Bosnians decry lack of support

April 19, 1996

Europe's handling of the crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina was sharply criticised at a meeting of Bosnian and Austrian higher education officials in Austria.

Academics are also wary of the way that support for Bosnia has been organised, and of the west's general view of the country. But a conference, organised by the World University Service, Austria, at Karl Franzens University also revealed potential conflict areas in Bosnia's higher education community.

Austrian assistance was generally praised in Graz, particularly against the background of the cuts the country's higher education system is struggling with. A number of academic exchange measures have been initiated, and large numbers of Bosnian refugee students are being supported in Austria.

However, Nedzad Mulabegovic, rector of Sarajevo University, said that international support for Bosnian higher education was very poor.

According to Michel le Franc, who attended the conference on behalf of the European Commission, the European parliament has given a "favourable response" to an extension of the EU's Phare programme to Bosnia which would also help fund higher education. And Unesco is holding a conference on cooperation and support for higher education in Bosnia this week.

Faruk Sijaric, Sarajevo's vice-rector, said Austria's support for Bosnia had "washed the hands of Europe". He also questioned whether Europe was really interested in Bosnian universities being on a par with institutions in the rest of the continent. Professor Sijaric wants Bosnian and other European specialists to work together in approaching problems at institutions. "We want to keep what we think is better than in the rest of Europe," he said. "We are working out concepts of our own, but we are open to suggestions."

He stressed that it would be easy for the EU to fund visiting teachers for a whole year. Usually, they only come for one week, which means that there is a lack of continuity. "Europe failed miserably during the war," Professor Sijaric said. "Supporting Bosnia now is a question of goodwill. It means putting European civilisation to the final test."

Muhamed Serdarevic, president of Bosnia's new student union founded last August, said one of its main activities is helping disabled students by keeping in touch with them and providing special equipment for them. Lecturers are brought to hospitals, and lectures are recorded with video cameras.

"The war has taught us to change our way of thinking," says Serdarevic. "One single grenade can destroy so much. Life is more than money. We want to know how students think abroad. And we want them to get to know what it was like here during the war."

An architecture student, Serdarevic, is keen on involving students from outside Bosnia in debates on the rebuilding of Sarajevo.

In east and west Mostar tension between the Muslim and Croat communities has been building up again but the two universities may be willing to mutually recognise credits of students and hold exams for members of both communities.

The return of academics who left the country during the war is more controversial. Stefan Sunaric, dean of the mechanical engineering faculty at Mostar's Dzemal Bijedic University, said that academics who fled the country were welcome to return. The university was negotiating with about 30 teachers over their return. Four had already come back, and could resume their work. At Dzemal Bijedic University, staff had only been hired on a temporary basis to bridge gaps.

"We have no hard feelings about people who left because they were afraid," said Bozo Zepic of the University of Mostar's faculty of law.

There are more restrictions at Tuzla University, mainly because of large numbers of refugees from Serb-controlled Brcko, where the institution used to have its faculty of economics. Economics is taught in makeshift rooms in Tuzla. But, according to the dean of Tuzla's faculty of medicine, Ahmet Halilbasic, anyone willing to return who has not committed war crimes is welcome.

There is general agreement at the workshop that Bosnian students abroad should, if possible, complete their studies before returning. Their language skills in particular could help meet the grave shortage of language teachers. Bosnian higher education officials and WUS, Austria, have appealed to international organisations to support these students.

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