One-on-one | Education

Jelena Vasiljević: We live in a society where all walks of life and all institutions are affected by political and party interests

By - 15.10.2019

Rethinking Academia (Part 3) — Belgrade researcher talks university autonomy, solidarity and university degrees as status symbols.

In a recent interview, when asked about the state of democracy in her native Turkey, writer Elif Shafak warned of how the lack of 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’s a statement that strongly resonates. Around the region, universities are faced with the same complaints and challenges: the misuse of universities by political elites, a 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 of the professors agree that academia in the Balkans is not independent.

In the third part of our “Rethinking Academia” series, K2.0 sat down with Jelena Vasiljević, a research fellow at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory in Belgrade. Though she is interested in various issues, the current focal points of her research are political solidarity, activist citizenship and social movements in the Balkans, as well as the problem of a theoretical reconciliation of the concepts of solidarity and citizenship.

Along with a group of colleagues, she recently joined the Network for Academic Solidarity and Engagement in Serbia, an organization founded in response to external pressure exerted on Serbian academia. The network was set up after students blocked the premises of Belgrade University for twelve days, calling on the Professional Ethics Committee of the university to pass final judgement — no later than November 4 — on whether Finance Minister Siniša Mali had plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. This issue has been the source of heated debate in Serbia since 2014, having raised a number of questions concerning university autonomy and the validity of university degrees.

It is from this perspective of intersecting solidarity and citizenship that Jelena Vasiljević talked to K2.0 about the current situation at universities in Serbia, the difference between private and public universities and the social prerequisites for independent and quality education.

Photo: Vladimir Živojinović / K2.0.

K2.0: Over the past few days, if we search for the keyword “education” in Serbian media, what shows up are the news about the blockade of the rectorate by university students. Their initial demands were related to Siniša Mali’s plagiarized dissertation and residents of student dorms who were kicked out due to the Universiade. Many things have happened — assaults on students, lukewarm criticism by the rectorate staff and political representatives of the #1od5miliona (“One of Five Million”) movement voicing their support for students. How is it possible that students managed to make the problems that plague higher education a priority issue among the general public at this time?

Jelena Vasiljević: It is very reassuring that, ultimately, University Rector Popović did clearly condemn party activists breaking into the rectorate premises. She pointed out that university autonomy is to be respected, having subsequently pressed for the case of Siniša Mali’s dissertation to be solved — some would say that this was her official duty to begin with.

As expected, we have also witnessed Rector Popović coming under fire for her statement, so I think that academic community should back her up at this point, as well as the students’ demands. The ideal situation would be for the broader student community to state their position on these requests, regardless of whether they support the rectorate being occupied or not.

What is proper as well is to turn this claim around and say that we have no individuals who are courageous and independent enough to call attention to plagiarized works.

To what extent these issues will be pushed forward in the public sphere depends on how much all of us together — students and academic professionals alike — are going to persevere in highlighting them and demonstrating that these are not some sporadic, isolated problems, but rather the symptoms of grave threats to the quality, autonomy and dignity of scientific research and higher education in this country.

How much has the attitude toward whistleblowing on plagiarism changed and to what degree are (academic) citizens aware of the seriousness of intellectual theft and its consequences for society? Apart from a possible fear of losing their jobs, do the representatives of academia who do not state their views on plagiarized works in public perhaps uphold a long-standing system for the sake of what we may call academic solidarity, whereby you protect your colleagues’ reputation at any cost so that they could protect yours in turn?

I shall answer this question backwards: keeping silent about your colleagues’ plagiarism is no expression of solidarity, since the acts of academic dishonesty directly undermine strenuous efforts made by all those colleagues (who are in the majority, luckily) who adhere to the principle of academic decency in their scientific, theoretical and artistic production. It is in terms of upholding and upgrading this principle that we should close ranks and stand in solidarity with each other.

Today, our academic practice includes mechanisms introduced in order to prevent and punish plagiarism — be it clearly defined articles in institutional statutes, plagiarism checkers, compulsory uploading of doctoral dissertations, etc. — albeit this does not mean that plagiarism is not present anymore and that it is detected at all times.

I believe that academia is aware of how harmful plagiarism and other forms of intellectual theft are, but in some cases we have no institutions strong, autonomous and independent enough to resolutely do away with these practices. What is proper as well is to turn this claim around and say that we have no individuals who are courageous and independent enough to call attention to plagiarized works.

However, I would like to point out the importance of institutions here, bearing in mind that individuals are under pressure and are therefore not enjoying sufficient support from their colleagues and from institutions that could provide for their decisions, made in line with their conscience and expertise, to be protected by institutions and institutionalized values and principles.

Then how visible are the socially engaged representatives of academia in the media? At this point in time, it seems that they are the ones who have the potential to be leaders and role models, at least in some smaller circles.

They are visible in some media, and on social networks… We already know everything about this limited exposure, in light of our society and control of the media.

That they are becoming role models is alright, up to a point. It could be said that using some social capital and/or theoretical knowledge to actively take part in the social life of a community does make for exemplary behavior.

Photo: Vladimir Živojinović / K2.0.

It is alright only “up to a point” as it is, for me, completely fine for someone to be a part of academia while having no inclination for this sort of public engagement. Conversely, these individuals being perceived as potential leaders is indeed sad — owing to the fact that we as a society are now in such a position that whenever we find out about someone who is adequately brave, eloquent and persistent, we wish for them to become our new leader.

This is particularly revealing of a deplorable deficiency in political ideas, leadership and “exit options” that we are desperately looking for everywhere.

Do you believe that university autonomy will be feasible at some point in the future and under what conditions?

Yes, absolutely. It exists even nowadays, though on paper, and in some cases it is indeed being looked after. The reason for its frailty is that we do not have strong and independent institutions. Their place is taken up by interest groups who pass off their cohesion as institutional action by means of mimicry.

More often than not, the primary job or security requirement is not to have a university degree: instead, it is to have a party membership card.

The preconditions for university autonomy are good legislation, commitment to the idea that institutional framework is more important than particularized, short-term alliances — whether they are political or not — as well as individuals who act with integrity and according to the principles of university autonomy.

For quite some time, it has been said that not a specific university degree is needed to get a job, but rather connections, yet young people still rely on the former, obtaining them in one way or another. Why is it that degrees endure as some sort of a status symbol, even among those who do not want to immerse themselves in the field, since a party membership is enough? Is it perhaps related to a certain amount of fear that a system like this might not hold out and that education may actually be important in the future, at least in theory?

It could be that university degrees are still seen as some warrancy of sorts, or that it is regarded as a means to save yourself in potential purges of “redundant” staff to come and in some similar scenarios. Moreover, what lingers on is the prestige of being endowed with a degree.

Meanwhile, there is also the other side of the coin, which is worrying enough. More often than not, the primary job or security requirement is not to have a university degree: instead, it is to have a party membership card.

Another thing that is particularly interesting is this phenomenon of doctoral dissertations being plagiarised — or being of questionable quality at best — by state officials whose positions never required a doctoral degree in the first place.

I mean, what is it that compels Mali, Stefanović, Tabaković and others to hold doctoral degrees? Is it a thirst for knowledge, a desire to redirect oneself to some academic field? Do they want to show off?

Unfortunately, knowledge is being commodified even further. This is a global trend. On the other hand, university degrees have been turning into certificates of investment and an accumulation of your “human capital,” as it is referred to in this day and time. As such, degrees are becoming trade items, both literally, in the real world, and on the symbolic plane, where people trade in functions, positions of power, influence…

To what extent have private universities played a role in the decline of public universities, bearing in mind how many prominent public figures list the former as the main cause for the collapse of the latter?

It is true that many of those fishy degrees, primarily those held by state officials, were obtained at private universities. Likewise, it might be logical to assume that such universities may also be hotbeds of intrigue, primarily in our context, where there is a lack of transparency, where laws are easily circumvented, etc.

However, making such a generalized assessment would be rather unfair toward a large number of people who have completed their respective studies decently and diligently at numerous private universities in Serbia. Note that these institutions differ a great deal from one another.

Photo: Vladimir Živojinović / K2.0.

Finally, and most importantly, whatever the state of the private university sector is — it being everything but homogenous — private universities cannot be held responsible for the decline of public universities. Such an assertion would be a gross oversimplification regarding the issues of systematic neglect, the enduring defects in higher education and science policies, a lethargic treatment of university education policy and so on.

All successes of public universities — and their failures, of which there are many — come as a result of relations and dynamics within these universities themselves. They also stem from the relationship between the specific university and the state.

Some students who have the means to enroll either at private or public universities say that they opt for the former due to the quality of education. What are your views on what is described as “quality education?” Does “practical knowledge” acquired over the course of studies qualify as quality knowledge? One of the frequent concerns is whether universities should be kept at this level of dealing with abstract thought and theory, while practical knowledge should be the domain of professional training and informal education.

This is not an easy question to answer, since it raises a wide variety of issues all at once.

To me, it seems that what is closer to the ideal of “quality education” — practical or theoretical knowledge — is a false conundrum. It goes without saying that the answer depends on your field of study, as philosophy and dentistry are not the same, but the conundrum is still false because it leads us into thinking of practice and theory as contrary ideas.

Quality education should entail a good, modernized curriculum, a quality curriculum which offers the best balance between theoretical and practical knowledge pertaining to the given field of study.

In Serbia, do we even discuss the current and future states of education system without exclusively referring to a division between the two political camps, government and opposition?

We do, yet it is hard to have any sort of serious debate that would be branded as “entirely professional” since we live in a society where all walks of life and all institutions are affected by political and party interests.

What would you list as the indispensable prerequisites for better education in Serbia (starting from primary school and then moving up to university education) that we as a society should meet? In what kind of society would you like your child to learn through the education system?

The issue of quality education ought to be looked at and solved systematically, comprehensively and in full awareness of the fact that what we have at hand is not some isolated segment of our society, but an issue integral to the question of what kind of society we want.

Besides the obvious and unavoidable interventions, such as providing a more substantial funding of education system, offering more generous salaries to teaching staff, foreseeing a more significant budget for scientific research… What is indispensable is an approach that would treat our education system — from primary school level to university — as a whole, the individual parts of which must be coordinated.

Furthermore, I believe that we need a far-reaching curricular reform, which would ideally engage all education professionals — educators, pedagogists, primary and secondary school teachers — as the curricular reform started in Croatia a few years ago did, before it came to an unfortunate halt.

Such a comprehensive reform should be preceded by extensive consultation with professionals, a current status and needs analysis and the consensus of the professional community regarding the priorities within the education system.

It is the political will to head this way that naturally predates all of the aforementioned processes. Sadly, however, it is nowhere to be found. K

Feature image: Vladimir Živojinović / K2.0.