Law delay dogs the Serb road to revival

January 12, 2001

Serbia's academics have discovered that replacing a highly political piece of legislation - the 1998 University Law - is insufficient to reform a Communist-era system that fell victim to the clampdown on dissenting academics under former president Slobodan Milosevic.

Serbia's higher education institutes need to be brought into a modern legal framework if they are to be eligible for European funding, supported research and student exchanges. Schemes such as the Tempus programme have proved to be a source of support for reform in states such as Croatia and Bosnia.

But Gazo Knezevic, education minister under the new Democratic Opposition of Serbia government, said it would take two years to achieve parity between Serbia's universities and a European legislative framework.

He admitted this risks leaving Serbia starved of funds, but said he hoped the country would be treated as an exception and would qualify for funding and support.

The 1998 law stripped universities of their autonomy and introduced unpopular contracts for staff that many viewed as crude pledges of party loyalty.

Many academics who refused to sign the contracts were ousted from the university or removed from their teaching posts. Some of those who left after 1998 have returned following the anti-Milosevic uprising in October, but the old law has to be annulled before they can legally return to their posts.

Under Milosevic many appointments were made on the basis of party affiliation rather than merit.

Perhaps the most notorious example was the appointment of Serbian deputy prime minister and rightwing former paramilitary Vojislav Seselj as professor of law at Belgrade University. Mr Seselj has since been fired, but other less flagrant cases remain.

Now a taskforce of academics is working on a reform plan comprising a two-phase programme. But draft proposals for the first phase are already more than a month late.

Belgrade law professor Dragor Hiber, who chairs the board drafting the reforms, said a transitional university law would be ready in mid-February - but this will broadly return the situation to the status quo, before the 1998 law was introduced.

A second, more radical set of proposals will be drafted between six months and a year later. "By the beginning of 2002 we should have phase two of the university law," he said.

He envisages that only by October 2002 will Serbia's universities be operating within a legal framework that accords with European standards.

Pruning back Serbia's under-qualified and over-staffed academia and returning universities to centres of academic excellence will require ruthless firing of unsuitable staff. The collective decision making practiced in the past by Serbian faculties could struggle to bring this about.

Professor Hiber has proposed that an evaluation panel, comprising both foreign and Serbian academics, should review all appointments and decide which professors are appropriate.

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