One-on-one | Education

Arlind Qori: Today, education is one of the most important paths toward gender emancipation

By - 13.11.2019

Rethinking Academia (Part 7) – Professor and activist speaks on the role of the university in public life, corruption and the energy of student protest.

In a recent interview, when asked about the state of democracy in her native Turkey, writer Elif Shafak warned of how the lack of an independent academia, among other issues, is one of the components of a “damaged and broken” democracy.

Looking at the rest of the Balkans and at the state of democracy and academia, it is a statement that resonates strongly. Around the region, universities are faced with the same complaints and challenges: the misuse of universities by political elites, the questionable quality of education, opportunism among the academic staff, a decline of ethics and the so-called “brain drain.”

Wanting to explore this situation further, K2.0 has spoken with some of the most prominent intellectuals from the region. In this special series of interviews with academics from seven Balkan states, all professors agree that academia in the Balkans is not independent. 

In the seventh part of our Rethinking Academia series, K2.0 talks to Arlind Qori, professor and activist, and one of the leading voices of the mass student protests in December 2018. 

Over the last five years, together with the political movement, Lëvizja Për Universitetin (Movement for the University), that he co-founded, Qori was one of the strongest voices against the Law for Higher Education in Albania that led to student protests throughout Albania last year. Thousands of students marched in Tirana, and hundreds of others did the same in six other cities around the country, demanding a reduction in university fees, the elimination of unjust fines against students, a doubling of the budget for higher education, and most importantly, the abolition of the law.  

Qori also co-founded the political movement Organizata Politike (Political Organization), a leftist movement organized with a group of intellectuals and activists after the tragedy of January 21, 2011 when four citizens were shot dead by police during anti-government protests in Tirana*. 

For 15 years, professor Qori has lectured on the History of Political Thought and Postmodern Politics at the Department of Political Science in the Faculty of Social Science at the University of Tirana (UT). He is one of the few practitioners in this field who has refused to remain a theorist, instead striving to put theory into practice to benefit society. 

K2.0 spoke to Qori about the Law for Higher Education, corruption, as well as the lack of perspective, means and professionalism in public universities.

Photo: Florion Goga / K2.0.

K2.0: Today, one year on from the student protests that rocked Albania, how do you see the situation in the University from the perspective of a professor and activist? What has changed?

Arlind Qori: Practically speaking, nothing has changed in university life. The higher education law stands, so we still face many problems such as the commercialization of public universities, viewing teachers as knowledge sales people and of students as clients, the high cost of education, the feudal rule of university directors, the exploitation of grades to abuse students, etc.

But if we look at it from another perspective, everything has changed, because the spirit has changed. The December protests and the subsequent resistance in January taught students a great historical lesson: When victims get together and form movements, there is an explosive potential. 

Students have become aware that not only can they transform university life, they can also put the whole political system into crisis and suffocate Albania through ideology. 

Speaking to people in the streets today, one year after the mass student protests, so many say they are expecting a new student initiative. For them, students are the catalysts that have been absent throughout history, the interconnections of inexhaustible social energies that are now extinguished in individual isolation.

Prime Minister Edi Rama changed half of his government cabinet last year, justifying these actions as part of an immediate reaction to the pressure coming from the student protests. Amongst others, he dismissed the minister of education. However, these actions were perceived by the students as superficial because the abolition of the Law for Higher Education was never considered. How do you see this response from the Albanian government?

Edi Rama is prepared to make every surface change, but wants to make no substantial changes. It is an old political trick that he performs better than his predecessors. On the other hand, I suspect that in Albania, there are no ministers. 

In fact, there is only one prime minister. Ministers are not individuals who conceive of policies, but are, rather, blind executors of the prime minister’s orders. In this sense, instead of ministers, we have people who have given their signatures with concessions.

The case of the higher education law is significant. The drafting of this law, which is sponsored by a few owners of private universities, was initiated by people close to the prime minister, people who were appointed by him. Throughout, the Ministry of Education was an observer of the process that developed independently from it. 

The minister of education at the time hadn’t properly read or understood the logic of the law. The same goes for the current minister. Just listen to the way she speaks about the law for higher education! It is sad to see how little she knows about it. It is as if she is talking about the fishing law of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Broadly speaking, there are two reasons behind the government’s refusal to change the higher education law even partially. The first is related to the political basis of the government in [terms of] education that is comprised of private university owners and the directors of public universities. The former would never agree to halt the financing of their universities with public funds, while the latter refuse to empower students within the public university, because this would put their rule at risk. 

The second reason is that for many years, the higher education law has been symbolic. For the government, it serves as a model for every possible reform. For its opponents, it is the genesis of every subsequent action of corruption in all fields. As such, the fall of the higher education law would bring about the fall of the government.

Nevertheless, the protests did manage to halve university tuition for bachelor degree students, as well as secured other benefits, such as the reconstruction of some dormitories in Qyteti Studenti (Student City) and other issues. Why is this insufficient? 

In fact, the government promised a comprehensive reduction of bachelor level tuition only for last year. This year, students who have average grades lower than six are excluded from the reduction of tuition, and so are students who, for different reasons, have had to retake exams, no matter their average grade. Moreover, the reduction of bachelor degree tuition was scaled in accordance to average grades. This scaling has a dimension of dishonesty. 

If we compare university fees with the minimum wage and the average wage, Albania is one of the most expensive European countries to study in.

First of all, students with low average grades are usually people who come from poor families and need to work in order to afford education and the cost of living. We should facilitate their studies by giving them more time, by motivating them. 

Second, in different branches, the relative ease or difficulty of getting a higher grade has been fixed. Third, the scaling of tuition in accordance with average grades — the higher your grade, the less you pay — is creating pressure on faculties to increase grades artificially. 

The worst thing is that, tuition fees in other levels (masters and doctorates) have not been changed at all. They are scandalously high, in some cases over 1,000 euros per academic year. Governments have continuously treated postgraduate studies as a luxury, not as an organic part of the formation of a professional and citizen. 

They are not even subsidized by the state. In general, if we compare university fees with the minimum wage and the average wage, it turns out that Albania is one of the most expensive European countries in which to study.

However, the demands were not limited to fees. They also demanded a new university, that would be run by students and professors, autonomous from the government and logic of money, that would create professional employment for graduates and would serve as the initiator of ideas and practices that could transform society. Unsurprisingly, none of the measures taken by the government have contributed toward these objectives.

Eight students and activists from the Movement for the University were initially sentenced to two months imprisonment each for a protest in 2015 that was organized in the faculty where you have been employed as a professor for more than a decade. What aspect of the academic staff and student bodies threatens the power structures most?

I think the event that really turned people’s attention toward the university was when Edi Rama was egged in the yard of the Faculty of Social Science. The girls and boys who tried to stain Rama’s shirt were beaten in the faculty yard by his bodyguards, policemen and gangsters who were with Rama. 

In the yard, some students and passersby defended the students. But shamefully, none of the professors who were present defended them, even though police intervention on the university premises is illegal, unless there is a prior written request from the dean. The steering structures of the faculty and university were silent, it is not only that students were beaten, the university was humiliated.

Nevertheless, the violence we saw that day and the subsequent legal persecution are inconsequential when compared to the structural violence of government policies against the university.

It is not enough to live. You have to ask yourself: Which life is worth living?

There is no greater violence than forcing professors to abandon critical truth and transforming them into marketers of their institution who raise grades artificially to increase the number of students, to charge students high tuition and to silence their voices when they demand welfare within the university, and to impoverish public universities, while the government only thinks about how to finance the “poor” owners of private universities. 

As for the government, I don’t think it is scared of students and faculties as such, rather it fears the potential they have to light the fire of hope in society. A book or a critical idea, however correct and great it is, cannot change anything if there is no communication bridge and later interaction with the social world outside it. This would be the role of students and professors as organic intellectuals of the parts of society that until today have been invisible and voiceless.

Photo: Florion Goga / K2.0.

Did you feel vulnerable at work due to your political engagement? Do you think some of your colleagues are refusing to publicly support students or raise their voices for different issues that face the university out of fear that they could be punished, despite the fact that they have a constitutional right to do so? 

In fact, I’ve never felt endangered due to my public engagement. Not that I have some kind of rare courage, but when you become part of a massive social movement, you start to live in another dimension, to understand that dedication to an emancipatory idea is more fulfilling than any accident in your personal life. 

It is not enough to live. You have to ask yourself: Which life is worth living? You don’t find the answer to this question in isolation, and you do not understand it fully simply by reading books. It comes from practice, from engaging with many other people, from the inspiration that you get when you see the ineffable potential that is actualized among young men and women with great minds and lots of courage.

Me and a few friends have been experiencing this for years. Over the last year, I’ve seen this manifested in many of my colleagues. In December, with no one asking them to act, most professors of the faculty where I work signed a statement in support of the students, demanding that the government abolish the higher education law. 

Over the next days, they joined the student protests, engaged in assemblies and faculties, began to establish a union, went on strike, and resisted indirect intimidation from the government and direct intimidation from university directors. They were the same people who in the past did not have the courage and belief that something could be achieved, but by then, they found the power within themselves to be part of a great movement.

That is why fear is always situational. It is born and grows when the organization and movement are extinguished. When the wheel of history moves again, people are astonished by the courage and power that they find within themselves. 

The condemnation by students of corruption, plagiarism, selling books on the black market, and selling books by professors that haven’t been certified by scientists and linguists, have empowered the student body in recent years. This abuse not only affects students, but also honorable educators who do their jobs justly and with love. How do these abuses affect you as a professor? What effects do they have beyond the university?

A professor is not simply an employee. They are a component of a conceptual figure with a long history. It is mainly a history of sacrifice, up to self-renunciation, for truth, for the critical spirit, to build a pedagogical practice that aims to give and build knowledge. 

As such, any professor who abuses their duty is not only violating the law, but also violating this conceptual figure that is much greater and more long-standing than him or herself. So every violation of pedagogical ethics — even the Penal Code in certain cases — is like a boot on the back of students and other educators who do their job with honor.

Educators, however, cannot say: “I do my job well. Let others deal with the abusers!” An abuser does not only humiliate the university in front of society, they are also the cause of the estrangement of students from the university. 

An abused student who sees his honorable professor staying silent and saying nothing against his corrupt colleagues loses respect for his educator and the university in general. Whoever has the opportunity to change university practices and decides to stay silent is just as responsible as its destroyers. 

What was notable especially during the protests in December was the feminist spirit. Not only in December, but in just about all student protests in recent years, women have been at the forefront. How is your activism facilitating feminist elements in and out of the movement?

The university, with its 1001 problems, is still the best institution that Albanian society has to offer today. One issue is the lack of women in university life and this was reflected in their participation in protests. Like never before in Albania’s history, women were the majority in a massive social movement — a great force of ideas, the highest voice. 

This has rarely been seen even in the history of more democratically advanced countries. In this aspect, the student protests were radically feminist, even though there was no need to directly articulate elements of the feminist cause. It was a concrete model of the way social relations should be restructured at work, in the family and elsewhere.

Today, education is one of the most important paths toward gender emancipation. Girls who live on the outskirts, where the patriarchal logic is stronger, are especially in need of closer access to the university. The most effective acid against the mentality and practices of gender oppression is learning new ideas and concepts, being part of the multidimensionality of university life, experiencing the vortex of social life. 

But what happens in itself to a certain extent within universities should be elevated to a concept. It must be articulated in an intellectual way so that we can understand its features and limits. Only this way can we understand why the war for gender equality is waged in an unequal way in different sectors of society, and how we can get past this.

You are also an Organizata Politike activist, where labor is the primary focus of the activism. Many OP and Movement For the University activists are laborers or come from laborer families, so they represent the most marginalized strata of society. How are university issues related to laborers and the rest of society? What unites students and laborers? 

It’s true that an overwhelming majority of activists of Organizata and the Movement are students and laborers, or come from poor families of laborers. They do not fight only for abstract principles. Their war is real to the core. In their daily life, the best synthesis between the student and labor causes is born.

They are laborers with university diplomas.

There are many different cross cutting points between these two causes. Historically, university studies have been the main social elevator of working-class families. The parents would toil in physical work, but hoped that at least their children would have more opportunities to study. As such, the more you break down borders between the poor, or laborers, and the university, the more social mobility you have.

On the other hand, today a growing number of students are punished by having to work during their studies. Consequently, working conditions are closely related to studying conditions. Nevertheless, after finishing their studies, most of them find themselves in hopeless positions: Very few find jobs in their field, and this forces them to either emigrate or work jobs for which they are clearly overqualified for long periods of time. 

In this sense, they are laborers with university diplomas, so this motivates them to transform this stifling development model, which is based on the exploitation of physical laborers and has little space for engagement in cognitive work.

But above all, university studies equip students with a universal stimulus that comes as a result of the intimate rapport with the truth. The social truth must be transforming. It requires you to change your coordinates of understanding, your relation with the world, to become aware of its limits and powers, and as a result, to help the transformation of socio-political relations. 

As such, the student leaves the university with an idea, however vague it is, about how there should be a new world: with no exploitation, humiliation and estrangement. The world cannot change this way of being without identifying with the ones from whose hands and minds all good things that we enjoy are elevated, and on the shoulders of whom lies all the weight of injustice: the laborers.

What role does knowledge have as science in Albanian society today? Especially when it has been reduced to the “knowledge = employment opportunity” dichotomy, instead of “knowledge = intellectual or social liberation opportunity”?

Unfortunately, in Albania knowledge does not ensure employment opportunities. We do not have the advantages of developed countries who need to utilize an intellectually qualified workforce. This instrumentalizes the cause, narrows the function of knowledge, but at least it offers some employees good working conditions. 

In Albania, an economic development model that mainly requires physical laborers has been established, while genuine cognitive work is mostly limited to public administration. This has created feverish competition for knowledge credentials, meaning diplomas, certificates, seals, etc. that supposedly give graduates a privileged status in relation to others.

When you know of critical thought, you are aware of the liberating potential of the truth.

If we include the boss-client rapport over the basis on which public administration is built, we’ll understand why there are so many demands for diplomas, but so little desire for knowledge, in today’s Albania.

But the gimmick of reason makes for a situation where among all the bad things, something good is born. 

Paradoxically, particularly among the most hopeless, such a system gives birth to the desire to know more, to see knowledge as an opportunity for social emancipation. Among the students who have no hope that through education they can achieve a status higher than that of a call center employee, there are some who transform their social desperation into an intellectual force. 

This statement was at the heart of the student protests in December: “While we won’t be able to instrumentalize knowledge to find a better job, we can build an intimate rapport with it, to consider it as an objective in itself, to understand how it can help us to penetrate into the heart of phenomena, and above all, to help us transform stifling socio-political institutions.” 

If they reorganize their forces, they can attract thousands of friends, and together they can find a way out of the tunnel in which Albania has gone. Such a collective attempt, by reconstituting university life and making necessary changes to the structure of socio-political relations, would enable the propagation of future cognitive workers, so-called professionals, and the shaping of critical minds — when you know of critical thought, you are aware of the liberating potential of the truth.

In 2015, you earned a PhD in political science and are now engaged in scientific research, mainly through scholarly articles and scientific conferences. What are the challenges for young aspiring researchers in today’s Albania? 

There are many problems. First of all, there is a lack of infrastructural support for proper scientific research. Proper scientific research requires funds for equipment, expeditions and other facilitation that university budgets cannot cover. Moreover, bureaucratic procrastination and nepotism create a stifling climate for scientific research.

However, the biggest problem with scientific research and the cultivation of critical thought is that pedagogical study is considered ordinary work, where a person does what they are formally required to do, gets their wage and goes on with their life. In fact, the rapport with knowledge, critical thought and the truth should be seen as objectives in and of itself. 

Professors can have wages, but they should not be limited by their wages. If a professor is not stimulated by curiosity, enthused by discovery, and finds no joy in deep research, is not fulfilled by encouraging students to be interested in gaining knowledge, then they do not deserve the status that they have. 

I think that being an educator is a privilege that few people have. Society — especially its most productive laborers — sacrifices so much to ensure better working conditions for some of its members — educators — especially with job independence. We have to fulfill this obligation that we have toward society with scientific research and theoretical thought, year after year.

On the other hand, the way the power structures of the public university are organized today makes for a situation in which there is very little stimulation for conducting deep scientific research. A reorganized university, where the will of students would have more weight, would push decision-makers to draft mechanisms that encourage proper scientific research and seek responsibility from professors regarding phenomena that are completely fraudulent, such as plagiarism, abuse of academic titles and academic lethargy.

Photo courtesy of Arlind Qori.

What would be the ideal university for you as a professor?

I would not want to see students who are demotivated and haggard from working a shift, from malnutrition, the inability to afford to books, or from the idea that, however much they study, tomorrow they will all end up unemployed or working in call centers. I would want to walk into the university and see students and professors as builders of knowledge and I would not want to see authoritarianism and frivolity. 

I would want to see university administrator positions as temporary, not as spoils that should be acquired at all costs. But above all, I would want to see a university that doesn’t raise fences to separate it from society, but absorbs problems and ideas that come from it, and influences the whole of society. 

I don’t think this is an ideal, in the sense of an abstract otherworldly idea. This is an idea, the seed of which has already been sown, otherwise we would not have been able to speak seriously about it. It is an idea that cannot be realized within the university without transforming current socio-political relations. 

What are your relations like with students in your classes? The courses you lecture are not simple. 

I strive so that my students see me as a person who loves his job. A basic part of the job is to convey not only my knowledge, but above all the critical spirit of studying a text or phenomenon. It’s about learning together because it is not just 16 or 17 of us in the classroom there are many more who have preceded us through the centuries, and so many more around the world who are setting off on the same path as we are. 

Despite the good will, I don’t think I manage to do this completely, due to my occasionally incomprehensible and uninteresting manner of speaking, and the problems that students face in their daily life in and out of the university — I notice many blank stares [when I lecture]. This motivates me to keep fighting for the university that we could build, but we don’t yet have.

Why do you think that after finishing high school, many youth decide to study political science or philosophy? 

I think that only some students truly decide to study these subjects. Due to a recruitment process which resembles a lottery, many students are displaced into subjects that are not inspiring for them, fearing that they might not get to finish university otherwise. Imagine how hard it is for them and consequently for the rest of the class to engage properly in study and cultivated discussions! 

As if these problems weren’t enough, from time to time they have to face professors who demand that they pay money or buy books from them in exchange for grades, with university directors who don’t care about anything but substituting their expensive cars with even more expensive cars and so on.

On the other hand, the idea that you can’t find a job even if you are educated is demotivating for students of social disciplines. It seems we have succumbed to the idea that in our country there can only be jobs for brickmasons, office workers and notaries. In fact, if we acquire the power to build a new development model, that considers the advantages of multidisciplinary cognitive work, then there would be many jobs for political scientists, philosophers and sociologists.

Should we expect new protests from students at the start of this new academic year?

If I was the head of some party, I would be able to predict it with accuracy. After all, with the blow of a whistle, they can mobilize party structures and bring thousands of people to the square. 

But particularly for this reason, the nerve of their protests is dead, full of people who look at their watches to see when they can leave, with no imagination or transformative power. 

Student protests are alive, outstandingly creative, un-leadable and shocking for the government and political system. That is why they are unpredictable. All that I can say is that objective studying and living conditions are the same as last year, perhaps worse. Their discontent is just as high. But they are the ones who will show us whether there is more desperation or hope in their midst.

Our duty as activists is simply to prepare the organizational infrastructure so that when students overrun the streets again, there are minimal conditions to prevent the energy of the protest from spreading, so that they can ultimately topple the ugly edifice of government education policies and start building a new university. 

This process could start tomorrow, after a month or after a year. No one can predict it. But we can safely assume that when it restarts, it will leave no stone unturned. K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Albanian.

Feature image: Florion Goga / K2.0.

* Correction: The originally publish version of this article incorrectly stated that three students were killed during protests about higher education. The protests were in fact anti-government protests, and four citizens were killed.