Albania: In the Bleak Midwinter

in the bleak midwinterTIRANA, Albania | On the third floor of a dirty, marble-faced building that hosts two hostile educational trade unions, the newspaper of the ruling Socialist Party, and a bingo hall, Xhaferr Dobrushi explained his position.

“This is wrong!” Dobrushi, the head of one of the trade unions, said of a teachers strike that was due to start on 17 January. “The budget has already been passed, so there is no practical reason to fight anymore.”

One floor below, Defrim Spahiu, the head of the rival Independent Trade Union of Teachers, continued to plot the strike.

The two organizations had been sidelined in December when professors ignored their unions and went on a strike that brought the entire university system to a standstill before eventually succeeding. Now the two trade unions were trying to catch up. A few schools joined the next day. One teacher in Tirana, who went on strike by himself, made newspaper headlines, but the strike soon fizzled out.

Cold Picket Lines

In Albania, there is just something about winter and school strikes. Student strikes ended the one-party system in Albania in December 1990. In January 1993, mechanical engineering students started a strike to demand an end to the draft–and to automatically receive a driver’s license with their diplomas (an odd demand, perhaps, but this was less than three years after Albanians were allowed to own private cars).

In 1998, there were winter student strikes to call for an end to the obligatory attendance of lectures and to find the murderers of an opposition parliamentarian. There was then relative calm, for more than five years.

But hit with an endemic crisis precipitated by a lack of investment, an overburdened system, and poor wages, university professors and deans decided to go on strike this December. Their demands were specific.

The professors demanded a doubling of their current salaries, extra pay for any work done at school outside the lecture hall, and that the schools themselves be allowed to manage any money generated by student fees.

The demands in part reflected problems with Albania’s attempts to introduce the European Bologna system, which, in effect, cuts undergraduate studies to three years followed by two years of Master’s-level graduate studies. The professors found their teaching load had increased while their pay remained unchanged.

The low pay in part reflects the unusually low priority that the Albanian government gives to education. Albania spends 2.4 percent of the nation’s $4.4 billion GDP on education, still a long way short of the approximately 4 percent typically spent in neighboring countries and the 5 percent average in Western Europe. The 2005 budget has set aside 2.7 percent of the projected $4.7 billion GDP for education.

Most of the money comes from taxes, but part comes from the revenue collected by the government’s decision to increase the quota of students who are allowed to matriculate. Bardhyl Musai, the executive director of the Center for Democratic Education, a Tirana think tank that focuses on education issues, asserts that university student numbers were boosted primarily for political reasons, using the promise of more student rights as a way to win votes.

Certainly, universities have not enjoyed the financial benefits that they had expected. Much to the irritation of many in the teaching profession, the money–whether from taxes or student fees-goes into the general budget, not specifically to education. Since student numbers were being increased, they had assumed that the extra money would allow them either to hire new teachers or to improve facilities.

“For many years, most universities have suffered from an acute lack of classrooms, and hiring teachers is difficult,” complains Bashkim Gjergji, the head of the journalism department at the University of Tirana.

Any money that has trickled down to the university has been controlled by university officials, whose priorities are questioned by teachers and students.

“There is no transparency with the money,” Gjergji charges. “None of us is asked how to spend the money or what the strategic needs of our schools are.”

A recent investigation revealed that university administrators had bought five new cars for deans with government money. “Imagine how many computers could have been bought with that money,” says Sybi Hida, the director of the treasury at the Finance Ministry and a professor of macroeconomics at the University of Tirana.

Not Just Money

In addition to the financial concerns, educators and students have accused Education Ministry officials have too little interest in improving teaching and too much in public tenders for textbooks, a lucrative business that has come under fire for allegations of corruption and favoritism. Senior officials of the ministry have vehemently denied the charges.

One scandal with textbooks broke in September 2003, when a new book produced by the rector of Tirana University was found to have 250 typographical, syntactical, and other errors. Despite the flap, it was not withdrawn from circulation.

Mistake-ridden textbooks and deans with new wheels dismay those who work in education in Albania.

“The educational system suffers from many problems,” the Center for Democratic Education’s Musai says. “By and large, I am pessimistic about [its future]. More than $40 million dollars has been given by the Soros Foundation alone for the school system,” he added. “Where has it all gone?”

Corruption is seen as endemic in the education system, as in Albania as a whole. The country ranks 92nd out of the 133 countries listed on corruption watchdog Transparency International’s 2003 Corruption Perception Index.

At the university level, allegations of corruption center on persistent reports of bribes for grades or for places in schools.

Education professionals say that low salaries leave teachers and professors feeling desperate, which can fuel corruption.

“I cannot work on a salary that is equal to the pay I would receive if I were to write four [freelance] articles against the Education Ministry,” complains Hysamedin Ferraj, the head of the political philosophy department at the University of Tirana. “We do not have our own resources. I even use my personal computer for office work.”

Victory, For Now

In December’s strike, at least, the professors won. The government agreed to boost the salary of tenured professors by a third to 87,476 leks, ($880), those of associate professors to $760 from $560, and those of regular professors to $670 dollars from the current $380 dollars. Young lecturers would get $460 dollars, up from the original $300.

Even with the pay hikes for professors and the failure of his most recent labor action, Defrim Spahiu of the Independent Trade Union of Teachers says he will continue to organize protests and strikes.

“There is no reason not to continue the protests,” he said. “The ministry disregards [them]. We have no other option but to push on.”

Islam Shehu, the man behind the college professors’ protest, was also wary of the deal. The government says the changes in the salaries will come into force on 1 March. “If not, we are ready to strike again.”

But Bardhyl Musai of the Center for Democratic Education criticized the strikes, saying, “The strikes themselves do not solve the problem. There is nothing that guarantees a better education after they end.”


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