You've Got to Admit
Albania considers radical changes in its university admissions process and takes steps to combating corruption in higher education. [Also in Russian] by Artan Puto 21 October 2005
TIRANA, Albania | This will be a memorable autumn for Albania's university freshmen, and not just because they have begun a new stage of their lives.
First, the new government of Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party (PD) scrapped its predecessor's radical rethink of the university admissions process. Then, the ever-present murmur about cheating throughout the higher education system rose to a shout.
While still in office and preparing the transition of power to the center-right parties that won July's general election, the Socialist government of Prime Minister Fatos Nano radically liberalized the country's university admission requirements, opening higher education to anyone with a high-school diploma. Previously, applicants had to pass an admission exam.
In order to deal with the expected influx of new students, the government planned to open three new universities in the coastal city of Durres and in the southern towns of Berat and Fier.
The decision by Nano’s government would have allowed around 26,000 students finishing high school to enter the country’s 13 public institutions of higher education.
But incoming Prime Minister Sali Berisha saw no other way to stem the tide than to overturn the decision. On 22 September, the government agreed to at least temporarily reinstate quotas – even though the PD had promised during the campaign to reform admission rules.
Within a few months, Albania thus went from a quota system to completely open admissions and back again.
Well before the new government's decision, thousands of students had to pass their admission exams for the new academic year without knowing whether the quota system would be applied or scrapped. The tests coincided with the transition period between the old Socialist government and the new administration, only adding to the confusion.
The capital and largest city, Tirana, saw the highest number of applicants; those faculties that are in highest demand, especially law and economics, made prospective students take their exams under a burning sun in the city’s football stadium.
The new minister of education, Genc Pollo, described the previous government’s decision to scrap admissions exams as “hasty and irresponsible” but said the government was boosting the number of new students by around 30 percent over last year, to about 18,000 students. To meet their needs, Pollo said the universities would hire 100 new professors.
The outgoing government's open-admissions policy had been introduced without proper assessment and with no guarantee that standards and quality would not drop, he said.
In a meeting with the rectors and deans of the universities, who all supported the decision of the new government, Pollo stressed that Albania had neither the financial means nor the appropriate infrastructure of buildings, books, and teaching staff to make free admissions possible.
POOR GRADE FOR THE SYSTEM
Albania has the youngest population in Europe; the average age is just 31.2 years. But as in most sectors of society and the economy, under-funding is taking its toll: of the roughly 2.5 million literate Albanians, only four percent have completed their university studies.
Over the last decade of Albania’s difficult transition political and economic transition, government funding for public education has never exceeded 10 percent of the state budget, which translates into only four percent of the country’s GDP. From this funding, only nine percent went toward investments while around 75 percent was used for paying the salaries of education staff.
Albanian universities do not have financial autonomy, a systemic constraint on the quality of teaching and research. As worrying is the fact that there aren’t enough textbooks, and where they do exist they tend to be copies of texts from foreign universities. The fact that many professors have emigrated in search of a better life can be added to this gloomy picture.
Albanian students, too, want to emigrate to Western Europe or the United States – and considering the conditions they endure this is hardly a surprise. The widespread impression of deep-seated corruption was only confirmed in September when the daily Metropol
reported on a poll conducted by the Center for Research and Development among 1,300 students at Tirana, Vlora, Shkodra, and Elbasan universities. More than half of the interviewees admitted the existence of high-level corruption at their university, especially in the form of bribes to enter school or pass exams.
The approximately 4,000 candidates for the 300 places at Tirana University's law school were taken aback when the private Top Channel television said it had a copy of the admissions test with the answers before the competition was held. The dean of the faculty described the broadcast as “immoral and punishable” and called on the prosecutor to investigate the case. The exam had to be cancelled and rerun two weeks later, while the tests and the commissions which drafted them were completely changed.
The second competition was held under heavy police scrutiny.
Police also questioned about 20 twenty people suspected of having bought the test with answers for 5,000 euros. According to the daily Panorama
, investigators also want to question the head of the law school's student organization. He escaped a police operation to arrest him and is now in hiding.
The Albanian press has also reported and speculated about the medical school of Tirana University and the Sports Academy, where tests have allegedly been sold for 4,000 to 7,000 euros. Endemic smaller-scale cheating – buying the answers to a class test for 50 to 100 euros, for instance – is a recurrent topic of discussion among students.
Among the systemic problems that have been thrown into the open through the exam-buying scandal are the long terms in office of the deans and other senior academics at Albania’s universities. According to Metropol
, Albanian deans typically serve for up to six years, twice as long as in many other countries, a situation that some say creates incentives for corruption, or at least lets corrupt university officials avoid having to take responsibility. It is thought that the longer the deans stay in their positions the greater the risks of creating informal networks prone to corruption. Moreover, senior academics are elected through a delegated vote that can be easily influenced by the professors themselves.
PUBLIC IS THE WAY TO GO
For the great majority of Albanian young people, the public universities provide the only chance to enter higher education. Private universities are very expensive and have not yet established a real presence in the education system, as the oldest of these opened in 2002. All in all, private universities train only about two percent of Albania’s students.
Prime Minister Berisha has pledged to put public education high on his agenda. He has already asked the World Bank for long-term loans to improve the quality of management in the sector.
According to the daily Shekulli
, Berisha said on 10 October when the new academic year started that he will propose amendments to legislation to grant the universities increased financial autonomy. Berisha also pledged to double the state budget for higher education for the next academic year, making it possible to revive the idea of opening the universities to all high-school graduates. This is seen as a way to eliminate a major source of corruption.
The new prime minister also announced plans to draft a strategy to support higher education stem the country’s acute brain drain.
But the country’s universities may need considerably more than just increased funding. One of the most serious challenges facing Albania’s universities is meeting the standards of the "Bologna Process" meant to make Europe’s higher education more competitive. If the government is serious in taking up this challenge, the public universities will have to change fundamentally in coming years.