Albanian education and science minister Ethem Ruka says a democratic mentality, Europeanisation and the reinstatement of plain normality are key to the urgent improvement of his country's university systems.
Professor Ruka, who holds the chair of physiology and biochemistry at the University of Tirana, was appointed a minister in Albania's socialist government in July 1997. An active biologist with international research experience in Paris, Thessaloniki and Rome, Professor Ruka has made original contributions to his field. He is known for his dogged tenacity but a student hunger strike has been a critical test.
"I set out with the goodwill and determination to make the necessary changes to our education system and I consider myself fortunate to be able to work in an area that has both a rich tradition and a high intellectual potential," he said. "The love of education is a characteristic Albanian feature."
Three of Albania's eight university institutes - the University of Tirana, the polytechnic and the agricultural university - are situated in the capital, Tirana, which also has an academy of arts and music and a higher institute of physical education.
The other five are in Shkoder, Elbasan, Korce, Vlore and Gjirokaster. Almost half of the 17,094 undergraduate population is based at the University of Tirana, which has a 12:1 student-teacher ratio.
Professor Ruka says that universities have an important role to play in the country's attempt to enter the market economy, which is in turn dependent on a genuinely democratic mentality.
"The experience of recent years has proved that democracy can be built only gradually and that its values cannot be guaranteed without the appropriate institutional instruments," Professor Ruka said.
"Our society has paid dearly for the absurdities committed in an environment of limited democratic culture. Last year, a tragic historical landmark for Albania was stained with the blood of the many killed and wounded in a country overrun by anarchy. A large number of our schools and universities were badly damaged and plundered while under occupation."
A 3 per cent increase for education to 11 per cent of the national budget for 1997-98 helped get Tirana's Agricultural University, which had been virtually destroyed, working normally again.
"Unfortunately our government had inherited a corrupt higher education system," Professor Ruka said. "Universities were operating on a profiteering basis, with psychological violence being used against political opponents and much illegal exploitation and maladministration. But happily we can now consider this chapter closed."
Albanian society, he says, still suffers from a closed mentality which its universities can contribute to changing. "But civic education and the instilling of a basic respect for the values of democracy, human rights, institutions and intellectual freedom must also take place at school level," Professor Ruka said.