Until recently and for five years, Ljubica Grozdanovska worked as a journalist in Macedonia’s best-selling daily newspaper, “Dnevnik”, covering issues on every level of education in the country. Three months ago, she became correspondent for the prestigious Czech e-zine Transition Online (TOL), again covering topics in education. Ljubica also works at the Faculty of Journalism in Skopje as a junior assistant. Recently, she co-founded “BID Consulting”, where she serves as a market analyst, business and PR consultant.
Q: Some observers say that education in Macedonia is being revolutionized – others that it is undergoing a chaotic upheaval. Can you identify for us the major changes (private education, financing, major legislation, etc.)?
LG: The extension of primary education to nine years, the provision of a PC to every student, the Law for Higher Education, and the construction of schools through public-private partnerships are some of the big projects in education announced by the current Government. However, their implementation in practice yielded varying outcomes, sometimes deviating from the expected ones.
The implementation of the concept of nine-year long primary education started on the first of September 2007. Consequently, two generations of pupils enrolled in the first grade: those five and a half years old and those seven years old. Parents were more than confused.
According to the revised Law of Primary Education, children who are going to be five years and eight months old by the end of the year have the right to enroll in first grade. Therefore, some children were forced to wait till the next school year just because they were going to reach the proper age only in January.
The Macedonian constitution doesn’t allow private elementary schools to be opened. Thus, parents can’t choose teachers. The school does it for them. Another irony of the model of the nine year long primary education is that the pupils who are seven years old this school year and are in the first grade, will, next year, skip the second grade and automatically go into the third.
In a situation in which many schools in the country have ruined roofs, no toilets, no secure electricity wiring, the Government last year announced a project “PC for every child”. Despite the grandiose announcement that computers will at first be installed in all high schools, at the beginning of this school year only three high schools were so lucky. By comparison, six or seven years ago, almost all the elementary and high schools in the country received a few PCs each: a donation from the Taiwanese Government. The equipment has soon become the target of robberies.
One of the major obstacles is that teachers – especially the elderly ones – are computer-illiterate. Another major problem is that in Macedonia, for a few years now, there is no model to measure the knowledge of students after they had finished elementary, or secondary school. Because of that, around 95 percent of the students that graduate from elementary education as well as from high schools, are straight A students. If this tendency continues, the predictions are that till 2010 all students in Macedonia will be straight A students.
3. Macedonia is a multi-ethnic country. How does its education system cope with this diversity (quotas, segregation, teaching in minority languages, etc.)?
LG: The constitutional right to study in one’s mother tongue (in Macedonia, students study in the Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish and Serbian languages) and the influence of the conflict in 2001 caused and still are causing segregation among students. If this right initiated the segregation, the conflict and the prejudices it gave rise to increased the division among students – between Macedonians and Albanians, and in the past two years, among Macedonian, Albanian and Roma students.
Parents are also guilty because they fear that their children are not safe in an environment which includes “others” and they pass on their fears to the children. This is especially obvious in the capital of Macedonia, Skopje and in the cities in the western part of the country, where the majority of the citizens are Albanian.
For example: if Macedonian and Albanian students attend lectures in the same school, they usually go in two shifts. There is segregation among teachers too, although they deny it in public.
Two years ago, the Ministry of education made changes in the history books. This caused the lecture model to be altered: Macedonian students learn about Macedonian national history, Albanian students – about Albanian national history. When time comes for the Albanian students to learn something about the Macedonian national history, then usually a Macedonian teacher does the teaching and vice-versa.
Since the last school year, there is also segregation among Macedonian and Roma pupils. For instance, a few weeks ago, nine mothers of Macedonian pupils refused to sign in their children into an elementary school in the city of Kumanovo because there were seven Roma pupils in that class. But, the pshychologist in the school and an NGO called “National Roma Center” managed to calm down the situation. This is not the only example. Roma students are being taught in the Macedonian language. There are no books nor teachers in the Roma language because their language is not recognized by the Macedonian Constitution.
In my opinion, the implementation of the teaching of religion in primary schools may cause the segregation among students to deepen. In this case, not only on an ethnic, but also on a religious basis. The Ministry of Education and Science plans to introduce the study of religion as a subject in the fifth grade and it gives two choices: pure religious teachings and the history of religions.
All studies and polls show that Muslims will probably choose pure religious teachings while Orthodox Christian pupils and others will opt for the history of world religions. The authorities don’t have a solution for the problem of ethnic and religion segregation among students. They may have some corrective projects in mind, for instance for Macedonian and Albanian students to study English together, but projects are time-limited by nature and definition.
4. Is the education system politicized? If so, in which ways, can you give some concrete examples?
LG: Way too politicized. A few days before the official start of the new school year, the mayor of one municipality in Skopje, who by the way is a member of the political party in power VMRO-DPMNE, expelled all the teachers whom he suspected of being members of the opposition party SDSM, thus allowing him to employ his own people.
The same thing is happening with school principals. As soon as there is a change of the political parties in power, the principals who are not with the “right” political orientation, who are not aligned with the newly formed Government, usually are afraid that they will lose their jobs.
Even more ironic is the fact that if they are not fired or changed, school principals are willing to praise the political party in power and to deny that they are members of the opposition party. In this case, they publicly extol the reforms that the Government is conducting.
Unfortunately, it usually is necessary to obtain a political party’s membership card just to be employed in the public sector, schools included. In September, the Ministry of Education is granting approval for new employment in the schools. Until the middle of September, only approvals for Albanian teachers are granted, while approvals for Macedonians are granted much later. This especially was the case in many towns in the western part of the country.
Political orientation usually determines even which schools are going to be renovated, and where new ones will be built. Unofficially, on the list of school buildings to be repaired there are more schools from the western part of Macedonia, where the majority of the population are ethnic Albanians. The State University in Tetovo for example was granted the status of a budget financed university because of political reasons: it’s an Albanian University. In Tetovo, by the way, there is one more university: the Southeastern Europe University. The fourth University, the one in Shtip, is also a political solution.
Even school names are confronted with politics. For instance, there are several initiatives to change some school names, currently eponymous with Macedonian historical figures to names of Albanian extract. In a part of Skopje, called Shuto Orizari, one school was supposed to carry the name of a member of the UCK (the Albanian insurgent group who initiated the 2001 conflict in Macedonia – SV).
5. Can you describe the problems with the accreditation process in Macedonia?
Corruption and the nepotism are the two main terms associated with the accreditation process in Macedonia. An increase in competition as well as in the quality of the courses taught were supposed to be the main reasons why numerous new private higher education institutions were allowed to be opened. Alas, it turned out that the effects were quite the opposite.
A physical location and a bank guarantee are needed for a new higher education institution to be established. However, this is often overlooked, because of money that changes hands, and friends and family members of decision-makers who are employed in various sinecures. Of a total of nine members of the Accreditation Committee, five have four years mandates. They cannot be discharged, regardless of circumstances. This impunity leaves enough manipulative space for illegal actions. The results are a declining quality of higher education institutions and universities and the ability to purchase bachelors, masters and even PhD diplomas, for reasonable amounts.
Nevertheless, foreign universities are faced with the biggest problem, because the Law for Higher Education does not allow them to establish faculties. There were some exceptions, though (for instance the New York University established in Skopje). This may be resolved by the Government’s decision to liberalize higher education by allowing the top 100 universities in the world to be able to come and open faculties in Macedonia.
Finally, few people are aware that even the state universities are obliged to pass the accreditation process every year, although they were established decades ago. No permanent accreditation is given to them. And, they must revise the space, the rooms for lectures etc. Unfortunately, they are the “endangered” species.
6. Is the Macedonian higher education system integrated with Europe’s (Bologna Declaration, etc.)?
LG: Partly. The European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) and the mobility of students and professors is at the core of the Bologna process. In Macedonia, the new evaluation system is causing big problems for higher education institutions. In most cases, those credits are not recognized in the European Union (EU) member countries and, consequently, there is no mobility.
It was easy for the faculties to change the models of teaching and of evaluation. The students get credits for their presence in lectures, for passing exams and for writing and submitting essays. However, because of some technical problems, most students are unable to pass the courses, for instance, because some credits are not noted in the system.
The Bologna process presumes that the lectures will be held with groups of up to 25 students. Yet, this is not the case in any of the universities in Macedonia. It seems that collecting money from the students is more important than providing them with a quality learning experience. Every year hundreds of additional new students are accepted and enrolled. Thus swamped, the faculties have no technical possibility to provide normal lectures.
The reforms are supposed to bring new courses to the faculties and combine them with more practical learning. The faculties don’t have enough teaching stuff to introduce these new courses. As a sad result, there are some cases where one professor is giving lectures in four or five different courses.
Furthermore: there is no mobility, mainly because the faculties are not able to sign the necessary direct cooperation agreements with similar faculties in the EU countries. For this to be done, the Macedonian faculties must attain a higher percentage of compliance with the implementation of the Bologna process in order for their credits and courses to be acknowledged in the EU countries.
The second reason for the lack of mobility is the low living standard in Macedonia in which the majority of the students simply don’t have enough money to enroll in such a program. The third and final major obstacle for the Macedonian student is the visa regime. It is very difficult for a Macedonian national to move freely across borders in Europe (or elsewhere, for that matter).
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