It is Only When We Have Respect for Ourselves that Others Will Respect Us

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On 1 October 2013 you assumed the function of Dean of the Faculty of Economics at the University of Ljubljana. Have you been able to establish your own team and what are your first steps?

It is indeed true that around two months have passed since I assumed my function but I have been at the Faculty of Economics for a long time, which is why I am familiar with the people, work and tasks of the dean. I believe that we were able to form a very good leadership team as the vice deans were already involved with the work at the faculty in areas that they now cover as members of the new leadership. I would highlight the fact that we tried to act as an integrating element and include the largest possible number of staff in the work of the faculty and the fulfilment of the strategy.

Over recent years, the Faculty of Economics has established itself on the international stage and is one of the best faculties, in this field, in Central Europe. What will be your key orientations in the coming years?

We will, by all means, continue on the current course as that is our fundamental strategic orientation on account of us being a global school. We are, of course, acutely aware of the responsibility brought about by being the best school of this kind in the region when it comes to the generation of knowledge and its transfer. It is not helpful when there is, for example, only one “mushroom in the meadow” as mushroom gatherers prefer coming to an environment with plenty of mushrooms. We are certainly a harbinger of change as well as a lighthouse that guides change; and we are ready to push the entire region forward in the science of economics and business.

The Faculty of Economics has one of the largest shares of foreign students among Slovenian faculties. How would you rate the importance of maximising the internationalisation of education in general and does the state or the system as a whole provide suitable support for such an orientation?
The question, of course, is how we interpret the word system. If we look at the higher education development strategy adopted by the National Assembly, we can say that it is a suitable institutional orientation. Unfortunately, this is not often the case at the implementation level. Our legislation governing this field is highly rigid, whereas we should have greater feel for basic logic in these terms. Some of the decisions are illogical and do not account for the actual state-of-affairs. For example, many of our citizens who studied at faculties or acquired knowledge abroad would not have been able to do so had the bureaucratic obstacles been as severe as they are in Slovenia. It is a fact that we are also responsible for the development of Slovenian language – including professional terminology in different areas; however, we cannot pursue this goal by insisting on having educational programmes provided only in Slovenian. The care for the language is something entirely different and I for one, believe it to be far more important that senior government officials are able to use Slovenian in their work.

To clarify what I want to emphasise: we have found ourselves in a position where we declared care for the Slovenian language as a state-level priority, while those who are to implement this policy are unable to master the basic elements of the language. When I attended a consultation on higher education recently, I noticed that the government officials, for example, frequently do not know how to use the dual when it comes to the neutral gender. The fact is that we cannot function well in a particular environment if we have not mastered foreign languages, which is the fate of a small nation. The high costs of a minority language are also linked to this and that is something we should be aware of.

When we talk of the state, we cannot disregard austerity and cost-cutting that also affects higher education. Are the warnings on excessive austerity justified; could more be done within the institutions, the University and faculties; are there any reserves in terms of organisation or efficiency?

This issue certainly involves a combination of different elements. Of course, I cannot claim that absolutely no internal reserves could be found, there is no doubt about that. But I cannot think of a single country in the world that grew and developed while lowering spending on education. We find ourselves in an extremely unusual situation when it comes to the financing of primary school, secondary school and faculty students as we are the only country, according to OECD , where faculty students are not more expensive than secondary school or primary school students. The fact is that we should be mindful when it comes to austerity. I am not inclined to speak of the lowering of costs, but rather of managing costs. Managing costs does not imply work with numbers but rather, working with people which is something people often forget. Linear measures can trigger highly negative reactions from people that are later reflected in high and unnecessary long term costs.

Has the economic crisis perhaps affected interest in the study of economics? There is a lot of talk about the “deluge” of economists, lawyers, philosophers, etc., which is not in line with the requirements of Slovenian society and the economy. How can we reconcile the needs of our economy with the structure of those studying?

The interest in business sciences has certainly not waned. It is a fact that even those who possess technical and other knowledge and are involved in the management of companies are learning that they need the basic elements of business knowledge – including economic and certain macroeconomic knowledge – whereas data is frequently maliciously shown, creating an impression that there are too many people of this professional profile, while the data in practice does not corroborate this. A further fact is that our graduates are still employable and that they are undoubtedly more employable than the graduates from certain private schools extending the same professional title. We should not bury our head in the sand in this regard as quality does indeed differ, but we are still afraid of admitting this.

I would like to tell you one very significant brief story from my days at secondary school during the so-called socialist times. I was in a class where we devotedly strove to develop entrepreneurship. We thought of how we would go about establishing a company and then present the results of the simulations – in that group is one of the most successful companies in Slovenia, Studio Moderna. We were divided into two groups, technical and social sciences. I and Mr Sandi Češko were part of the social sciences section, while the technical sciences section had construction and computer engineers who underestimated us. But they quickly learned that they did not possess sufficient knowledge about business; that they knew how to develop a product and manufacture it, but did not know how to sell it, evaluate it in terms of costs, assess the funds required for development, etc. But when we joined forces, a success story was born – at first this was the Oria Company, now Studio Moderna.

The Faculty of Economics is the centre of Slovenian economics. Do you think that policymakers listen to the advice from your institution as it sometimes seems that the words of your professors are falling on deaf ears and that politics is simply going its own way and has its own notion of the right solution?

This is the fundamental Slovenian social problem that is developmental in origin and has brought about the demonization of politics. It is much easier to point the finger at politics than those who handled public property irresponsibly and privatised it in an uncontrolled manner. It is true that a sort of primal accumulation of capital was happening over the initial years of the country’s independence – we could not call it any other name, but we were not willing to admit this. Many crooked stories transpired because some politicians were not willing to point them out in time. Today, no serious person wants to enter politics because a politician is seen as a swear word. But what is politics? It is a normal way of realising the interests of society, while in our country, everyone has suddenly turned apolitical while at the same time being a peanut politician themselves. This means that they first follow one and then another political option – and this is catastrophic. 

In the past, our faculty yielded many ministers, leaders, and heads of institutions in both the private and public sectors which is why our people are highly involved in these environments. Because of the general stance towards politics, no one, of course, wants to discharge functions where they could be scolded without justification. But this is only the case in Slovenia; they do not face such problems elsewhere.

How would you assess the adopted state budget for 2014? More importantly, do you find it to be realistic? Has politics, again, perhaps ignored the economic calculations?

The important thing is that the budget was adopted and that opportunities are being created for a somewhat more optimistic outlook. This biased criticism that we are witnessing in Slovenia is an important reason for us not being able to move forward. You see, we are currently facing the consequences of reforms not having been passed. We all knew what the consequences would be and I find it inappropriate that we now hear cries about what happened when we all knew even then what would happen. It seems right that the conditions in the country are stabilising at this basic level. It is, however, true that we have different economic doctrines, which is quite normal. The Nobel Prize went to both Hayek and Friedman, and Stiglitz and Krugman, where the latter two were actually socialists – an option that cannot be found in Slovenia. It is also true that we have thoroughly confused the terms liberal and libertarian in Slovenia. If one is a libertarian, they are not necessarily an economic liberal; you can also be in favour of other economic doctrines.

How do you look upon the justification of government borrowing for current government spending, that we are unable to adapt to the realistic capabilities of the economy?

That’s exactly how it is. At the private level, everyone understands “how long their blanket is” and they are forced to apply household logic – even though unhappily. At the national level, we place impossible demands on this unfortunate country. We would, for example, like to have an easy life as they have in Greece, residential surface areas as they have in America, technological development seen in Japan, education and health enjoyed in Sweden, while we would prefer our taxes to be as they are in tax havens, i.e. no one would like to pay taxes! The state is, therefore, expected to give and it is not our problem where it comes from as long as they don’t take it from us! We have no tax culture to speak of and that has been deeply rooted in us since primary school. Teachers tell parents, for example, “we cannot issue a bill to you, but do bring money so that we co-finance such and such”, which is, of course, a grey market. How are children then expected to become responsible if we teach them from an early age that such behaviour is completely normal? You cannot change a person when they are 40 years old, which is why we must first truly agree among ourselves whether we want to have a normal and well-arranged country where we pay taxes into the budget and then finance public projects from it. We must transfer this to our children.

One big problem in Slovenia is a culture of systemic late payment, what are your thoughts on this?

This is beyond a shadow of a doubt the fault of the state that has tolerated the so-called construction barons who supported different political parties and were, on account of that, allowed to carry on their inappropriate business practices or their attitude towards subcontractors. This practice then spread from the construction industry to the entire economy. The state is to blame for this as are all the political parties. There is a known saying that politics is akin to the oldest profession in the world and if this is true, then politicians should act as the members of this guild as it is crystal clear who the boss is, i.e. the madam and not some up-and-comer.

As already mentioned, this demonisation of politics and the proclamation of being apolitical has reached ridiculous proportions which is why people no longer understand what politicians are supposed to do, we even have Members of Parliament who say that they are not politicians. How are they then supposed to adequately steer state policy, economic development, etc.?

You know, we have had cases where even Ministers said they were not politicians. Such people should never even be in government because they do not understand why they are there. Such people should first be given a basic social science dictionary to read and learn about politics. As mentioned, this is a normal way of exercising the interest of individual social groups. But politics is not the only example where we have had our terminology completely mixed up. A good example is the term “technocratic government”. This means that the government conducts current affairs, whereas we obviously think that it may not have in its ranks any politicians or members of political parties, which is utter nonsense. As long as the parliament adopts decisions, it is all politics and political decisions. The notion of being apolitical and the like are all constructs contrived by the Slovenian political circles to justify their mistakes.

Recently, we have been talking about foreign investments and their urgency. At the Faculty of Economics, the FDI Summit was organised for the second year and it clearly defined the methods for attracting and steering foreign investment. Not much is happening in reality, investors are not coming, everyone is talking about the unattractiveness of Slovenia, the lack of credibility on the part of the state, etc. How do you see the role of foreign investment and how do we become credible, interesting, attractive, etc.?

When we start talking about foreign investment and potential real projects, a sort of “invisible mechanism” is triggered in Slovenia that stifles it. Journalist can barely catch their breath while expounding potential scandals and the media is fast to point out who will “pocket” everything and how much, etc. This is, plain and simple, an unfriendly or untrustworthy environment for investors. In this regard, I am firmly convinced that our environment is much more trustworthy and friendly than we make it out to be. It is a fact that the banking industry should be brought to a recovery as soon as possible, and another fact is that political decisions in these segments were poor – what has been going on with Nova Ljubljanska banka for years was unnecessary because things were quite clear. Let us be completely fair and say that our bankers in shiny shoes were part of the international financial bubble; they cared only for themselves, spoke of profits to the media …, designed their own payment and bonus schemes that gave them astronomical earnings. But when real development projects of viable companies needed to be financed, managers of those companies had to turn to foreign banks because our bankers were simply too easygoing to deal with actual business models of companies and risk assessments.

Many foreign investors already present in this country mention excessive taxes, wages and salaries, and bureaucratic obstacles, but also often admit that our investment environment is not that bad, that their business is not that bad and that they are leaders within their corporations. Is the actual problem a sort of general social climate, negativity, etc.?

Yes, we Slovenians are truly an odd nation which is costing us dearly of late. We are kind of self-destructive. When it comes to boasting about our own family, we are prone to exaggerating, all of our families are “wonderful”, they have wonderful children and grandchildren, etc., but when it comes to our country, we think that we will have to go to confession if we say something nice. A good example is last year’s self-assessment report of Slovenian managers that ranked Slovenia last in Europe and even globally. One could literally cry if all of it were true. But the situation is not like that. I wonder who the managers who answered the questions were. They were probably the ones that became managers when the economy “flew” on its own while they played golf and allocated donations among their friends. Now, when one has to prove oneself, work, save companies … they complain that everything is bad because they are simply not up to the job and up to the problems they must resolve.

Are you optimistic about economic development in Slovenia over the next three years; where do you see potential breakthroughs, the return to growth and primarily the return to social optimism?

I have always been optimistic, even during the worst years. My colleagues always wondered where I got such optimism from. It seems to me that if you spread pessimism, it takes root even though there is no reason for that, which is why we have to spread optimism, especially as we have realistic reasons for doing so. If I compare the income of individuals and the general social standard in Slovenia in 1990 and today, I can say that the jump is outstanding. Those born after 1990 don’t remember that you could not buy a flight ticket once, go on vacation abroad, that shortages of basic goods were frequent, and they are probably a little spoiled because of that. They must accept the fact that we are born at different points of economic cycles. If one is born at a point of the cycle when things are bad and things are currently better, they are satisfied, while if things are the other way around, they think that they have fallen victim to injustice. The fact that the world is turning must be incorporated in all areas of our education system and in the upbringing of children so that they understand the events around them. The above is just as important as having ethics and morality being integrated into every facet of education and the entire system of the functioning of the state. At the Faculty of Economics, we have incorporated the elements of ethics and morality into all processes. Ethics and morality are something that one has to live and cannot be activated with the push of a button.