Pristina University Key to Economic Recovery

University of Pristina must push ahead with education reforms despite protests so Kosovo’s fragile economy improves.

PRistina University Building

More than a week ago hundreds of Kosovo citizens – including prominent public figures such as artists, journalists, writers and civil society activists – rallied in support of granting greater autonomy to the University of Pristina. Gathered under the slogan ‘For University’, the march was a kind of counter-protest to a demonstration held earlier last week by a student body also known as the Student Parliament. The Student Parliament has held a series of protests calling for the resignation of the university’s rector, Ramadan Zejnullahu.
The Student Parliament, with the backing of a number of professors, is opposed to reforms imposed by Zejnullahu. Instead of having to sit five exams during the study year, he has cut that to three. However, students who want to graduate to the next year must now pass almost all exams, and can only postpone one exam to the next year. Zejnullahu hasn’t only made the criteria for passing exams higher for students, he has also imposed tougher criteria for professors seeking promotion. In a bid to tackle poor academic performance, professors now need to have at least three papers published in scientific journals before being promoted.
Until these changes were introduced, the promotion of professors was done almost without any criteria or at least without respect to the criteria officially prescribed by university rules. What has further infuriated professors is that from now on the University of Pristina will not accept publication in scientific journals published by local private universities as valid grounds for promotion. It was often the case that these journals didn’t have any academic value and were used only to help professors advance their careers. After these ‘unpopular’ measures were introduced, 28 out of 42 members of the university senate signed a letter requesting the resignation of Zejnullahu.
Among other ‘unpopular’ measures introduced by Zejnullahu was the stipulation that senate officials – including ministers, parliamentarians and judges – could not draw two full-time salaries for their original post and another at the university. Although the University of Pristina should be a top educational institution as it organises 90 per cent of higher education in Kosovo, it has actually struggled with corruption for decades. Zejnullahu was among the first who wanted to put an end to this long tradition. But it also important to remember how Zejnullahu was appointed to the post.
In 2014, it was revealed that Zejnullahu’s predecessor, Ibrahim Gashi, published a paper in an obscure journal. Gashi used the publication of this article to further advance his professional career. While not unusual in itself, Gashi’s own academic credentials were called into question after an anonymous author later sent a rehashed version of the Communist Party Manifesto to the same journal to see if they would publish. They did, and the anonymous ‘author’ tipped off the press. The story provoked uproar among the academic community in Kosovo, with students and academics alike holding protests calling on Gashi to step down as rector. The police force, surprisingly or not, was on the side of the rector, even beating and throwing tear gas at the students. But this was a red line for Kosovo citizens, who joined the protests en masse.
After days of protests, Gashi, who vehemently defended his academic record, eventually resigned along with some members of the university council, which has executive power over the institution. The council, which has nine members, appoints the rector. As part of the council resigned, and specifically members appointed by the Ministry of Education, there was no political pressure on the other members of the council to appoint someone with a background either in politics or close to the political parties. The new four members were then selected from civil society organisations.
And this is how the new rector got elected. But these current protests are not the only ones Zejnullahu has faced since taking up the post.
War Veterans’ Demands
Right after he took up the position, he faced mass protests by war veterans who demanded their children be automatically accepted to the university due to their sacrifice during the 1999 war with Serbia. Although his battle was hard, he won and didn’t accept any lists for the university that were not merit based. This is the point when Zejnullahu become a powerful moral force in Kosovo. This is one of the reasons why he is being supported so widely now – both within and beyond Kosovo. He has received international support, notably in the form of letters from the EU representative in Kosovo, Samuel Zbogar, and other embassies. The Kosovo Ministry of Education has also supported Zejnullahu, saying it will not consider the current demands for his resignation.
It is also important to mention that media support has also been huge and that most opinion makers in Kosovo who had previously been critical of the university are now supporting the reforms started by the rector. One can ask “Why is this university that important?” The University of Pristina has historic and symbolic importance for Kosovo society. It was established in 1969 a year after the 1968 demonstrations demanded the creation of an Albanian language university in Pristina. It was a signifier of the advancement of Kosovo’s position within the former Yugoslavia. It is also symbolic of the demonstrations of 1981 (after Tito’s death) which are regarded as a key resistance movement against Serbia’s attempt to regain control over Kosovo. And, of course, of the peaceful student protests in 1997 against the former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, during which period Kosovo captured international attention. So, the University of Pristina is an emblem of the resistance of Kosovo people during past decades and its existence has a symbolic relation with the wellbeing of Kosovo.
Except this, it is the institution that administers 90 per cent of higher education in the country, which also means it has political importance. Actually there is an indirect relationship between political power in Kosovo and the university.  For example, we can take the fact that in 2005 people coming from one of the largest parties in Kosovo, the Democratic Party of Kosovo, were appointed to leading positions at the university. Just two years later, that party won the elections. Of course, the university wasn’t the only factor but it was one of them.
To illustrate this better, here’s an example of how the university can play a role during elections. Ahead of the 2010 general elections, the dean of the Faculty of Sports gathered 500 students for a meeting with the then prime minister, Hashim Thaci. As a result, public perception was that the youth supported Thaci. Also during the last elections, Thaci held a meeting at the university’s student centre during which he promised to cut semester fees (which he did) and was applauded rapturously by the students assembled. Bearing in mind that 75 per cent of the population in Kosovo is young, and that students are ‘the elite’ of the youth, some would say it is very important to control them through controlling the University of Pristina. Therefore, the University of Pristina is a very important institution in political life in Kosovo. Its eventual independence from politics can create a strong political entity, neutral toward political parties, but critical of socio-political processes.
As we can see, this possibility has no supporters among political factors of Kosovo, except foreign ambassadors. Civil society organisations are supporting it because it has interest in having another ally under its umbrella to fight increasing corruption and poor systems created by politicians.
The unity of the supporters’ wing guarantees us that the rector is going to remain in post until the end of his mandate. But with the resistance from the “anti-quality coalition”, he can’t do more than prevent illicit registrations, stop irregular academic advancement and put a halt to the misuse of the university as a second full-time salary for politicians. All these measures are not enough to ensure positive progress. This can just about lead us to a zero point from the minus point we are at right now. But Kosovo needs rapid improvement in the quality of education on offer in order to see even small improvements of its fragile economy.


19 October 2015