The beginnings of schools and education in Croatia date back to the 10th century, and up to the 18th century were linked to the Church and priesthood. Systematic education of the people began during the reign of Maria Theresa, who issued an Edict on the General School Order in 1774, beginning a reform in education with an emphasis on elementary education.
From then on, every place with a parish church was required to open a school, which children aged 7 to 12 attended compulsorily. In the same year, the first courses to train teachers began in Bjelovar, Petrinja and Karlovac, and the first public teacher training college opened in 1849 in Zagreb. In 1874, the Croatian Diet issued the first Croatian Education Act, which regulated compulsory five-year education, and instead of German, which had been used up to then, the official language became Croatian. In 1945, seven-year education became compulsory, and this was increased to eight years in 1958, covering all children aged between 7 and 15.
The education system today begins in preschool institutions, which include those run by local authorities and private nursery schools (legal persons, religious communities, and others), and institutions which provide preschool programmes and shorter programmes such as libraries, various associations and elementary schools. Nurseries are responsible for full-day or shorter programmes of education, health care, nutrition and social care, which cover children from the age of six months to when they start school. In 2010, 58% of pre-school aged children attended them, while over 99% attend in the year before they start school.
Children who are six and a half or over must attend compulsory elementary education, which lasts 8 years. There is an adult education system for those over the age of 15 who fail to complete elementary education.
Upon completing their elementary education, children may continue optional secondary education which is divided according to curricula into gymnasiums, vocational schools (technical, industrial and craft based) or art schools (music, dance, art). Gymnasiums provide a comprehensive syllabus which lasts 4 years and includes a final examination, the state matura. Programmes in vocational and art schools last from one to five years, and usually end with the production of a final assignment, but it is also possible to sit the state matura if pupils have completed four years of secondary education. Since 2010, state matura results have been the basis for entry to higher education institutions. Along with secondary education, there are also programmes which prepare people to work in their chosen vocations and adult education programmes. Elementary and secondary education in state schools is free.
Higher education is conducted in higher education institutions through university and professional studies. Higher education institutions are divided into polytechnics, colleges of applied science, faculties and art academies. All courses were aligned by 2005 with the requirements of the Bologna Process as part of the creation of a European system of higher education.
University studies equip students for work in science and higher education, in the business world, public sector and society. University studies are organised and implemented at universities which comprise several faculties, and may be at the level of undergraduate, graduate or postgraduate studies. After completing a three or four-year undergraduate course, students are awarded the title of Bachelor (univ. bacc.) and after a further one or two years of graduate studies, the title of Master (mag.). Postgraduate studies last three years and end with the defence of a doctoral dissertation, after which the academic title of Doctor of Science (dr. sc.) or Doctor of Arts (dr. art.) is awarded.
Professional studies provide students with the knowledge and skills they will require to work in professional occupations. Professional studies, which last two to three years, are conducted in colleges of applied science or polytechnics, and may also be conducted in universities. Upon completion, graduates are awarded the title of Professional Bachelor (bacc.) with reference to a specialisation. Polytechnics and colleges of applied science may organise specialist graduate professional studies lasting one or two years for students who have completed professional study courses or undergraduate university courses, and these studies lead to the academic title of Professional Specialist (struč. spec.) with reference to a specialisation. Universities may organise postgraduate specialist studies which last one or two years, which lead to the academic title University Specialist (univ. spec.) with reference to a specialisation.
The university has a long tradition in Croatia. The first university was established in Zadar in 1396, a century before the Dominican order promoted the level of courses to studia generalia with all university rights and privilèges in 1495. The beginnings of Zagreb University date back to 1669, when King Leopold promoted the Zagreb Jesuit Academy to the level of a university. The Decree of the Empress Maria Theresa of 1776 ordered the establishment of the Royal Academy of Science, which at first had three faculties: Theology, Law and Philosophy. The modern University of Zagreb was founded in 1874 and its component faculties were Theology, Law, and Philosophy. Today, it is the largest university in the country and comprises 29 faculties, 3 academies and university centres. There are also universities in Dubrovnik, Pula, Rijeka, Osijek, Split and Zadar, and a Catholic University in Zagreb.
Today, 90 public and 32 private higher education institutions are operating in Croatia. The largest number of students, 67.5%, are enrolled in university courses in faculties.
In the academic year 2011/12, total of 152,857 students were enrolled in higher education institutions, and 36,448 of them graduated. There were 9,915 students accommodated in student halls of residence.
In the academic year 2010/11, a total of 3,451 students gained doctoral degrees, while 1,762 students enrolled in masters’ or postgraduate specialist studies. In 2011, 1,072 of them gained their doctoral degrees, and 1,229 graduated as university specialists.
Teaching was carried out in higher education institutions in the academic year 2011/12 by 16,594 teaching staff and associates, among whom there were 8,094 staff with doctoral degrees.