SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina | The question of where the buck stops in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s education system isn’t easy to answer. The country has 14 ministries of education. There is one at the state level – technically in the Ministry of Civil Affairs – one in each of the country’s two entities, one in each of the 10 cantons, and one in the independent district of Brcko.
It’s a recipe for bureaucratic chaos that hinders growth, and it’s hardly what European powers hoped for when Bosnia joined 28 other countries in signing the Bologna accords in 2003. Reached in 1999, the accords aim to establish a European Higher Education Area with more or less uniform quality and degree-granting standards.
“Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina is in extremely bad shape,” said Lamija Tanovic, a professor at the University of Sarajevo and an expert on the Bologna accords. “Many irregularities happen in the education system because there’s no ‘boss’ who would keep everything under control. … We can’t expect 14 education ministries in the country to function properly.”
A national law on education, adopted in June, would theoretically have solved that problem. But critics say that while the government may now stand stronger in the eyes of other Bologna signatories because it finally passed the law, the legislation does not address the key issues of adequate and equitable education funding, student and teacher mobility, and cross-border recognition of degrees and qualifications.
“The Law on Higher Education was made for politicians to curry favor with the international community,” Tanovic said.
While Bosnia has a handful of private universities, almost all higher education students attend the country’s eight public institutions, according to official statistics. Those universities are managed by local authorities and often fail to meet the most basic requirements.
Sarajevo University’s main building.
“Departments must have a certain number of square meters per student and all the necessary equipment for continuation of studies,” Tanovic said. “Class size ought to be reduced, according to Bologna. Somebody has to make it happen and to control the process.”
The Bologna accords represent the most widespread reform process for higher education in Europe. The goals include promoting student mobility among countries, attracting foreign students to European institutions, and improving education governance. Bosnia began implementing the reforms required by the accords in 2004. It is supposed to comply with the process fully by 2010.
It took years to pass the Law on Higher Education. Politicians wrangled over its contents and stalled its progress in the national legislature. The draft that was approved in June had been under review for a year.
Under the new law, a state-level agency supposedly will set universal academic standards. But authorities in the cantons and entities will continue to manage finances, licensing, and the operations of schools.
Critics say that subjects the universities to the will of regional politicians rather than national criteria that guarantee Bologna compliance. Miodrag Živanovic, a professor of philosophy in Banja Luka, said universities are more or less controlled by political parties – and they will be still under the new law.
Some officials argue otherwise. Mladen Ivanic, president of the Party of Democratic Progress in Republika Srpska, said maintaining regional governance, particularly over the financing of universities, is sound policy.
“I opposed integration of financing of higher education, as it would spawn conflicts related to issues such as who has more students and who gives more money than the other,” he said. “The very fact that there are six universities in [the Federation] and only two in [Republika Srpska] shows that there would be a relocation of funds if joint financing was established. [Republika Srpska] would end up giving more money and getting less benefits, as it has a lesser number of students than [the Federation].”
Beriz Belkic, a delegate in Bosnia’s House of Representatives, said the law represents a compromise but that it isn’t the best solution. “Now, there are interventions from the Higher Education Union and professionals in the field of education, pointing out too many vague [provisions] and inconsistencies in the law,” Belkic said. “It’s obvious that we are very soon going to have to start some kind of revision of the law.”
Indeed, disappointed by the law, academic employees and the Higher Education Union, a coalition of university employees, have proposed changes.
Particularly, they are concerned about the law’s perpetuation of local governance and its lack of guidance on the movement of students and professors among schools in Bosnia and abroad. Dženana Tanovic-Hamzic, president of the Higher Education Union, said that among other things, critics are proposing changes related to conditions for elections and promotions within university administrations; transitory regulations for students wishing to study outside the country; and the possible degradation of institutional autonomy if schools are subject to the whims of local politicians.
Martin Raguz, also a delegate in House of Representatives, said he expects proposed changes will be on the legislative agenda in 2008. “Unfortunately, nothing ever gets done here immediately,” he said.
Indeed, change may never come. The Higher Education Union has sent its proposals to the Council of Ministers, but Esma Hadžagic, a representative from the Civil Affairs Ministry, said there is no intention to alter the law, as it was so difficult for all sides to agree upon it in the first place.
“Certainly, it would be best to change and amend the Law on Higher Education, but considering the current political situation in the country, we don’t know when it can get done,” said Zoran Seleskovic, secretary general of the University of Sarajevo.
Local Control Languishes
To meet Bologna’s stipulations, schools in Bosnia must improve their facilities and reduce their class sizes. That will require tighter budget management and simple managerial follow-through, but experts say the new law will be of little help.
“We know what must be done, and yet we don’t have the conditions to do it,” Tanovic of the University of Sarajevo said. “We had expected the law to regulate financing of universities and faculties, [and] that the financing would be on the state level.”
Because the new law preserves the old system of financing schools at entity and canton levels, experts say local politicians will continue to dominate the process of public university development, enrollment policies, and management selection.
Moreover, critics of the law say it will do little to improve what are already abysmal educational spending practices. According to the Investigative Journalism Center, which is based in Croatia, Bosnia spent roughly 56.75 million euros on higher education in 2005 – or about 550 euros per student. That same year, Croatia spent six times that amount on a student population with only 20,000 more members than that of Bosnia. Slovenia spent 12 times more, and Serbia spent twice as much.
Seleskovic of the University of Sarajevo said the combination of tight funds and swelling enrollments makes it difficult to provide quality instruction. According to official statistics, about 90,000 students attend public universities. The Ministry of Education in the Federation – which does not have accurate figures on the number of instructors – has reported that many professors teach in several faculties at the same university or at various public and private schools. Some of these stretched-thin educators are not qualified in their fields of instruction.
The decline in qualified professors is somewhat attributable to the war in the 1990s. On the eve of conflict in 1991, 1,600 professors taught at the University of Sarajevo. That number shrank to 600 during the war. Seleskovic said the university is still 40 percent below its pre-war staffing levels.
The problem is money. “You cannot provide good quality teaching from the funds given by the Canton Sarajevo governance,” Seleskovic said.
Academic critics are worried that the continued decentralization of educational management will fail not only to address funding and crowding problems but also to clear up questions of accreditation and certification. Under the new law, local agencies will continue to dictate the standards of students’ diplomas – meaning diplomas received outside the country may not be recognized once students return to certain entities or cantons, and vice versa.
Already, many young people who return to Bosnia after earning degrees abroad have problems verifying their qualifications because local agencies lack nformation about degrees obtained in other countries or methods to compare curricula across borders.
Tanovic called the verification current system “stupid” and “unmanageable.”
Professors aren’t the only ones upset by the new law. Aida Hamzic, a second-year law student in Sarajevo, said Bologna has yet to be implemented to any real degree and that the new law is a setback. It will not relieve the pressure students and professors currently feel, she said.
“There are a lot of students, especially in the first year of study,” Hamzic said. “It’s difficult to attend lectures, as it’s too crowded. Professors simply forget who did seminar work [and] passed mid-term exams. Exam registrations are getting lost.”