Cold peace for Pristina in a hot-spot for Europe

April 7, 2000

Michael Daxner argues that a multi-ethnic university in Kosovo should not be built on history alone

What must be done to ensure that the University of Pristina rapidly becomes a respected member of the developing community of European higher education?

This question lies behind the rationale for sustained efforts to organise, support and defend what is left of the university, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in May, a year after the Nato campaign in the war-ravaged region. The list of priorities reads like an echo of the greater political issues for Kosovo:

Reopen the north campus in Mitrovica to maintain the university's multi ethnic balance

Introduce a new university statute before neo-traditionalists succeed in setting in stone an outdated socialist model under Kosovar Albanian control

Find transparent and efficient rules for the recognition of degrees acquired during the now-legendary "parallel system" when the Albanian majority went underground and left the "official university" to the Serbs, who wanted to occupy it anyway.

Such problems might seem open to gradual resolution. But the university has no such luxury, with the "cold peace" and ever-present threat of conflict. The university has students, professors, administrators, departments and all the familiar academic worries.

But the atmosphere is far from normal. Almost no one is free from the traumas of unfinished and broken careers. There are few academic structures untouched by the parallel experience of having to tread the thin line between survival and being treated like a traitor or pretending to comply with the standards needed for good research and teaching in the knowledge of the real gaps.

Peace will not come tomorrow. The step from liberation to liberty is huge. Since I took over as international administrator of the university for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (Unmik) last month, I have found considerable confidence and deep distrust.

There is confidence in helping to build a university that will fit into Europe and distrust in Unmik's ability to deliver the rule of law without antagonising hierarchical vested interests. For example, when I introduced a contract scheme for academics instead of the old and humiliating stipends, the idea that a part-time professor no longer qualified for a full-time contract was attacked.

Similarly the simplification of the academic career structure from seven to three steps to allow for incentives and promotion found as many opponents as friends. It is also not yet self-evident that a dean should not control the payroll of a department without employees enjoying rights.

On the other hand, there is such enthusiasm for moving towards modernity and Europe that I am optimistic. However, the feeling of being deprived of academic freedom since the founding of the university does not justify returning to the more relaxed periods and models under Yugoslav communist president Tito.

So we do what we would do if in not in postwar circumstances: found a new structure on quality, relevance and accountability; turn the university into a centre of intellectual controversy rather than an incubator for new nationalism; introduce salaries, grants and study conditions that are worthwhile competing for; teach computer literacy, as the university is fully equipped with workstations; construct dormitories and sponsor cultural events; and strengthen the management of a big comprehensive university with seven satellite institutions throughout Kosovo.

Indeed, the problems of any good university are universal - only the solutions vary.

There will be a day when multi-ethnic study and cooperation in Kosovo will have to happen. For the time being the chilly peace with just sufficient steps to recognise the other community is already succeeding.

The university in Kosovo must lead the diplomatic process to provide the intellectual basis vital for peace-keeping and development. But the question is how to achieve this role when professors earn just E250 (Pounds 140) a month and while money from outside Unmik is channelled into sorting out other priority groups in the emerging society?

As a university administrator, I ask how I will successfully explain why salaries are one-tenth of what they are in the rest of Europe while every piece of equipment must be bought at a world market price.

On top of that, it is essential to introduce the rule of law and effective regulations without trapping the administration in an inappropriate top-down or bottom-up structure.

Without doubt, the laboratory of reconstruction has an interesting outpost in higher education.

'The university in Kosovo must lead the

diplomatic process to provide the

intellectual basis vital for peace-keeping' Michael Daxner is international

administrator of the University of

Pristina. He is former president of the University of Oldenburg.

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