Behind University of Prishtina’s divided student organizations

Accused of politicization and apathy, student organizers try to find their way as leaders and hope to improve student life at Kosovo’s largest university.

Five years ago, Lirije Palushi left the comfort of her parent’s home in a Suhareka village for the first time to move to Kosovo’s capital, nervous but ready to start her new life at the University of Prishtina “Hasan Prishtina.” During those first few days, she felt an overwhelming sense of a lack of support–a feeling that would only snowball over her next four years as an undergraduate, and now a graduate student.

“I was totally, totally lost on the first day. All the information I received was informal, from friends or just asking people I didn’t know,” she recollected over dinner, just coming from a full day of classes and work.

She started talking, impassioned (barely even stopping for a bite of her meal, despite admitting that she was ravished), about her life as a student at Kosovo’s largest institution of higher education. Her first area of grievances: the scarcity of clubs, on-campus activities, and even a seemingly small detail–the university’s lack of its own collegial sweaters.

“We literally do not have a student life. Student life only happens off campus,” she said.

Palushi heard about student government during her freshman year, but her peers told her that the student leaders were “mostly politicized and working for their own interests.” As a Political Science student, Palushi was interested in student organizing, but did not see herself fitting in with any of the nine groups registered for the last student government elections. In fact, she has never voted in student elections.

Palushi’s is not a standout story. A survey conducted by BIRN before the 2016 student government elections found that students lacked enthusiasm for and trust in student government. In general, University of Prishtina students often complain that their interests and needs are ignored.

Student government is divided: although some groups have their own initiatives and goals to make student life better, students elected to parliament barely meet together as one group.

Student leadership is also a divisive topic in and of itself: critics accuse the student organizers–who have seats in the university’s highest ranking academic decision-making body—of working in the interests of politicians, a concern even shared by student leaders themselves.

Student government

Whether conversing with students, professors, or civil society, anyone will tell you that the best way to understand student government at the University of Prishtina is to think of it like parliamentary politics.

According to Muhamer Hamzaj, a member of the Independent Student Union and the previous president of the Student Parliament, there are some 30 student organizations at University of Prishtina, but only seven are currently represented in the Student Parliament.

Every two years, student organizations–which in order to compete in elections must register with the Ministry of Public Administration–go to elections during the spring semester. First, they hold internal elections to decide on their representatives and leadership structure. Then, they enter student body elections, where their peers vote on their representatives for student government: faculty councils, described to me as ‘local governments,’ and the Student Parliament, described as the ‘central government.’  

Faculty councils consist of deans and other faculty leadership, professors, assistants, one non-academic staff member, and two student representatives chosen by the student faculty council.

Muhamer Hamzaj, former President of Student Parliament and member of the Independent Students Union, at the Student Parliament President’s Office. | Photo: Atdhe Mulla

Meanwhile, the Student Parliament is meant to serve as the main representative body for student issues. The University Statute foresees that the Parliament should have 17 members, either Bachelors or Masters students, who serve two-year terms and cannot go up for re-election.

Once elected, the Student Parliament then sends seven of its most-voted students to represent, in one-year terms, the entire student body in the highest ranking academic body: the Senate.

The Senate is responsible for academic matters, from adoption of curriculum content and quality assurance to approving proposals from Faculty Councils on academic staff promotions.

Most importantly, the Senate has a horizontal leadership structure: student senators have equal voting rights to the other senators, including the rector, deans, and academic staff.

To increase their chances of getting elected to Student Parliament, student groups, or ‘parties,’ as students often call them, even create coalitions and or go into ‘opposition.’

“It’s like Kosovo’s government in miniature,” Egzon Daku, president of the Pro-European Students Union explained, bemused.

Over coffee at a popular student cafe near the Faculty of Medicine, where Daku studies, he told me about his organization, which he said is the “most active of all student groups, and the biggest,” with branches at the public universities in Prizren, Gjilan, Gjakova, and Mitrovica as well.

Daku’s group used to be in a coalition with Independent Students Union, the Independent Student Opinion, and the New Student Spirit, but he said some of the members were “too politicized,” so they left the coalition. They are now in the “opposition,” along with Study, Criticize, Take Action, SKV, Reforma, and Student Peace (though the opposition is not one unified bloc).

One major difference between student government and parliamentary politics though is that the seven student groups represented in Parliament do not often meet together face-to-face. Some of the 17 student representatives do not even know who each other are.

It’s like Kosovo’s government in miniature.

Daku said that when he used to be Student Parliament President, the Parliament met every month. But he said that since March 2016, the Parliament has been called into session only three times.

Hamzaj served as President of the Parliament until mid-November, when he passed the position on to another member of Independent Students Union, Arieta Bajrami, due to a rotating presidency agreement between their coalition group.

While Hamzaj was in the final days of his term, we visited the Student Parliament, a locked building attached to a small courtyard behind the Philosophy Faculty. The city’s central heating had not yet been turned on, and we stayed in our jackets to fight the cold, still air. But Hamzaj’s office was inviting, with a large round table and several chairs for meetings. A portrait of national hero Adem Jashari–Hamzaj is from Skenderaj–hangs on the wall.

Hamzaj admitted that his parliament had not met that often, since the seven student senators meet in the monthly Senate sessions. He said that student government members personally kept him updated on issues to be addressed in those meetings.

Hamzaj spoke highly of student representation in the Senate; he sees this as a hallmark of democracy at the university.

“Everyone can say what he or she wants and has the same rights as deans and professors,” he said.

But Ed Cooper, Senior Consultant for World Learning in Kosovo, which advises the University of Prishtina, disagrees.

“In modern universities across the world, students have always had some representation. There is a kind of European unionization perspective, in which each constituency has a vote, but there are few legacies of this remaining in modern universities,” he said. He explained that in various places where he’s worked, from Europe, to the Americas, to Asia, students typically have representation, but not with voting rights.

“Universities are supposed to be inclusive, and student government should have some power, but they’re not experts; they’re learners. So there are certain points, whether at the board level or other observational roles, where typically they are asked to step out.”

Illustration by Jeta Dobranja/ trembelat.

Cooper’s colleague Carl Hammerdorfer, the Chief of Party for the program, said that the student vote is especially problematic when it comes to faculty advancements.

We [World Learning] do not believe it is appropriate for students to vote on academic promotions in the Senate. Students simply do not have enough knowledge of what constitutes high performance in research, teaching, and other aspects of a professor’s job,” he said. “In previous votes, students appear to have supported candidates who did not meet promotion criteria.  We do not know the reasons. Could be students’ ignorance. Could be political reasons.”

Cooper went a step further, saying that there seems to be a direct link between political groups and student groups.

“What we need to work on is the fact that these people are politically allied, and the blocs that have been created around students are often in opposition to the common good of the institution and community,” he said.

The (student) body politic

A 2013 paper by Edona Maloku  and Venera Demukaj on corruption perceptions in higher education noted that student government leaders have sometimes served as intermediaries between students and professors or administration in bribery scandals. In the same year, investigative portal Preportr claimed that student organizations worked with political parties when it suited their interests, and that student leaders are often appointed to political positions upon graduating–but finding direct links has proven to be difficult.

Hammderdorfer emphasized that although he believes the University faces an issue with politicization, he thinks this is greatly overstated. He said that in his view, sometimes people just do not want to say no to a powerful colleague, due to fear of paying a professional price for violating a cultural more.

Yet there have been some high profile cases that have contributed to negative perceptions of corruption and politicization at the university.

Esat Belaj, a former student senator, was  allegedly involved in a bribery scandal relating to grade-buying and student registration. In July, he was sentenced with two years and eight months of jail and a 10,000 euro fine for abuse of office, accepting bribes, and influence peddling; eleven others were also sentenced for related charges to the case. However, in November, the Kosovo Appeals Court acquitted all 12 of the defendants for various reasons, including the statute of limitations passing for some of the allegations (some raised as early as 2010), and the first instance court not providing enough evidence that Belaj was acting within an official position. Interestingly, the Appeals Court’s decision also noted that the charges of peddling influence were unsubstantial without a tie to an influential figure with decision-making power.  

Other allegations of corrupt dealings between students and faculty never make it this far in the justice system.

Arben Hajrullahu, a professor of political science, describes himself as a “bit of a black sheep” within the University of Prishtina, someone who raises his voice when he perceives acts of academic dishonesty and corruption.

In 2013, for example, Hajrullahu reported a student to the State Prosecutor, accusing her of falsifying his signature. The student, Lirie Avdiu, who denied all charges, later ran for municipal elections as a member of PDK.

“My idea was to discover the networks behind that, but since the prosecutor’s office neglected the case, nothing has happened in this regard, as in many other similar cases in Kosovo. The institution where I work is doing very little or nothing to keep people accountable for academic misconduct. Instead, they try to attack me, asking me why I am making noise,” he said, adding that in some proven cases, student organizations have been “heavily involved” in the manipulation of exams and corruption, in joint action with academic staff members.

Students I spoke to also said that politicization remains to be a concern.

It should be no surprise that those interested in student government leadership positions would be interested in future political careers as well. However, student leaders make great efforts to dissociate themselves from party interests and politics.

Hamzaj emphasized that he is not connected to any political group, and that when he became president, he made a point to stress this to the Rector. He added that when students do work for party interests, there are bigger, systematic factors at play.

“The economy and Kosovo’s essential problems make it that way. I don’t like it, that if you want to have a job after you finish your faculty, you have to be part of a group of a political party,” he said.

Arieta Bajrami, the university’s first woman Student Parliament President, who assumed the position in mid-November, said that there are three student groups that have a lot of influence in the education faculty, where she studies, but she was wary of their motives.

“I joined IKSU because its president was the only not pushy about recruitment… and IKSU immediately offered support for the problems I saw in the faculty,” she said, adding that she got involved in student leadership because she wanted to solve the myriad of problems she saw, such as disorganization in the faculty and professors sometimes failing to show up to classes.

Arieta Bajrami, President of Student Parliament and member of the Independent Student Union. Bajrami is the first woman president of the University of Prishtina’s Student Parliament. | Photo: Atdhe Mulla

Bajrami later became president of her faculty council. She said that because she focused on the smaller organizational issues within the faculty and had a good relationship with professors, she gained students’ trust.

“I’m not trying to do miracles, I’ve always tried to have realistic goals… and I don’t like politics,” she said.

But Elona Kurti, a member of Study, Critique, Action, SKV, emphasized that being political as a student is not inherently negative. A lot of SKV’s members feel the same; though Kurti, a third-year law student, said that the group does not have formal ties to Vetevendosje, SKV is open about many of their supporters also being Vetevendosje activists, or at least aligning politically with the party.

She had heard about SKV before even starting school, and joined the organization in 2015 immediately after enrolling at the university.

SKV was formed in April 2010 when the then-Rector aimed to raise semester tuition fees from 50 to 90 euros. Although the Steering Council had approved the price hike, the university pulled back one day before protests, organized by SKV, were set to occur. Money that students had already paid was returned to them.

“Many student activists were arrested in the actions and even excluded from their faculties,” Kurti said of the group’s history of protest. “I saw that SKV had the will and the potential to make the change.”

SKV, which positions itself as a student political movement, in a way is building off of a larger history in the country that sees students as a source of activism and political change.

A history steeped in protests and politics

In 1969, as a response to a decade of Albanians in Yugoslavia demonstrating for educational equality and an institutionalization of the Albanian language, the University of Prishtina was established as Yugoslavia’s first institution of higher education in Albanian language.

What was born as the result of political organizing continued to be a basin of social movements in Kosovo, housing an intelligentsia of political activists, scholars, and party leaders who wrote on Albanian freedom, nationalism, and human rights.

In 1981, what began as a student demonstration against the poor living conditions and food quality in the dormitories unraveled into protests of several thousand people, organizing around struggles from the lack of technical and scientific faculties at the university to the demand for a republican rather than autonomous province status for Kosovo.

Meanwhile, student protests in 1997–led by Independent Students Union–came to symbolize Kosovo’s political awakening in the late 1990s. On the first of October, the student leaders led professors, fellow students, and thousands of other Kosovo Albanians into the streets to demand the right to equality and the right to Albanian-language education.

Under the surface, the union’s student leaders were a part of the shift away from the Democratic League of Kosovo’s, LDK, passive resistance, led by the late President Ibrahim Rugova.

Afrim Hoti, a professor of international law, organizations, and human rights at the University of Prishtina, was one of the leaders of Independent Students Union in the 1990s.

“In my time there was only one student organization: the Independent Students Union,” he told me in between classes at his office inside of the Philosophy Faculty. “Before the war, our target was liberation from the enemy. Students were not concerned with small university policies, we had other objectives–how to organize protests, and for some, even wanting to organize the war. Circumstances did not allow us to talk about fees,” he said. “But after the war, the situation changed drastically.”

Hoti, who graduated from University of Prishtina’s Law Faculty in 2001, and currently travels between Prishtina and Bologna, where he teaches a course on human rights and democratization of South Eastern Europe, said that immediately after the Kosovo War, as different political groups began vying for power, student groups mushroomed, often in line with political factions.

Post-war student organizing

The University, like every other sector in post-war society, became a battleground for control and power. Parties wanted to have influence in the rectorate, and also to garner student voter support, Hoti said.

Whether or not LDK–which was often associated with urban intellectuals during the ‘90s–attempted to maintain its influence at the University of Prishtina after the ‘97 protests is a source of debate. Daku told me that LDK does not have any student groups that support the party, and that it has no interest anyway, “since most of the professors already support LDK” and “usually LDK-supporting students join the LDK youth forum instead.”

Hoti, who said that he is a PDK member himself (he officially joined the party about five months ago), strongly rejected this claim.

“After the war, when the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] was transformed into political parties, most young professors joined PDK, because they saw the LDK as the communist party,” he said.

One student activist, Durim Jashari, told me that since the Kosovo War, most of the student groups have political connections, but that these alignments are often shifting and are more often connected to a single politician, such as an MP, rather than a whole party.

But with the exception of SKV, student groups are not transparent about their affiliations, formal or informal.

Elona Kurti, member of SKV, at the University of Prishtina student center. A better, more functional student center is one of Kurti’s hopes for improving student life at the university. | Photo: Atdhe Mulla

Hoti said that he does not know of political organizations that are affiliated with PDK but that “he thinks that they exist.” But in Hoti’s view, it’s not political ideology that is influencing student organizing: it’s about a power struggle to control the rectorate and to garner student votes.

Students have also been involved in organizing and participating in protests after the 1990s: In 2003, a group of students started a movement called “Different University” (Universiteti Tjeterqysh!). Through their website, where they published evidence of plagiarism, they tried to tackle corruption and abuse at the university; however, the movement fizzled out by 2005.

In 2014, a couple hundred people stood on university grounds demanding the resignation of Rector Ibrahim Gashi, who was found to have published in a fraudulent journal to advance his credentials.

That winter, a sociology and literature student, Roland Sylejmani, created a Facebook event urging his peers to protest against academic fraud, especially regarding the Rector. Things got violent two weeks after the initial protest, as police used pepper spray on crowds and arrested about 30 people. Gashi eventually resigned under the public pressure.

Gashi accused the protesters of being used and politicized by NGOs and political parties. However, Gashi himself was widely believed to have been appointed as a political trade-off between the then ruling party PDK and its junior coalition partner, AKR.

Some students accused SKV of ‘co-opting’ the protest. Lirije Palushi, the student from Suhareka, said that she supported the protest initiative until Ylli Hoxha and Ilir Deda, two future Vetevendosje MPs, got involved.

Twenty years after the historic ‘97 student protests, the University of Prishtina’s student groups struggle with disunity. Daku, whose Pro-European Student Union severed ties with its former coalition parties due to perceived political influence, said that he also does not like that SKV aligns itself with Vetevendosje.

“They’re good guys, but I don’t like when student groups are influenced by parties,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kurti said that SKV is also lacks adequate partnerships with other student groups.

“At this time, none of the organizations are adequate for cooperation with us since they… accept the current state and are comforting the personal interests of certain people,” she said.

Bajrami, Student Parliament President, said that some groups simply do not work together.

“There are some organizations here that do not cooperate with us, there are some that are political. They try to do things by themselves, not with all the group,” she claimed. Since Bajrami took the presidency, a meeting with all seven parliamentary groups has not yet been called.

The bad thing is that they also aren’t doing anything, we aren’t doing anything. No one is doing anything. I don’t know what is happening. We are trying now to make the best of it.

This is not to say that the student groups are totally inactive; they do undertake some of their own projects. As soon as she entered office, Bajrami got to work on advocating for students with disabilities to be provided with better access to the university’s facilities; she said the rector is on board with her cause. She is also working with Hamzaj on an initiative to create some student clubs, and their organization is also involved in getting a national student union up and running.   

Daku emphasized that since USPE was founded in 2010, the group has organized scientific seminars, public protests every year on May 9th demanding visa liberalization for Kosovo, and even established a partnership with mobile carrier Vala for a student package deal.

Premtom Hulaj, President of Student Peace, admitted that his organization is not currently as active as it once was, but said one major obstacle was a lack of funding. He pulled out some materials from 2010-2012 from a folder located in the Arts Faculty, pamphlets advertising a Student Peace-run blood drive, a pocket guide to “knowing your rights” under the University Statute as a student, and a pocket equation book for math students.

“I do think student groups are inactive, they don’t have the power they had before. But for me it’s important not to let bad things happen,” he said. He sees his role as a student leader as being the eyes and ears on student groups, and speaking up when he perceives acts of wrongdoing.

Premton Hulaj, President of Student Peace, center, with two of his colleagues, both student members of Student Peace. The group was given office space in the Faculty of Arts. | Photo: Atdhe Mulla

Hulaj said that he is friends with Daku and Flamur Pireva, President of SKV.

“The bad thing is that they also aren’t doing anything, we aren’t doing anything. No one is doing anything. I don’t know what is happening. We are trying now to make the best of it.”

Student representatives in faculty councils on the other hand, being as they are concentrated in one department, may have a better chance to be visible in student life, but even they feel powerless at times. Hamzaj, who used to be President in the Faculty of Medicine Council, said he struggled to address even the most basic issues.

“Our faculty library’s lights were broken,” he recollected in order to illustrate basic problems students face at the university. He told the faculty dean, he said, and then forwarded the complaint to the Ministry of Education.

“The ministry fixed the lights after six months. This is bureaucracy.”

The lack of basic resources was a common theme students brought up, from library books, to wider access to affordable student housing, to heat–Bajrami said that when she does call the first meeting of the Parliament under her presidency, she does not know where it will be since their building has no heating.

But instead of focusing on these kinds of issues, critics argue, student representatives focus only on one main promise: to ask the Senate to extend the amount of days that students can take their exams.

Palushi sees this as just one piece of a systematic, “vicious cycle” at the University of Prishtina.

Since most students at the University feel like they are there to get a “piece of paper,” she said, student organizations run on the platform of giving students more and more chances to take exams in case they fail the first time around. Meanwhile, the attitudes of professors towards education are not much different, she said.

Hajrullahu–who founded an NGO at the university called Centre for Political Courage (where Palushi works as a researcher)–emphasized that corruption and apathy do not define all faculty and students.

“There is corruption in the university, that is not a myth. But we have people who are really trying to work with integrity, to research and teach in really difficult circumstances.”

A time of ‘transition’?

Upon her first days in office, Bajrami was part of a co-statement from the Student Parliament and the Steering Council demanding the University of Prishtina to file a new case against the controversial Orthodox Church built on land that once belonged to the campus.

She said she thought the issue was too political for her to get involved at first, but after hearing from stakeholders, decided to sign on. It’s an issue of common interest for the student leaders, but even getting involved this issue was not a collaborative decision between the parliament groups. SKV was not aware of the plan to put out a statement, and had made one of their own, threatening to protest if the university did not file its case (it did); Hulaj, from Student Peace, said that he also received no invitation to discuss the issue in the parliament.

Bajrami is also is planning a symbolic action against the recent erection of a Coca-Cola clock in the center of campus. Independent Students Union sees this advertisement as especially offensive, because the municipality rejected the group’s earlier request to place an obelisk in the very same spot to memorialize students who had died in the 1990s.

These hints at protests could be small in scale, but go to show that symbolic issues of space and dealing with the past may have potential to mobilize students again.

According to Hoti, though, true change will only come to the university when Kosovo politics  diversify.

“I think we are in a transition… and I think the situation will change parallel with the proliferation of political parties. After this transition, I imagine the university will be different, consolidated without political influence. Once that happens, students will be well-oriented in academic life. But when will it happen? It remains to be seen,” Hoti said.

Correction January 2, 2018: a previous version of this article claimed that Ylli Hoxha and Ilir Deda were Vetevendosje MPs at the time of the student protests in January 2014. They joined the party in May 2014. 

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