Multi-ethnic labour pangs

October 22, 1999

Kosovo is starting to build its own university system, but can it heal the wounds of war, asks Lynn Davies

There is a feeling of rebirth amid the neglect and destruction of Kosovo, but the labour pangs have not receded.

The unresolved tensions date back beyond the war. In education, the Albanians were running a parallel system after the 1990 Serb takeover of everything including higher education, primary, secondary and special schools. Taking place mostly in private homes, the parallel system suffered not just from chronic lack of facilities and materials but from continued aggression from Serb police. At university level, many students were part-time, turning up only for examinations. Yet it was a huge symbol of resistance and Albanian autonomy.

This parallel structure is not yet dead. There are still two ministries of education and two university rectors. The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (Unmik) is in charge of restoring education and is resolute in its mission to achieve an integrated university. It has had negotiations with both sides and both rectors - although these are bilateral rather than round-table discussions.

The position of Kosovar Serb students is difficult. There are doubts about whether any will risk attending classes and reports that Serbian universities are refusing them admission. It will be a long time before "education for tolerance" is a reality. Education in human rights will have to be treated with care if it is not to arouse more hostility.

But even among Albanians there are the inevitable perceptions of hierarchies of suffering: students actively calling for peace are met with the view that "if you haven't lost a relative, if your house hasn't burned down, you have no right to speak".

Language is a key issue. Kosovar Albanian university staff said Serb students would be welcomed in their classes, yet the language of instruction creates a problem. A lecturer who wants to teach in the medical faculty must be able to speak both Serbo-Croat and Albanian because patients cannot be divided up. This regulation does not apply to other faculties and is under review.

If Serb students do return, divisions will most likely continue. The main difference will be that there is one administration, one rector and one system of examination and certification.

Debates continue about gender. Unlike some Muslim cultures, Albanian schools, as well as the university, were all co-educational and there is no tradition of segregation. Females are highly vocal and prominent in the leadership of youth groups, non-formal organisations and the media. Rural women have been running their own libraries.

However, there is an acknowledgement of patriarchal culture. With male students having been prominent in the KLA, the gender breakdown in positions of political power and in teaching posts will require scrutiny.

The key pedagogic and material needs are clear: modernisation of curricula, staff development, the provision of laboratories, technology, books and journals and exposure to new theories and ideas.

The administration was inherited from socialism, with labour-intensive offices. Reformed management training has already begun. Payment of fees and salaries will be key issues as resources are meagre.

The faculty buildings have suffered more from neglect than actual destruction, with the exception of law, which was next to a direct hit by Nato bombing.

The university has obvious links with schools in its teacher training role and in the type of schooling students have received. Most schooling consisted of rote learning and a repressive classroom order with little encouragement to raise questions and to be creative.

Young people speak bitterly of the oral assessment system, which they say lacks rigour and relies on favouritism. (It is bizarre to find teenagers demanding more written examinations.) If institutions install new technology, lecturers and students will need to change their habits.

Lecturers are concerned that the low level of university entry tolerated under the parallel system to prevent exodus to universities outside Kosovo does not continue.

But there are promising avenues for democratisation and reflection. Students are linking with the National Unions of Students in Europe, broadening horizons and contemplating reconciliation. Influential youth organisations such as the interestingly named Post-pessimists are valiantly striving to maintain their multi-ethnic membership while promoting peace and environmental concern.

In the media, Radio 21 has been engaged in vital work training girls in conflict resolution and in independent print, radio and TV journalism.

There is a great desire for English, with the mushrooming of private English schools and classes. Whatever one thinks about imperialism and globalisation, this is the reality, and, as always, English is the more neutral language in a situation of conflict.

Above all, Kosovars are delighting in the prospect of opening up links to the wider world. Organisations such as the British Council have always played a role in supplying materials, but now there is scope for exchanges, for collaboration in rejuvenating teacher education or educational management and for working together on democratisation.

It would be a significant achievement if the University of Pristina could be a flagship for multi-ethnic education in the heart of Europe and a symbol of hope for the Balkans.

Lynn Davies is professor of international education at the University of Birmingham. She visited Kosovo to prepare a report on education that was commissioned by the British Council to inform its work there.

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