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Comment: Bosnia's Education Law Fiasco

Parliament's failure to pass much-needed legislation on higher education says a lot about the gap between pro-Europe rhetoric and stumbling reforms.
By Elmira Bayrasli

Earlier this month, the parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina failed to pass a key education law that would have brought Bosnia millions of dollars in World bank funding.

Bosnian Croat deputies prevented the Framework Law on Higher Education from going to a vote, invoking a “vital national interest” clause. They viewed the law as a threat to their community's interests because it did not make adequate provision for the predominately Croat university in Mostar.

Signing the law would have fulfilled Bosnia's pledge to become part of the European Higher Education Area (Bologna Process) and satisfied Bosnia's commitments as a Council of Europe member. It would also have secured World Bank funding for the reform of secondary and higher education, to the tune of 12 million dollars.

Following its failure to win approval in the state parliament, the law will now go to Bosnia's Constitutional Court, which will rule on what happens to it next. But regardless of what the court says, the immediate and most damaging consequence is that the World Bank aid for education has been lost - money which Bosnia does not now have and is unlikely to be of-fered again soon, as international assistance is increasingly directed to other troubled parts of the world.

Worse still, the failure to pass this critical law does nothing to help Bosnia's shaky higher education system, which is anachronistic, funded in a way that is neither cost-effective nor transparent, and deprives students of a European-standard education.

For the last few years, Bosnia's leaders have been making a big push for European integration. In Strasbourg last week, Bosnian foreign minister Mladen Ivanic said his country was meeting its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe, and its institutions were making pro-gress towards meeting European standards.

Yet such declarations are in stark contrast to the political deadlock that has blocked the way to reform of key institutions, severely hampering these European ambitions. The failure of the education law is one example of this.

How did it happen?

For more than a year, experts from Bosnia’s education ministries and senior university aca-demics representing the Muslim, Serb and Croat communities have been working with Coun-cil of Europe officials and international experts to craft the Higher Education Framework Law. The careful drafting was designed to produce legislation that takes Bosnia's political re-alities into account, while enshrining the principles of the "Bologna Process", which encour-ages states to share the benefits of the European Higher Education Area.

The result was a law that would offer students high-quality courses on a par with other Euro-pean institutions, ensure that Bosnian diplomas were recognised by the rest of Europe, make it easier for students to study abroad, and give both students and academic staff a greater role in the decision-making process in higher education.

At state level, the law would establish a central agency for setting standards and recognising qualifications. Decisions on the management and funding of universities would be made by consensus within each of Bosnia's two entities.

But the provision for consensus decisions was not enough to allay the fears of some, particu-larly in the Croat community, who argued that financing at entity level posed a threat to the viability of the university in Mostar. In a May 7 declaration prior to blocking the law, the Croat deputies demanded legal provisions that would create safeguards at Bosnian state level to protect Mostar's university.

University funding at state level is simply not realistic at this time. The state government does not have the fiscal, human or organisational resources to take on this responsibility.

Yet that does not mean there are no safeguards - on April 27, the High Representative pledged that Mostar university "will not be threatened by the education reforms now under way", and that he would take action against anyone "attempting to undermine" the institution.

The law that was put before parliament was a realistic compromise for a country that is strug-gling with reform and has little time to waste.

In order for Bosnia to fulfill its obligations to the Council of Europe and the Bologna Process, it needed to push ahead with the resources available to it. Funding for higher education is cur-rently available only at entity level. Restructuring funding to state level would significantly delay progress. It would jeopardise the country's ability to meet the 2010 timeframe for join-ing the European Higher Education Area, and would thereby undermine its credibility in ful-filling international commitments.

In sum, this law is about securing Bosnia's place in the European Higher Education Area and not about denying rights to a particular group.

As a signatory to the 1999 Bologna Declaration which set the process of integrating European higher education in motion, Bosnia is required to undertake the reforms needed to rationalise its currently fragmented higher education system and bring it up to European standards.

To do this, it needs a legal framework that allows this reform process to develop. It is impor-tant to note that this is not a legislative straitjacket. Protected by the state constitution, the higher education law will have sufficient flexibility to allow for change. Herein lies its strength. As higher education develops, legislation can be changed accordingly. But the con-stitution protects the rights of each constituent people, and no law can undercut that.

It is politically expedient for Bosnia's leaders to wax enthusiastic about a future within Europe. But they need to recognise that Europe is grounded on trust, and that standards are set for equality and opportunity rather than ethnicity or particular interest.

The mistrust demonstrated by legislators is debilitating for progress towards European inte-gration. By myopically blocking the higher education law, they have cast doubt on the coun-try's ability to move beyond the past and offer its citizens better opportunities.

Now is not the time to look backwards and reject opportunities out of fear. It is a time to unite and make decisions that benefit all of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Higher Education Framework Law remains blocked in parliament. It is up to Bosnia's leaders to unblock it. The citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina deserve no less.

Elmira Bayrasli is Director of Press and Public Information at the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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