Macedonia: Giving Education the Runaround

giving education the runaroundSKOPJE, Macedonia | As Macedonia entered local and presidential election campaigns in mid-March, education was yet again among the government’s lowest priorities. Beyond generic promises to improve education infrastructure and access, the country’s several hundred mayoral candidates did not offer any timetables for reform.

Municipal elections, though they determine who steers important social programs such as public education, took a backseat to the presidential election. Gjorge Ivanov, the candidate of the ruling Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), is favored to win. But no candidate won a clear majority in the 22 March elections, meaning that a runoff vote is scheduled for 5 April.

None of the seven presidential candidates have focused on domestic social issues in their election platforms either. Instead, they have been fixated on Macedonia’s EU aspirations and the country’s long-running name dispute with Greece, not to mention flinging accusations of incompetence and slander at one another.

“We have failed to implement most of the big [education] reforms that we announced,” admitted a high-ranking representative from the central government, who insisted on anonymity amid cutthroat campaigning. “We started with some projects, knowing that we had bitten off more than we could chew, and now we can’t take a forward step with most of them.”

Tired Promises

In the municipal campaigns, most incumbents simply reiterated the same promises they made in previous campaigns, which remain largely unfulfilled. Other candidates focused on more trivial projects that don’t tackle the most important structural problems. Efforts to reform outdated teaching methods and curricula, as well as undo persistent ethnic segregation in Macedonian schools, were not on the agenda.

Some local candidates called for the development of technologically enhanced “e-schools” – a rather ironic idea, say experts, considering that most schools have yet to receive computers promised under the ambitious “One Computer for Every Pupil” program that the government launched in 2006. Other candidates called for violence-prevention programs, the increased involvement of students in environmental and public health campaigns, and the celebration of important events and figures in the field of education.

The Ministry of Education has adopted a hands-off approach, shifting responsibility for stalled reforms to the municipalities. “Local authorities have the responsibility to improve curricula and the whole education system, since they were given that power in the process of decentralization. The Ministry of Education is only a service provider,” said Pero Stojanovski, the current minister of education, in an interview with TOL.

Beginning in 2005, municipalities were given expanded responsibilities as a result of decentralization. The Ministry of Education sets the general framework for education and priorities for reform, but tangible improvements in schools, including renovating infrastructure, revamping resources, and raising teachers’ salaries, all fall under the domain of the municipalities.

Furthermore, decentralization has had the unintended consequence of politicizing education reforms down to the lowest levels of the state administration. If mayors belong to the ruling political party, they are generally able to cooperate with the Ministry of Education, their feedback is better valued, and their schools receive more support. Mayors, in turn, have the right to appoint and dismiss school principals at their discretion, meaning that the majority of a town’s principals are usually members or sympathizers of the same party. Many teachers and principals fear losing their jobs if they do not toe the party line.

For their part, central authorities have pushed the most difficult reforms to the backburner, focusing instead on the establishment of new state universities and faculties.

In 2007 the government opened a fourth state university “Goce Delcev” in Stip, in the eastern part of Macedonia, in an attempt to stem the flow of Macedonian students to Bulgarian universities. Many students continue to leave the country in search of higher-quality, post-secondary education elsewhere.

Yet some of the state university faculties outside the capital city had only a handful of candidates interested in enrolling at the beginning of this academic year, according to the universities’ official statistics. The government, however, is pushing ahead with its plans to open more regional state universities, recently voting, for example, to open an information technology (IT) university in Ohrid, though there is no popular support for the plan. Demand for qualified IT professionals in the Macedonian labor market does, in fact, exist, but some opposition politicians have suggested that the decision was based less on an analysis of Macedonia’s economic priorities than on payoffs to the right people.

Moreover, two research institutes already offer undergraduate IT studies in Skopje – the Faculty of Mathematics and the Faculty of Electrotechnical and Information Technologies – yet the government is not increasing much-needed support to these existing facilities.

Deflating Grades

In January 2009, the Ministry of Education implemented exams to evaluate teachers’ grading methodology as a first step toward reversing rampant grade inflation in Macedonian schools. The exams are being evaluated externally by a specialized center under the surveillance of the Ministry of Education. Around 90 percent of primary and secondary students over the last several years have received straight As at the end of every academic year, according to the State Inspectorate for Education.

The idea behind the exam is to monitor discrepancies between students’ knowledge in September and their grades at the end of the school year. If a student’s progress appears unusually remarkable, teachers risk being reprimanded with a 20 percent pay cut – a steep fine since the average teacher’s salary is the equivalent of only 300 euros per month. Primary students in the fourth and ninth grades (primary school runs until grade nine in Macedonia) are taking the tests, as well as students in their first three years of high school.

Though many teachers fear the consequences if their grades are deemed too high, the majority of high school principals have welcomed the exams. “This is the best way to stop the practice of some teachers granting too high grades,” said Gjorgji Kitanski, the principal of the gymnasium Georgi Dimitrov in Skopje. But he admits that many students will be disappointed when they receive lower grades from the external markers: “There will be problems, especially when some students receive two or three grades lower than the ones given by their regular teacher.”

Stoking Controversy

As of the beginning of this school year, religious studies were introduced as an optional subject in the fifth grade – a reversal of the government’s 2007 decision to make them mandatory in all schools. Despite the turnaround, the issue of providing religious education in public schools remains extremely controversial. In January, the decision was brought before the Constitutional Court by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which argued that religious studies threaten the balance of Macedonia’s multi-faith and multiethnic society.

“The problem is not if this subject should be optional or not. The problem is whether or not the state can legally organize religious studies or religious activities in public schools,” Igor Spirovski, a judge on the Constitutional Court, explained in February, in an official statement to the press in response to the LDP’s complaint. Both the Macedonian Constitution and the law on primary education do not permit religious activities in public schools. The court has already ruled against religious instruction four times in the past.

The Constitutional Court will announce its ruling within the next few months. The Ministry of Education has stated that it will abide by the court’s decision and discontinue religious studies if that is the ruling.

Inveterate Segregation

Ethnic segregation between Macedonian and Albanian students remains entrenched in many Macedonian schools. Most domestic and foreign experts, as well government representatives at the central and local levels, point to politics as the primary obstacle to integrating divided schools.

Macedonian students at the high schools Niko Nestor and Ibrahim Temo, which share a building in Struga, are continuing to boycott classes since a violent clash broke out between Albanian and Macedonian students in February 2008. It is still not clear who instigated the event, since Struga police have not yet released an official report.

In February, the Ministry of Education decided that it is best for both ethnic groups to attend school in separate shifts – so-called “language shifts”.

Albanian students are against the language shifts, while Macedonian students say they want to be separated from their Albanian peers. The OSCE mission in Skopje, which has been monitoring the situation from the start of the conflict, has sent in mediators to speak with parties on both sides of the ethnic divide.

Fighting between Macedonian and Albanian students dates back to 2002 and the fallout from the Albanian insurgency, when ethnic Albanian militants attacked Macedonian security forces in January 2001, hardening ethnic sentiments on both sides. The recent tensions can also be linked to the elections: The threat of ethnic violence historically tends to flare up around the time of election campaigns, which prompt bigoted sentiments from candidates and voters.

The principal of the high school Niko Nestor, Mare Saveska, agrees with the Ministry of Education’s decision to separate Macedonian and Albanian students. She says the problem is not only confined to her school, but began much earlier. “Children are ethnically divided from primary school. Even in the kindergartens, they are attending separate classes,” she explained. Indeed, students in primary and secondary schools in ethnically mixed communities across the country (such as Skopje, Kumanovo, Tetovo, Gostivar, Debar, Struga, and Veles) are also segregated. Over the last two years there has also been a trend toward the informal segregation of Roma students, due to long standing prejudices against the Roma community.

Saveska admits that teachers at the high school have not organized activities that promote ethnic integration. “I think if we would have some projects where they [the students] can cooperate – for example, if we have sport activities where they can compete among themselves – we would not have problems like this.”

The former minister of education, Aziz Polozani, under whose mandate the problems in Struga first started, says that representatives on both sides of the conflict should not postpone solving the problem of ethnic segregation any longer.

“It is growing too late to find a solution. But it is more important to have some kind of solution than nothing at all. The people who are responsible for education, both central and local governments, are too busy with daily politics, not creating education policy,” said Polozani.

Ruzdi Osmanovski, the father of two Albanian students at Niko Nestor high school, thinks that politicians are using students and the educational issue in general to realize their own political agendas.

“I have a friend who is Macedonian and we have been together since the age of seven,” said Osmanovski. “We attended school together, and we are still friends. I can’t understand why students today just can’t be friends.”


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