Albania: A Deep Hole From Which to Emerge

Tirana | For four professors at the University of Tirana, 28 June was their own graduation day – the day they won seats in the country’s parliamentary elections, at least momentarily ending their academic careers.

Celebrating near the colonnades of the university that day, the four –Mark Marku, Vasilika Hysi, Ethem Ruka, and Besnik Bare – thought that they now had a real opportunity to voice the academic community’s concerns about the worrying state of education in the country.

“I think we should put an end to the endless experimentation in Albania’s education system,” said Marku, a journalism professor and political commentator, who is now a deputy for the ruling Democratic Party. “We should work together to fix its mistakes,” he added.

His opposition colleague, Vasilika Hysi, though sporting different political colors, argued that their passion for education provided a golden opportunity to cooperate beyond party ranks for education reform.

“I believe that we should lobby all together for the problems faced by higher education,” she said.

Months later, despite the good will expressed by the new MPs, they seem poised to join the dozens, if not hundreds, of academics who have jumped ship and become involved in politics since the collapse of Albania’s communist regime in 1991, only to be disappointed. While the opposition’s boycott of parliament – after accusations that the elections had been fraudulent – has dimmed the chances of cooperation this time around, few educators in the past have had any impact on a sector that has been plagued by short-lived reforms, politically-driven regular changes of school and university staff, little investment, corruption, and incompetence.

Quantity but Questions Over Quality

During the campaign that preceded the elections, education became an electoral issue for the first time in Albania’s post-communist era. That was unsurprising given that the sector has experienced exponential growth in the last four years under the center-right government of Prime Minister Sali Berisha, both in primary and secondary education and at the university level. However, many fear that this growth in the number of schools has not necessarily led to improved education services.

In the last few years, the Albanian government has also initiated a series of reforms in a bid to improve the quality of education services offered to students, aiming to move away from what experts call the communist model of education, where all students receive similar inputs, mass-produced as in an assembly line, all with a common destination.

In 2008, a national test was introduced for both elementary school pupils and high school students, in order to better measure school performance in different areas of the country. Although the tests provide a better picture of students’ achievements, combined with their grades, no quantitative data has been produced yet to map student achievement by region.

The Ministry of Education also introduced life-long teacher training as part of its strategy and made attempts to improve the elementary and secondary school curricula.

The opposition has often charged that government policies and strategies have failed to improve sufficiently the delivery of quality education to Albanian students, at all levels. Experts in the field value the trend toward improving the education system, but many worry that Albania still faces a mammoth effort to catch up to the rest of Europe.

According to Professor Pellumb Karameta, an education expert and executive director of the Albanian Center for Assistance in Education, a Tirana-based NGO, the country formally has an education system on par with other European countries, directed by an education ministry that drafts policies and implements at least part of them. But, he says, such a comparison is only skin-deep.

Karameta says that the first major disadvantage that Albanian students in pre-college education face, compared to their EU counterparts, is actually the time that they spend in school.

“During their first eight years of education Albanian students pass through an academic year less that their counterparts in European countries,” Karameta said, noting that the school day is shorter, because budget and infrastructure constraints prevent students from staying in school more than five hours.

“We don’t have supplementary services [such as in-school cafeterias or bussing], which would permit students to attend lessons until the late afternoon, and this all trickles down from the budget,” he explained.

Under Budget and It Shows

Albania currently spends roughly 3.5 percent of its gross domestic product on education compared with an average EU rate of 10 percent, of which 0.5 percent goes to universities. While the previous government of Prime Minister Berisha had promised to raise the level to 5 percent, limits on the budget, including those caused by expensive road infrastructure projects, have thwarted expenditures on the educational sector. As the effects of the global financial crisis have increased the country’s already high budget deficit, any changes in the status quo appear unlikely.

Despite an increase in per student budgetary expenditures in recent years, experts believe that the government’s low financing of education is undermining the sector.  For example, virtually no preventive maintenance for schools, combined with poor initial construction. has led, especially in rural areas, to a seriously deteriorated infrastructure.

Another problem often identified by researchers as troublesome is the decline in enrolment in primary education. According to a study by the Tirana Confederation of Education Unions, 60 percent of children under the age of 16 that drop out in Albania do so for economic reasons, often to work and support their families.

“The decline in enrolment first and foremost has to do with poverty, especially in rural and suburban areas, but also with a difficult curricula and class crowding,” said Ergis Sefa, a professor of sociology at the University of Tirana who studies patterns of student enrolment. “School crowding remains a problem for teachers who often have to struggle to get the attention of 40 to 50 pupils in a classroom, which is next to impossible,” he added.

However, some studies suggest that the dropout rate would be even higher if the large number of unexcused student absences were properly taken into account. For example, research by the Tirana Education Inspectorate in 2005 indicated that between 18 to 26 percent of high school students were absent every single day in the district.

“If from the district’s 70,000 students some 20,000 are absent and nobody knows where they are, that’s a major problem, both for the schools and their families,” said Karameta.

A problem for policy makers in the country remains also the great divide between the quality of education in urban and rural areas.

After the basic education grades, enrolment rates in secondary schools are significantly higher in urban than in rural areas, where the poor level of instruction also contributes to lower demand.

“In Albania’s rural areas schools are next to non-existent, because teachers are absolutely unqualified and often just their physical presence in the building is more than enough to earn a salary,” said Professor Karameta. “The problem is that the government cannot replace them, because it cannot find other candidates to fill the vacancies,” Karameta noted, adding that roughly 30 percent of rural teachers lack a proper education at all.

Lagging Behind in Accreditation

Although Albania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, with a GDP per capita only higher than Moldova and Kosovo, competition in an already difficult job market has translated into a growing demand for higher education.

Dozens of private universities have opened their doors to students in the last few years, but only three of these institutions of higher learning have received proper accreditation. What makes matters worse, even public universities have not yet completed the accreditation process.

According to the Albanian law on higher education, after finishing a self-evaluation process, local universities submit their results for auditing to the National Accreditation Agency in the Ministry of Education, after which an assessment process decides to accredit the institution or not.

Both private and public universities are also permitted to submit their accreditation requests to well-established foreign accreditation agencies.

However, the slow pace of the accreditation of colleges by accreditation agencies has not kept up with the number of newly arisen institutions, leaving students in limbo over the value of the diploma that they will receive or have already been granted at graduation.

Some political leaders are echoing public concern that not all private institutions have the necessary academic capacities to provide quality education, while the accreditation process should be bumped up to speed.

“It’s very important that universities create the conditions that youngsters receive a proper education in both the public and private colleges that have multiplied in the last few years but that we can hardly say fulfill the standards that our EU integration goals require,” said Albanian President Bamir Topi in a recent public lecture that appealed to the government to pay more attention to the issue.

“We don’t suffer today because of the quantity [of colleges] but for quality and it is necessary that we all synchronize our efforts that quality becomes the dominant force in the work of academic circles,” the Albanian head of state added.

Public colleges still remain the favorite choice for students – a result, critics say, of the high fees that private institutions charge and also of their poor academic quality.

“The main impact of the boom in higher education, not only in private institutions but also in the liberalization of quotas for public colleges, has been on quality,” said Gjergji Vurmo, research director at the Tirana-based Institute of Democracy and Mediation.

“The worry is that soon we will be faced with a large wave of people with higher education, but whose degrees won’t be worth the paper they are printed on,” Vurmo added.

Despite the public perception that some of the private universities are turning into diploma mills, key actors in the private educational system complain that they are treated unfairly in terms of taxation, which is hampering their development, while their institutions are necessary for the country’s future.

According to Ardian Civici, the dean of the European University of Tirana, the public and decision makers have a misconception of private higher education institutions.

“We evaluate and justify state universities as a public good, while at the same time degrade as pure businesses or just businesses private universities,” Civici wrote in an op-ed article earlier this year in the Tirana daily Panorama.

“In Albania, public universities are funded by taxpayer money based on the number of students enrolled, while taxes are increased on private colleges, who eventually charge their students and parents three times more for the same university degree,” Civici added.

However, the idea that free market rules are enough to build an education system that propels economic growth, something which Albania desperately needs, does not convince everyone.

While the boom in higher education has been staggering in the last five years, growth in secondary technical and vocational schools has been almost nonexistent.

“The problem with the education system in Albania has been exactly because the government has approached it according to market rules,” said Vurmo from the Institute of Democracy and Mediation.

“Every year Albania is graduating thousands of political scientists, lawyers, public relations officers. and even journalists, when what the country actually needs is plumbers and phone technicians.”




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