Macedonia: Albanian Education Coup

Government signals willingness to bring Tetovo University into state system.

Macedonia: Albanian Education Coup

Government signals willingness to bring Tetovo University into state system.

In an effort to soothe ethnic hostilities, the Macedonian government has moved closer to legalising Tetovo University, TU, which for nearly 10 years has operated on the fringes of the education system teaching students from the ethnic Albanian minority.

The university's status has long been a burning issue between Albanians and the Macedonian majority. Several Albanians died and many were arrested in an attempt by the Skopje authorities to shut it down by force.

Despite the absence of state funding, most Albanians prefer to attend TU's 13 faculties rather than go to mainstream universities where they would have to study in the Macedonian language.

A shift in the official position was signalled on March 27 when education minister Aziz Polozani, himself an Albanian, told parliament, "There is a clear need for a larger number of high education institutions for Albanians...There is political will to include institutions such as Tetovo University in the system."

The university was established in 1994 by a group of Albanian intellectuals led by its rector Fadil Sulejmani. In July 2000, the international community provided funds to establish the University of Southeast Europe, USEE, in Tetovo. But Albanians largely shunned it as inadequate, saying education should be provided by state funds rather than private institutions.

The new official stance followed an agreement on March 17 to start talks between TU authorities and the Albanian section of the government, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI. According to local media, the two sides agreed to form a seven-member "initiative commission" to cooperate closely with the party in power for the legalisation of TU.

The agreement incorporates registration of the university as a legal institution for which the state is obliged to provide appropriate funds.

Macedonian officials have repeatedly expressed scepticism about the professional level of TU lecturers and their programmes. These standards would have to be evaluated by the commission which accords accreditation for educational institutions.

The acting rector of TU, Naxhmedin Beadini, said government conditions for proper criteria would be accepted so that Tetovo would reach the same level as the country's two state-financed universities. "We will always closely cooperate with the ministry of education towards fulfilling these criteria," Beadini said.

Tale Geramitcioski, deputy minister of education, said on March 31, "The process of legalisation has started... but we should expect that it would only be applied to those TU faculties which meet the standards required by law."

Geramitcioski disagreed with the DUI`s announcement that TU could be legalised by September. He thought evaluation and accreditation could take more than nine months although "if they have their entire documentation prepared maybe it will take less time".

Legalisation of the university would bring recognition for the certificates of Albanian students, who up to now have not been accepted by the state institutions. Macedonian media speculated that the number already graduated is around 8,000.

The agreement to start legalisation talks came after a week of protests by TU students. The protesters wanted internal reforms at the university, including the replacement of Sulejmani and the start of moves to make it official.

The students expressed doubts about the agreement but said they would give its signatories time to deliver results.

All Albanian parties that have been in government promised that TU would be legalised - none of them achieved it.

In a TV debate several months ago, Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski said it was not the government that held up the process. The problem was that no demand had been received from any Albanian party for TU to be registered as a private educational institution, a preliminary for legalisation.

Analysts said this comment confirmed that the tensions over TU during all these years were caused not only by Macedonian authorities but also by internal Albanian differences.

The university's finances now come mainly from the students themselves and from Albanians working in Western Europe. However, after the beginning of the protests in March, the foundations of Albanians in Switzerland and Germany stopped all funding until the tensions calmed down and Sulejmani withdrew from all TU bodies.

Sulejmani, recently elected as president of the university's senate, enraged students when he replaced the acting rector, Ramiz Avdili. Students pointed to Sulejmani as the main obstacle for reform and legalisation. The board of students went even further, accusing him of installing a "Stalinist dictatorship".

Sulejmani said the student protests were "ill-intentioned and organised by the enemies of the TU whose goal was to leave the Albanians without a university".

One leading protester, economics student Shkodrane Zenuni, said, "We believe TU is not the private property of Sulejmani. He declared himself a life-long king of TU and established a dictatorship."

Salajdin Salihu is an associate editor at the weekly newspaper Lobi.

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