Can Pristina University rise from the ashes?

June 18, 1999

Aerial bombardment in Kosovo may be over, but the task of rebuilding academic life is a formidable one, says Minevere Ra****i

There is a mood of considerable optimism among all of us involved with Pristina University after the accord that has brought the hope of peace after so much upheaval and confusion. We hope to be back at our homes and our university as soon as possible. But nobody knows exactly what the future holds.

The university has lived - and is still living - through one of the most critical periods of its history. Students and professors, the human essentials of this university, are enduring a uniquely painful drama. Academics have been hit as hard financially as other refugees from Kosovo: before the conflict they concentrated all their energies on the question of Kosovar university education. Professors and their families tried to stay in their homeland as long as they could, to set an example to the younger generation in Kosovo. They have had no help in surviving an absolute lack of financial support except for some aid in the form of food and clothing from humanitarian organisations.

In practice, they are trying as hard as they can to keep alive until they can return to their homes and to their university. None of them has received any pay during the three months of the war.

The Independent Students' Union of Pristina University, organised here in Albania, has located about 150 students there. But it is known that there are many more in the camps whom we would hope to be able to reach. The union intends to identify students among the displaced persons in Albania and to assemble a database for enrolments for next September. It will attempt to establish the numbers known to be refugees, and the numbers of those missing, killed, kidnapped or arrested by Serbian forces during their escape to Albania.

The union believes that there are probably between 10,000 and 12,000 students among the refugees, a long way short of the 17,000 students who attended the Albanian-speaking university in Kosovo. Many students remained in Kosovo when the exodus began and some may have got caught up in the fighting. But most have

become refugees in Macedonia and Albania.

Of these thousands of students, some have lost contact with their relatives and are without any means of supporting themselves. Therefore it is important that the University of Pristina contact these youngsters and provide them with a support network, as well as an education and a new sense of normality. Some of them know that their families have disappeared.

The union plans to create groups of students who will visit their colleagues who have lost families, parents, sisters, or brothers, and will try to offer whatever support proves necessary to keep their hopes alive for a normal life in the future, for a return to their homes in a free and independent Kosovo. It has already set up a network of physicians, professors and psychologists who have agreed to help.

For both professors and students, the main problem during this cruel period is survival. To help them in this we have established a representative office of Pristina University in Tirana. So far the office has located 98

Pristina University professors. Through this office we aim to organise the professors in order to establish a broader spectrum of support for students and staff. As yet, the Independent Students Union of Pristina University receives no aid from the Refugees Committee for Aid Distribution or other humanitarian organisations now operating in Albania.

In order to support this initiative, Pristina's students and professors are trying to get some support from donor organisations. But in reality our resources are severely limited. The university office has based itself at the Polytechnic University of Tirana, but it lacks the essential office equipment for us to achieve our aims - there are no computers, printers, and so on. The Pristina student union likewise has neither space nor equipment.

It is likely that the return to Kosovo will take some time. For many geographical, political and practical reasons, some people will be in Albania much longer than others. We will see some people remaining in Albania while others return home. Both groups of people in the two countries will need continuous support to cope with this situation. Whether we are all in Tirana or, later, in both Albania and Kosovo, we will need to devise effective ways of keeping in touch.

For the immediate future there are the practical needs - equipment for the office in Tirana. In the longer term, we would hope to establish - in some cases re-establish - contact with universities in the rest of the world with whom we can share our experience, and exchange both staff and students.

Impatience from the Public Accounts Committee over the Further Education Funding Council's slowness in getting to grips with college management failures is understandable. So is similar impatience with regard to higher education. Most backbench MPs have colleges and many have universities on their patch. They also have little enough serious work to do. The temptation to demand that "something must be done" each time failures are uncovered is all but irresistible. And the case sounds good: the sums of public money now going into further and higher education are huge. But the demand for control is now getting out of hand. The latest Treasury-driven plans for universities look excessively intrusive (page 1).

Arguably a number of the failures deplored by the National Audit Office/PAC result from too much central prescription. Centralised funding formulae tempted colleges into inappropriate franchising and assessment regimes that passed too many students. Overseas ventures of dubious quality were driven by a desire to escape the financial squeeze caused by rigid control of income from teaching British students.

In further education the FEFC is expecting to emerge from the government's post-16 review with increased powers of intervention. Staff in Scottish colleges will hardly see the NAO's detailed prescription for efficiency (page 4) as conducive to improvement. In higher education the number of strings attached to public funds grows daily and now it seems the use of private funds is also to be monitored.

Higher education funding councils have till now rightly resisted demands for closer involvement in running institutions. Rightly because, as John Lauwerys says in his letter (page 17), central intervention is a bad idea not justified by such failures as there have been. It destroys diversity and stunts experiment. It also puts at risk a vital source of strength in a free society - questioning of received wisdom. Whatever the temptation, MPs would be better occupied calling an increasingly intrusive executive to account - why should the man in Whitehall know best? - than egging it on to yet closer control.

The end of the 20th century is a good time to think big about science. The Unesco World Conference on Science, which opens in a week in Budapest, will address many key issues.

The most pressing might appear to be the rich world's near monopoly of top science (page 36). But expensive research is bound to happen in countries that can best afford it. The conference aims to get politicians to promise more money for science. Vigilance will be needed to ensure the promises are kept.

Closer to Unesco's heart is the issue of science and development. Better ways are needed to integrate new knowledge into sustainable development. If particle physics can be organised on a planet-wide basis, so should sustainable agriculture and urban development. Unesco has a role here along with national governments and non-governmental organisations.

Even more intractable is the control of science. Who decides on its direction? Many scientists work for companies which consider the ethical, human or environmental effects of their actions only when forced to. Such firms have a big say in university research and effectively control the use of scientific assets such as the genomes of many species, including our own.

Budapest cannot change all this. But it should remind scientists and their funders that we need structures that take account of responsibilities as well as opportunities. Both will be as vital in the next century as they have been in this one. Minevere Ra****i is the vice-rector of Pristina University. 'Professors are trying as hard as they

can to keep alive until they can return to

their homes and to their university'

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