One-on-one | Education

Mirjana Najčevska: Education never was and still isn’t a priority of the state of North Macedonia

By - 22.10.2019

Rethinking Academia (Part 4) — professor from Skopje talks about reasons for the decline in quality of education in North Macedonia.

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 fourth part of our “Rethinking Academia” series, K2.0 sat down with Mirjana Najčevska, university professor and acting director of the Institute for Sociological, Political, and Legal Research at the Saints Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje. 

Her focus of interest for years has been discrimination, interethnic relations, protection of the rights of marginalized groups and the role of the state in promoting and protecting human rights. In her office at the university, we spoke about how much North Macedonia is spending on science, about the pressure faced by workers in academia and about the quality of higher education.

Photo: Viktor Popovski / K2.0.

K2.0: World Bank data suggests that North Macedonia has spent only 0.35% of its GDP in 2017 on research and development. Twice less in comparison to Bulgaria, and almost 10 times less than Sweden and Switzerland. Why isn’t the country finding enough funds for research projects and the development of higher education institutions?

Mirjana Najčevska: This is a very interesting question, to which I don’t think anybody from around here, in North Macedonia, can respond. We are just launching a big project with the Independent Union of Academic Workers on how much is being allocated for education, especially its higher branches, as well as for science and scientific research.

At first glance, we get the impression that more money is allocated, but when we put it in the context of the GDP and of other allocations, we see not only an absence of positive trends, not only stagnation, but also regression. There are a few ways to explain this.

Firstly, because education, in terms of creating human potential that ought to enable the state’s development, was never on the priority list. This is very strange if we take into consideration who the ministers are who have been heading the ministry of education. Among them we have professors and people with experience in the field, as well as those who we would expect to be part of some reform that would enable completely different results.

Simply put, it’s as if no one in the state has understood the importance of education or recognizes education as an important factor in developing the country.

The Macedonian Ministry of Education and Science has registered 19 private universities, faculties, and institutes with their own study programs. Besides those, we have state universities in Skopje, Štip, Tetovo, and Bitolja. Is this too much for a country of two million citizens?

This only shows that the state doesn’t have a systematic approach to higher education. Simultaneously, since the declaration of independence until this day, I think we have had seven or eight — maybe even more — strategies on developing education. But when we take a look at what has been achieved and implemented in practice of the things in those strategic documents, we can see that all ends with adopting regulations, while in practice no results are visible.

I believe it has become a custom for new universities and faculties to be established, something that seems to be some kind of symbol of results in the heads of politicians.

Since they couldn’t implement everything found in the strategic documents, they decided that results can be seen in the construction of some buildings or in the formal establishment of new universities or faculties. This is what they say: “Look, see, we have opened this many faculties. This is a result.” 

One cannot see the quality of such education, how many professors we have and what those professors are like, in which faculties and in which fields education is developed, and whether this is necessary for the economy. This isn’t measured at all — but what counts is the number of newly opened faculties.

I believe that this powerlessness to truly implement that which appears in the strategic documents is in some way manifested through the opening of new, completely unnecessary faculties of pretty poor quality.

After all, the Shanghai List is measuring the quality of Macedonian universities, and unfortunately shows their very low quality.

Absolutely, but the parameters of values used by the Shanghai List don’t truly match those that constitute quality measurements here, in North Macedonia. In some ways, privatization, which has entered the field of education, has been negatively affecting everything related to quality.

Photo: Viktor Popovski / K2.0.

Privatization is not seen as quality improvement, but if you pay for your studies, then you have to finish them as well. So, if you paid some money, it is expected that within the given timeframe you will obtain your diploma.

If one faculty doesn’t provide you with a diploma, then you switch to another one, and there you’ll get it. A completely perverted system of values.

Many media are reporting on scandals related to fake diplomas bought at faculties, with a special emphasis on what is going on at private universities. What kind of future intellectuals can we hope for when this generation reaches the labor market?

First and foremost, I must say that these aren’t fake diplomas. When we refer to a “fake diploma,” then we mean a forged diploma. This isn’t a forged diploma, but the original. 

However, what’s behind this diploma is no knowledge at all. It is an absolutely legitimate and legal diploma, with a stamp and signature. This means that it isn’t a fake diploma, but that the person in question hasn’t even been enrolled in the process of education.

As I have already said, many faculties have been placed in an unenviable situation. Because of all these private faculties, which can easily issue diplomas and aren’t under the control of anyone. In the sense that there is no factual or genuine evaluation of their work, and students switch faculties with ease. 

And then, people at the faculty discuss how to approach this issue. Should we raise the quality and lose students, or simply lower our quality levels and attract more students by doing so?

The starting position of our state when we left Yugoslavia wasn’t bad at all.

People decide for the latter, because otherwise they risk the downfall of the institution. It is a closed circle. There is always someone who will issue a diploma despite a lack of knowledge and participation in the previous work that is necessary in order for someone to earn a diploma.

I really don’t know what we can expect in the near future, and especially in the far future. We have a lack not only of skills and knowledge, but also of experience, because career advancement at some universities is following this trend of fake diplomas.

It seems as if state policy itself is somehow stimulating the deterioration of the overall quality of higher education?

Absolutely. I don’t think there is any basic awareness about this problem. In a way, we are cutting the branch that we are sitting on.

The starting position of our state when we left Yugoslavia wasn’t bad at all. We had a good quality of elementary and secondary schooling, as well as a relatively good quality of higher education. What should have been done is an adaptation of that system to the European and world standards. I think that all that was needed was taking a few steps to reach this.

However, the entire political development of the last 27-28 years has shown us that politicians simply had no clue about what education means to the state and the economy, as well as for the further development of our whole state structure. This entire system is a product of bad education.

I often use the phrase, “institutions are worth as much as the people working there.” When we speak about institutional issues, I don’t think that we should be thinking too much about their very structure, but about the people on the inside. I think that the reason for which we are starting to crash is tied to how much the educational background of the people working there is actually worth.

Simultaneously, when private universities appeared a few years ago, the Macedonian state opened up new public universities as well. The result of this is a vast number of law faculties, but not a single faculty of transportation. What kind of policy in higher education is this?

I don’t think this policy exists. With my colleagues, we were just talking about the fact that nobody has been approaching this from the perspective of what the subjective need of the country itself, in North Macedonia, is. What is it that we as a state need?

For example, our agricultural faculty is crumbling, as well as the Institute of Animal Husbandry, whereas these institutions should have been the ones to be invested in, since they represent the basis for development due to the specificity of what we have here. Throughout the world, people are now thinking about the need for food, water, and clean air. We don’t have anything of the kind.

This is a country with the potential to feed half the Balkans. But education doesn’t follow this potential. For example, if you take a look at the state university in Tetovo or the St. Klement of Ohrid University in Bitolja, there are no faculties that focus on agriculture, animal husbandry, or the environment. Unproductive faculties producing a completely unnecessary workforce are the only ones that are being established.

Photo: Viktor Popovski / K2.0.

In a country where only little money is invested into scientific research, it is completely normal to have plagiarism and other unethical forms in science. How could the state fight against this abnormality in higher education?

We established this to be a problem some seven or eight years ago. Some initiatives launched, at least at the Saints Cyril and Methodius University and at some other larger universities, they installed programs that should secure a minimum of insight into the possibilities to suppress plagiarism.

From time to time, when some people come to defend their master’s or PhD thesis, we see repeating titles, as well as repeating ideas, while quite similar papers in certain fields are being published repeatedly. This isn’t only about plagiarism in the classical sense, but also about plagiarism of ideas and the lack of inventiveness.

Let’s say that you have a million of master level papers dealing with organizational or managerial relations, which could be explained in one paper only. There is nothing new there. Also, they are segmenting certain topics, limiting the sphere of a master’s thesis, where they speak about coworking relations at some gas stations. You see, this isn’t plagiarism in the classical sense, but simply a lack of ideas and originality, in something that should be new as the basis for science and research.

But ideas stem from reading literature that is popular in the world, and we don’t have that.

Research as well. Novelty is achieved through research activities. At this point, there simply is no research performed at faculties and institutes, especially at research institutes, such as the one I am working in.

It seems as if the state doesn’t need research. When I first got my job at this institute in 1980-81, I was presented with three large state-funded research areas. One program was “SKOPLAN” — sociological, political, economic, and urbanistic research on the development of the city of Skopje, which would provide us with elements on the basis of which politicians would develop a strategy for the development of the city. 

The second area dealt with strikes and what happened in workers’ movements in the 1980s: why do people go on strike, what are their problems, how could the state develop policies and respond to what constitutes a manifested problem?

There was also research on the system of delegates and research on citizens’ participation in decision-making processes. The then state stimulated research opportunities in order to utilize its results to develop their policies.

At this moment, I really don’t know upon what basis politicians construct their strategies and plans of action, because they aren’t asking us to perform any research. Not to mention what natural sciences and similar research represent, in which you would expect politicians to invest on their own, since they could implement their recommendations and make decisions with clear data.

Are there any statistics on how much the enrollment for one student at a higher education institution in North Macedonia costs? If so, can we talk about what North Macedonia is losing through this brain drain?  

I have tried to use the statistics. We are now working on it. Setting aside how little the state is allocating for research and education relative to GDP, it really invests a lot in developing elementary, secondary, and higher education, when we look at the total amount yearly.

Simply put, no one in this country has felt the need to do an assessment of the actual spending on educating people, how many highly educated people are leaving the country, and what the relation to the allocated, wasted state money is, considering that we are losing all these people.

Photo: Viktor Popovski / K2.0.

There is no system that would secure the automatic employment of people who have completed their studies with high grades or who have showcased some particular achievements while studying.

For example, at the time of the last administration of my university, there wasn’t a single faculty that wasn’t pointing at a lack of young staff as a burning issue. Our institutions don’t have assistants, associate professors and other people who would continue the work that has been done so far. Institutions that once had 45-50 professors and assistants now have 18 people working there.

Hence, we have a large number of faculties but with a small number of people who are employed, and we are lacking the young generation that should be replacing the older professors in the future. At my institute, for the very first time in 10 or 15 years, we have received an opportunity to employ five new people. But within this year, the institute has lost more than 20 people to other jobs or retirement. We have reached this minimum that barely enables us to keep the institution functioning properly.

Let me conclude. It’s not only a matter of how much the students cost, the bigger problem is that once we invest in those students, we aren’t doing anything to bring them closer to science and higher education institutions.

Bearing in mind all the weak spots we spoke about, what is your general conclusion in relation to North Macedonia’s higher education?

This is what I said at the beginning. Education has never been and still isn’t a priority of the state. I think that politicians don’t understand that no reform can survive, that there can’t be any changes in the economy and development, if something isn’t done in the field of education first.

In some way, people began thinking about elementary and secondary education, but higher education is still marginalized, especially when speaking about research. We even have a special law on science and scientific research, however nothing is implemented in practice. Perhaps the state is investing even less in research within higher education now. I personally believe that this is the death of every country.

What measures should be introduced to improve higher education in North Macedonia?

Many countries have decided to improve the status of professors as a means to foster the improvement of the quality of education. At this point, the average salary of a professor is 500 euros. This is at least three times less than in any of the surrounding countries.

I believe that in the past few years, we have been seeing an awakening of the academic community, but also an awakening of the students.

If the state improves the status and makes a step toward acknowledging the real value of this profession, I believe the attitude of people toward higher education will begin to change, but also the relation of people who are part of the higher education system. We should understand that education doesn’t only consist of a job, but that it is a form of profession with a high level of responsibility toward the common good and the development of the entire community.

This begins with raising education to a priority level, by understanding that everything that is done within the state is somehow connected to education, and that it is impossible to reach a breakthrough in the development of the economy without investing in education. Also, that it’s impossible to reform the administration or judiciary without reforming the field of education. I guess that will be the moment when the state realizes this. Only then can changes happen.

For a long time, the academic community has been asleep, becoming very apathetic. Everything they have done turned out to be some form of survival. I believe that in the past few years, we have been seeing an awakening of the academic community, but also an awakening of the students, and of those who aren’t content with their diplomas. Students seek knowledge, skills and quality that will secure their competitiveness, not only domestically but on the international market as well.

I think that things are beginning to change, but I still can’t say in which direction. K

Feature photo: Viktor Popovski / K2.0.