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Worth the Paper It's Printed on?

With most of Kosovo’s universities under orders to shut down, students worry about the value of their degrees.
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by Besiana Xharra 3 August 2009 PRISTINA | Last month, from one day to the next, thousands of students in Kosovo learned that they would not be receiving the university degree that they thought they had been paying for.

After a nine-month review, the Education Ministry announced on 7 July that 21 of 30 private schools that had been calling themselves universities would be forced to close because they had not met the criteria for accreditation.

The decision was the culmination of an effort to bring some order to the “Wild West,” free-market approach that has dominated higher education since the end of the Kosovo conflict a decade ago. Immediately after the war, a handful of private institutions opened, only to see their numbers rise to more than two dozen within a few years. At the time, Kosovo had no accreditation process to assess the quality of the schools; they simply received licenses as educational institutions.

The perception persisted that some of the schools were mere money-making machines, handing out degrees without offering much of an education to their students, who have been paying from 1,000 to 3,000 euros per year.

Last year the government acted, first inviting the British Accreditation Council to come to Kosovo and make its own assessment. The council’s conclusion was a portent of things to come: none of the private institutions had the qualifications to be labeled a university.

The Accreditation Agency of Kosovo – a body composed of seven educational experts, four local and three foreign – issued the same verdict last month, but with a few caveats. While most schools had to close shop, six would be relabeled colleges and permitted to offer bachelor’s and master’s programs, but not doctoral studies. Three others would be relabeled institutes and allowed to offer only bachelor’s programs.

That left the University of Pristina, a public institution, as the only school still able to bear the name of university, though the AAK also came down hard there. Four departments would have to close because they had not met the criteria for accreditation: psychology, ethnology, pharmacy, and physiotherapy.

DEFINE ‘UNIVERSITY’

The ministry has moved quickly to start monitoring the implementation of the new regulations. If schools ignore the AAK’s finding, the ministry will strip them of their licenses and any accreditation that they did receive. The schools that must close down will be permitted to stay open until their current students have finished their studies.

Some of those who run the affected schools have been up in arms over the decision and have vowed to seek redress in the law, arguing that the Kosovan legislation on higher education doesn’t even include the new definitions.

“In Kosovo, the term ‘college’ is not defined by law,” said Rahman Pacarizi, dean of the mass communications department at AAB-Riinvest University. “Therefore I say that my school cannot be designated a ‘college’ without the term being previously defined by law.” He called the process unusual and in violation of European legal standards, saying he planned to take his complaint to the ministry.

Other protested that they had been downgraded unfairly, falling to the lowest category while others did not. “Under the same conditions other institutions are labeled as colleges. Therefore I ask that the AAK clarify the status of my institution,” said Suat Berisha, board president of Universum University College, which has been reclassified as an institute.

School administrators have also complained about the cap on the number of students who will now be permitted to enroll at accredited institutions (500 per year at colleges and 250 at universities). “In this way schools can also increase competition and improve the quality of teaching and learning,” said Ferdije Zhushi-Etemi, chairwoman of the National Council of Quality, which oversees the AAK’s work. “And they cannot accept a large number of students only to take money from them, as they were doing before,” she added.

The director of the AAK, Basri Muja, acknowledged hearing loud grumblings directed toward the agency but said that he still has not received any serious complaint in writing. He added that schools have the right to appeal to the ministry, the AAK, and the courts.

Zhushi-Etemi said the higher education law would soon undergo revision, which would be an opportunity to include the new definitions.

Both officials also stressed that the lack of academic research undertaken in these schools was one of the main reasons that led to the decision to strip many of their university status. According to Zhushi-Etemi, the name “university” should be granted to an establishment of the highest academic level that fosters opportunities to conduct research.

“The difference is that the public university has links with many major international institutions and is able to send its personnel abroad, who in turn have conveyed the experience gained outside to their students, while this has not occurred at private institutions,” Zhushi-Etemi said. “Private universities do not have a policy for staff development.” As a result, she said, they not only don’t conduct real research, but also lack an adequate number of qualified staff – “staff with a higher academic calling,” as she put it.

A BLOW TO FUTURE EMPLOYMENT?

Many students now wonder how the ministry’s decision will affect their future job prospects.

Florijana Ademi, who has finished her studies at Dardania University – now not accredited as either a college or an institute – said that she is afraid her degree will not be recognized either in Kosovo or abroad.

“When I entered this university, it was licensed by the Ministry of Education. Therefore, the minister of education must resolve the problems with our diplomas because his ministry licensed these schools,” said Ademi, adding that she and other students fear losing out when they seek employment because their alma maters will no longer be seen as universities.

Visar Gashi, a student at the unaccredited Tempulli College, said the ministry should resolve the current situation by transferring students into accredited schools to finish their studies.

But Education Minister Enver Hoxhaj said these students’ fears are unfounded. He said that if his ministry had licensed their institutions during the time they were enrolled, then their diplomas would still be recognized in Kosovo and abroad. He also dismissed the idea that students would face any major obstacles in the job market.

“The only discrimination that could happen would occur when they start to work in some [public] institutions. It’s possible that they will be required to carry out more work practice than students who have attended the public University of Pristina,” the minister said.

Hoxhaj added that the changes were carried out with students’ best interests in mind since the new system will enable them to receive a good education at high-level academic institutions. He described the AAK’s ruling as fair and necessary. “I think that the process of accreditation … involving experts is a realistic assessment of the existing situation in all these institutions of higher education in Kosovo,” he said.

LOSS OF A GOOD THING

The foreign education specialists who participated in the accreditation process have also been working hard to ease the concerns of students and leaders of private institutions.

Helmut Konrad, an Austrian member of the AAK and former rector of the University of Graz, said that although these institutions cannot bear the title of university, the bachelor’s degree that they will confer will be equivalent to one provided by a university.

“A bachelor’s remains a bachelor’s. … I would not have any dilemma in sending my child to college, because a bachelor’s from a college is as good as a bachelor’s from a university,” Konrad said.

“Since the beginning of this process we have said that if we want to succeed in accreditation, we should stick to European standards. This was the condition, and we have fulfilled the rules,” he said, noting the lack of any political interference.

The decision to shutter schools has also hit teachers at those institutions hard, removing hundreds of relatively lucrative jobs. The average salary in private schools is 500 euros per month, compared with 200 in public schools. “In the market you can’t find a lot of opportunity, so working in a private school is a very good opportunity. The pay is also good,” said Agim Dula, an English professor at Dardania University.

Artan Konjufca, a mathematics professor at FAMA University, said he worked at the school because the pay was better than at public schools. He worried, however, that he could lose his job because FAMA had been reclassified as a college and would have to limit enrollment.

Those teachers who find themselves out of a job would face an economy saddled with an unemployment rate that consistently stays above 40 percent.

Meanwhile, Edmond Tahiri, a student at Dardania with one year left before getting his degree, said the accreditation process has left him bewildered. “I want to know whether my diploma will be recognized. I’ve spent time and money on these studies, and I don’t think we deserve this,” Tahiri said.

Besiana Xharra is a journalist for the Express newspaper in Pristina.
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