Serb refusniks take 'free' route

March 5, 1999

One telephone line with a fax, two computers, a photocopier, a couple of chairs - these are all the facilities students of the new parallel university in Serbia have at their disposal.

A three-bedroom apartment in a central part of Belgrade will be used not only by 0 students, but by their 200 professors as well.

Yet, here everybody is satisfied that the creation of the Alternative Academic Education Network is the first step to a free university.

The network is a brave experiment that may end as a huge success - the Free University of Serbia. Its students and professors do not lack enthusiasm but, for the time being, that is almost all they have.

The idea was born after a law was introduced in May last year ending a 160-year history of academic autonomy in Serbia.

Free of political pressure, students, mostly postgraduate, will be offered multidisciplinary programmes in academic areas either neglected or non-existent at the established universities in Yugoslavia.

Many of the students are graduates of the University of Belgrade but will continue their postgraduate studies through the network.

Most of the academics are still employed by the University of Belgrade, although some are among those who left after refusing to accept contracts issued under the new law.

In addition the network will include some overseas academics.

After devastating the independent media, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic brought in the law as an act of revenge for the University of Belgrade's "contribution" to the anti-government protest, which lasted for three months in late 1997.

It obliges professors to pledge allegiance to the regime or lose their jobs. Many academics chose to quit.

"This time Milosevic is checking whether he can marginalise the university," said Vukasin Pavlovic, previously dean of the political science faculty, and now the vice-president of the alternative network. "If he succeeds in that, the job with other institutions will be easier."

Philosophy professor Zagorka Golubovic, who had problems with the former communist regime as well, believes the pressure from the government might paradoxically help her and her colleagues offer their students a more modern university.

"In the 'regular' university there is that traditional ex cathedra type of lecturing where students are passive recipients. Here we are going to have a more interactive, inter-disciplinary type of lecturing, with workshops, seminars where students can participate, express their opinions and play an active part in the learning process."

Fedor Zdanski, formerly dean of the technology faculty, who now runs the natural and technical sciences department, claims that the alternative university is unique.

"For the first time in the history of the university in Serbia natural science will be combined with the social sciences through a multidisciplinary process that no one has done before in the former communist countries."

Students of the summer semester, which started on February 15 and will finish at the end of May, are already experiencing the innovations - physicists with geographers, philosophers, politics and law lecturers discuss environmental issues with their students.

"Everything in the alternative network is on a voluntary basis," said Marija Bogdanovic, former dean of Belgrade University philosophy faculty, who left that post as soon as the new law was endorsed.

"We want to reform the education system but we need help from abroad as well. Education knows no frontiers and is of particular importance in authoritarian regimes such as Serbia."

The professors hope colleagues from abroad will join them for some of the seminars.

They have already visited universities in Hungary, Russia and Greece and discussed possible cooperation.

Westminster University, London, has also helped.

A delegation from Belgrade will be in the United Kingdom from March 13-19.

A discussion meeting is planned for March 17 at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.

* Contact: Celia Hawkesworth on 0171 862 8557 for details.

16 international newsThe Times HigherJmarch 5 1999 alex durant Three for one: Albanian students share a scarce computer in the electronic engineering department at Pristina.

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