Earlier this week, the Rectors’ Conference (comprising the rectors of the public universities in Kosovo) announced a general strike, and asked that the board of the Kosovo Accreditation Agency (KAA) and the minister of education be dismissed. That is why I’m writing this letter, to address our concerns at the Organization For Increasing Quality in Education (ORCA) regarding the possible political intervention in these two institutions and on the quality of higher education in Kosovo.
As you may know, for almost two years, ORCA has raised important issues regarding a lack of scientific publications and academic integrity in Kosovo through its activities and research on the biggest and best higher education institution in Kosovo, the University of Prishtina.
Our advocacy and public pressure resulted in Administrative Instruction 1/2018 from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, which foresees indexing platforms for journals where scientific articles should be published in order for academic staff to be promoted. This Administrative Instruction was criticized by professors and university officials who saw it as an attack on academic freedoms.
Also, our advocacy and public pressure has been criticized as an intervention in the autonomy of the universities. Some have gone so far such as to compare our “intervention” with what Slobodan Milošević did to the University of Prishtina in the 1990s when the University of Prishtina was closed.
While this debate was ongoing, the University of Prishtina, the best in our country, was in a devastating condition. Seventy-two percent of the professors could not justify their academic ranks, meaning that they didn’t have the required number of scientific articles published needed to justify their position. By 2017, professors at the University of Prishtina had published around 1,320 scientific articles, with an average of 2.7 articles per professor.
Although the Administrative Instruction and our intervention was criticized, in 2018 the University of Prishtina started improving significantly. Today, the university has around 1,735 scientific articles with an average of 3.7 articles per professor, while the percentage of those who do not justify their academic rank has decreased to 59 percent (still a worrisome number).
These very small achievements are at risk.
In points 1, 2 and 4 of its seven-point announcement, the Rectors’ Conference attacks exactly this Administrative Instruction and the endeavors of Kosovar civil society and its allies in seeking to achieve better quality in higher education, as well as this small progress.
With a very small number of academic staff and enormous numbers of students — the ratio of professors to students at the University of Prishtina is 1 to 49 (while in the region this ratio is about 1 to 25) — these institutions put our future at risk. The professional deformation of students that will attend this kind of education will be permanent and irreversible, therefore strong action should be taken immediately.
Most of the rectors from the Rectors’ Conference have declared in their Anti-Corruption Agency wealth declarations that they receive extra honoraria from the universities that they administer. Simultaneously, they have failed to manage the accreditation process of their institutions, failing in the most basic criteria of having three PhD professors per study program. However, they blame the KAA, removing any responsibility from themselves.
ORCA is monitoring the KAA and participates in its long meetings. ORCA also monitored the Parliamentary Commission for Education’s meeting with the Rectors’ Conference on January 24 this year, as well as its meeting with Agency board members on January 25.
In order to give neutral information regarding the conflict between the Rectors’ Conference and KAA, ORCA has thoroughly analysed the situation and collected together the main claims made by the Rectors’ Conference in this week’s press release as well as during the meeting with the Parliamentary Commission for Education:
- Claim that, due to technical problems in e-accreditation, some forms on which professors detail their qualifications weren’t taken into consideration when programs were reviewed:
KAA, through the company that maintains the e-accreditation system, has verified (during its board meeting on January 15) the accuracy of the claim made by some professors that had difficulty in registering. When they found that, in 41 of the alleged cases reported by the rectors, professors had indeed attempted to register in the system but hadn’t managed to, KAA decided to review their physical files.
- Claim that KAA revoked accreditation for existing programs that do not have three professors with PhDs in the field of study without experts’ opinion:
Programs already accredited are checked annually for fulfilling the basic criteria, that of three PhDs in the field of study. This has been an annual practice by KAA in the scope of its mission to monitor the accredited programs.
The programs that have previously been accredited without fulfilling this criteria, or that in the meantime have had changes in staff and had no competent staff, were not validated, therefore their accreditation was not continued.
Disclaimer: this does not affect the students who started these programs when they were accredited. Revoking accreditations means that the institutions do not have the right to register new students.
During the validation of 185 existing programs this year (during the January 14-15 meeting of the KAA Board), KAA renewed the accreditation of 124 programs at public universities and 61 programs in private institutions, while it revoked the accreditation of 75 programs — 40 in public universities, and 35 in private institutions.
- Claim of some study programs being accredited or re-accredited without experts’ opinion:
Programs that had previously been accredited but they were applying for renewal as their accreditation was expiring are only required to pass the first phase of accreditation, which means fulfilling the basic criteria of three PhDs from the study field per program. In this phase there is no need for experts.
- Claim that KAA’s board (also known as the State Council of Quality, SQC) has no competences to carry out the initial evaluation of new study programs:
SQC is composed of members that belong to all existing fields of study, as foreseen by Administrative Instruction 06/2018. ORCA notes that SQC is therefore competent to decide if the program staff belong to the field of study of the program or not, and that there’s no need for expertise on this.
Expertise can subsequently be used to evaluate the compatibility of the proposed program with the foreseen teaching activities, a phase that is a follow up for all programs that have passed the first phase, that of fulfilling the criteria of three program staff having PhDs from the field of study.
In total, SQC has given the initial green light to 104 new programs (53 from public universities and 51 from private institutions), while it has refused 107 programs (28 from public universities and 79 from private institutions).
- Claim that the SQC has not looked at the PhD dissertations of professors, but only their scientific qualifications (i.e. bachelor, master, etc.):
During its monitoring, ORCA has evidenced that SQC has checked all PhD theses in addition to the scientific qualification of every program staff, especially in cases when there were doubts.
- Claim that certain people who have a long history of work experience in a certain field were not found adequate to be program staff for academic courses:
KAA cannot give accreditation to programs by only taking into consideration work experience, because the law and instructions in force require that in addition to experience, the program staff must also have their scientific qualification in the field of study.
- Claim that four professors had been requested by SQC per study program:
The Administrative Instruction has required, now and in the past, one PhD per 60 European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) credits. This translates to three PhDs for a bachelor’s program of 180 ECTS credits and two PhDs for a master’s program of 120 ECTS credits.
The claim that four PhDs in the field of study are asked per program of 180 ECTS, and that this is a change in the rules since the initial accreditation, does not stand and has not been proven by the rectors.
- Claim that the fields of education, journalism and nursing do not have PhD programs:
This claim does not stand. There are PhD programs in all of these fields. If in Kosovo they do not exist, it means that Kosovo doesn’t have the capacities to offer such study programs, unless the institutions commit to bringing new staff.
Time to act
ORCA concludes that for various reasons, which could be related to misinformation and lack of communication between the Rectors’ Conference and the State Quality Council, the reality presented by the Rectors’ Conference is distorted.
In our conclusion, beyond any reasonable doubt, we can say that the SQC has not violated the legislation in force based on political tendencies or lack of professionalism. In any case, the chance that a mistake could have been made unintentionally, either by members of the SQC or by ORCA’s monitors, could have been alleviated through a formal complaint by the dissatisfied institutions to KAA’s Appeals Commission.
We call for extra attention to be paid to the international process that KAA is going through, since it applied for re-accreditation at The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) last year, following this body’s decision to expel KAA almost one year ago. The decision for KAA’s re-accreditation will be taken in the next three months and anything that could damage the internal process of accreditation within Kosovo could have irreparable consequences for KAA at the international level.
Seeing how the political situation is deteriorating day by day, and how political stakeholders are using higher education as a tool to further their own political agenda, we all must do everything possible to prevent this from happening.
Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0.