Rectifying the university

Ramadan Zejnullahu, the rector of the University of Prishtina has had quite a year. Why is it that some want the ouster of the man who is seeking basic reform to the University of Prishtina?

The story of the University of Prishtina, Kosovo’s flagship public institution, evolves in tandem with the political currents in Kosovo. It was the site of major protests in the 1980s against the repressive regime of Slobodan Milosevic, now it is a ground zero in Kosovo’s post-war fight against corruption.

The protagonist of the battle has been Rector Ramadan Zejnullahu, who ascended the helm vowing to fight corruption in March 2014 when his predecessor went down in a wave of protest and scandal. The previous rector, Ibrahim Gashi, was ousted after students found out he had published three articles in a dubious pay-to-publish journal based in India for a fee of only 80 dollars.

The scandal shook the university and Zejnuhallu started from square one: raising standards for admission to the university, mandating that professors to publish all of their research online, and setting stricter guidelines for tenure.

After a year and a half, because of his efforts, he was fired by the university steering board on October 21. Zejnullahu’s removal was reversed days later by Education Minister Arsim Bajrami, but his struggle has made him a national symbol of Kosovo’s battle against nepotism and graft.

“The rector has become some sort of a hero for all those who want Kosovo to have a better future,” says Jeta Rexha, a second year sociology student who was one of the leaders of the pro-rector protests.

Since taking the top seat at the University of Prishtina, Zejnullahu has tried to crack down on corruption, politically-affiliated professors, and to improve transparency and academic standards, but his changes are not universally popular.

Zejnullahu knew that there are a lot of things he could not fix when he set out: with 55,000 students officially registered and only 996 professors, (about half of whom are assistants), the student to teacher ratio is almost 55:1. With tuition set by the government (just before the most recent election cycle) at 25 euros per semester, the rector’s hands are tied budget-wise.

When he took office, Zejnullahu commissioned an audit of professors which found out that a number of politicians serving in the highest ranks of government continue to receive salaries as professors—whether they teach or not.

Some 15 high-profile politicians currently serving as ministers or MPs, including the ministers of justice, education, and defense, were receiving salaries as full-time professors. Zejnullahu stripped them of their pay for work they did not perform. T Another 80 or so were receiving double or triple salaries for teaching at multiple faculties or branches of the university in other cities in Kosovo. Although the rector resisted, the appeal court ruled in the professors’ favor.

The rector instituted a policy that professors would be paid only for the hours they actually spent in the classroom or working for their students. He also set limits on admission rates, banning departments from exceeding the prescribed limit for registration. Zejnullahu also chose to disregard a policy that let 1000 children of war veterans or soldiers killed in action register for university without passing an entrance exam, believing it to be unfair and against university standards.

These seemingly obvious changes were not welcomed by all. A group of veteran-affiliated students protested immediately after this change was instituted. Then, the student parliament objected to a reform that translated to fewer chances to pass university exams.

Professors did not universally cheer his reforms about tenure criteria. Some were upset that the rector imposed more stringent restrictions on those seeking promotions, demanding that professors have three academic articles published in credible journals considered to have an “impact factor”, but not in the publications of local private universities.

On October 21, the University Steering Board met and summarily dismissed the rector. In a public statement, members of the board cited mismanagement and violations of the university statute disguised as reform. He was also accused of libelling academic staff for their incompetence and of obstructing the work of the faculty senate. Two members of this board who voted for Zejnullahu’s removal, Zeqir Veselaj and Bekir Sadikaj, were accused of plagiarism in early October. Veselaj has vowed to challenge Zejnullahu’s reforms in court.

Students protest in front of the Ministry of Education, Oct. 22, 2015. Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

The following Monday, after immense pressure from students, civil society and international embassies, Education Minister Arsim Bajrami reinstated the rector, but allowed for early elections in February, before the end of the term in September. Zejnullahu maintains that he has not decided yet whether he will seek another term when his mandate ends on 15 February.

A group of professors from the senate immediately expressed their ire over the minister’s action, calling it the most flagrant intervention since the war, and saying that according to the law the university should be free of political influence.

“I will continue to insist on the observance of legality and academic standards, without making compromises on the quality and credibility of this institution,” is all he admits about his future plans.

The students and professors who oppose the rector maintain that they will continue protesting his leadership. “The situation at the university after the rector was returned to his post is worse than before,” says Argjend Softolli, a 21 year old political science student.

“Institutional life is completely blocked at the university. The Senate and the executive board are not functional. If by the end of the coming week our requirements are not met, we have two options: either we go to protest in front of the education ministry, or to boycott lectures. ”

The university’s history has often mirrored, and even driven, Kosovo’s political developments. The protests and blockages mirror the discord concurrent before the Kosovo assembly.
UP was founded in 1970 as a concession by the Belgrade-based Yugoslav government by educated ethnic Albanians who began protesting in 1968 for higher education in their native language. SInce then, it has been a driving force of change and resistance to governments, like the protests in the 1980s for self-determination and greater autonomy, and in the 90s against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Zejnullahu, who has been at the university as a faculty member since 1980, recalls the past.
“Before the war we had a different political pressure for national Albanian goals,” he says. “Back then it was a question of whether or not Albanians should have a university, irredentism, etc. Now it is based on interest groups, politicians and businessmen.”

When the Milosevic regime banned higher education in Albanian, the students and professors continued education in private homes, maintaining regular classes for thousands of students.

Today, Kosovo is struggling to combat corruption. Transparency International’s ranking last year ranked it 110 out of 174. Aside from Albania, who shares the score, all of the other countries in the region ranked between 35 and 80.

Zejnullahu maintains that for corruption to be diminished in Kosovo, it must happen at the university he leads, which accounts for 90 percent of the higher education diplomas in this small country.

“If you buy it, you will sell it later,” he says, speaking about education using a local aphorism about the perpetuation of corruption. “We have a duty to make sure no one is buying it.”

University of Prishtina’s rankings have plummeted from their pre-war levels. Last year, according to university rankings service webometrics, last july UP was rated 4937, it improved almost 900 points to 4060.

“I believe our reforms are a major reason for this increase,” says Vice Rector Prof. Dr. Fetah Podvorica. “But the universities we want to compare ourselves to, national universities in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade and Sofia, which in the pre-war era were considered our caliber, are all somewhere between 500 and 1000.”

Podvorica is hoping that with continued effort and continued reforms, the rector can bring UP far past the 4000 mark, closer to its pre-war ranking.

The students who support him just want to make sure that the changes are not dependent on the person at the helm.

“The rector has become a hero, but he doesn’t need to become a myth or an urban legend,” says Jeta Rexha, the protest leader. “These policies just need to become normal operating procedure.”

01/12/2015 - 15:02

01 December 2015 - 15:02

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.