
Are all your graduates able to find employment in positions relevant to their education? The short answer is yes. We continue to see every year that our students have a high placement rate, even through the years of the financial crisis. And it isn’t only in the tourism and hospitality industry that our students are finding employment. I would say that fifty percent of our graduates find positions in the business sector, away from the tourism industry.
Croatia has an employment problem in a way that we as a country need more workers
In fact RIT Croatia is made up of two faculties, one in Dubrovnik and the other in the capital, Zagreb. Do more students in Zagreb tend to follow their education into business rather than in tourism?
Of course the bulk of employment positions in Dubrovnik are in the tourism industry, which obviously means that if our graduates decide to continue living in the city there is a good chance that they will end up in tourism. Of course we have many international students, therefore a percentage of these foreign students will return to their home countries after graduation. Around 15 percent of our graduates in the Zagreb campus decide to follow a career in tourism. This is great because as we all know we need more people working in the tourism industry, .
What do you believe are the advantages of studying at a private institution?
Firstly I have to say that there is a variance in private education in terms of quality. When you look at the Croatian marketplace there are some great private universities but there are also some that aren’t so good. I think the one biggest advantages of private education in general is that we can be a lot quicker to adapt and make changes. When someone decides to study at RIT Croatia they are making an investment into their future. With a tuition rate of 6,000 Euros annually, or over four years of education 24,000 Euros, at RIT Croatia we of course are very interested in what types of jobs they get after graduating. We really like to show that there is a return on that investment. So with that in mind we are in constant contact with businesses and industry, we get feedback all the time from them to see what we should be doing in our curriculum to match their demands. This is helped with the fact that our students must do internships as part of their education. So this gives us another chance to talk to businesses and ask them for feedback. In the public system there isn’t a lot of contact with businesses and they are also really slow to react to situations. I really believe that you need a certain amount of “market” input in everything, because the market keeps things healthy. As soon as you take out this market input you lose relevancy. Not only do we ask companies what do you need now, but we also ask what will be missing in five years time. If someone starts studying now they aren’t going to finish for five years time, so we need to know what companies will need in the future. Especially in the IT industry, an industry that moves so quickly, we prepare students with a solid background but we also look to the future - what will be big in five years time. By the way this isn’t just a Croatian problem; this is the same the world over. There has been some improvement in the public universities but there is still a long way to go. One of the biggest complaints from companies in Croatia is that graduates aren’t prepared well enough for their working lives.
At your Career Education Days, which RIT Croatia organises, many American companies and international companies are present. How successful are your students in finding employment with these companies?
We were the first university in the region to organise these “Career Educations Days” and have so far held seventeen. We have local, regional and international companies attending this event. Our focus, and the reason we call them career education days, is not necessarily finding jobs at that actual event but on how to prepare for searching and succedding in finding a job. The steps from firstly where they will do their internships and then what to do after graduation, it is a whole process. We have a lot of companies they come and actually do interviews on those days. But we also have companies that make presentations and then hold interviews further in the future. If we look at that initial contact that was made on these career education days our findings show that around 25 to 30 percent of our graduates find jobs in the future.
You have been in Croatia for a longer period of time, since the beginning of RIT in the country, and have been following the education system. Every new government announces new reforms, but these hardly ever come to fruition. What do we need to change in the Croatian education system?
This is a huge question. I think that in the twenty years that I have been here we have seen some improvements but nowhere near the amount that we need to see. I have experience of both a personal and private nature. I see the paths that the students take through our faculty and also my own children. Certainly one of the most important things that needs to change is this way of teaching masses of information, this leads to learning things “parrot fashion” rather than learning to understand and think. Because children are forced to learn so many subjects and a huge transfer of knowledge they aren’t doing things like problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and innovation. These are all key things that will help them in the future and unfortunately they are missing out on this. We see this with students that start our university. Their base is very strong, they have a very broad base of knowledge, but this is at the expense of never being in the situation that they needed to solve problems. And that is the greatest challenge that students find when they start studying with us. Of course this school system follows on in public universities. There have been some changes and some professors are looking at different models, but the change is nowhere near where it needs to be.
Have you had positive co-operation with local city authorities over the years?
Over the years we have been involved in some city initiatives, for example when the city was bidding for the 2020 city of culture we had two people on the team. We probably have more contact and more involvement with DURA than with the city government.
Would you like to be more involved with the city government?
It is important that we are a member of the community and make a contribution, and I think we do that. Of course if we were more involved with city projects we would have to select those projects very carefully to make sure that they fall into the overall strategy of the faculty. And also we want to be involved in things that have final results. I don’t want to be doing something just for the sake of doing something; there must be a genuine goal.
We are starting to embrace a higher quality brand of tourism
You have been living in Dubrovnik for quite some time now, what changes have you noticed over those years?
For those of us who live here and really want the best for the city we sometimes think that things go a little slow. But in truth things are moving in the right direction. The differences I see from 1997 to today they are huge. On the tourism side we are starting to embrace a higher quality brand of tourism, and the international brands that have opened here have helped to this process. We continue to see great international exposure, whether this is through movie locations to the fact that international car brands, such as Mercedes and Nissan are choosing Dubrovnik as a destination for major conferences. These types of companies are very selective and they have the whole world to choose from, so it says a lot about Dubrovnik as a destination that they are choosing us. I also sometimes think that those beautiful walls around the city can also be walls around our minds. Sometimes we are afraid of making changes. This protective mentality can end up actually harming the city. The irony is that Dubrovnik has survived through the centuries by being open to the world, not being closed. You don’t hold onto your cultural values by hiding them away from the world.
Text - Mark Thomas
Photos - Tonci Plazibat