Fighting for Education – Fighting for the Future

What is it worth to study when all you can end up with is a job as a waiter or retailer?
A question many young Kosovars at the Bedri Gjinaj school have to face. Photo: Flickr

When a country’s past endangers the future of its children: Education at stake in Kosovo.

It is a warm day in early spring. You cannot see the sun, yet already feel its warmth in the city’s dusty streets. Vernal flowers start popping up on every green spot aside from the predominant tarmac around. The streets are busy, full of cars and pedestrians. Many children are running around, chatting and laughing, enjoying their spring break.

The air is full of the smell of fresh wall paint. The smell gets stronger when closer to this inconspicuous, yet not a hidden house, a little bit offset to the front row of houses. Over the traffic noise, a hammering sound is suddenly heard.

The origin of the smell of paint and construction sounds is a school, more specific the elementary school Bedri Gjinaj located in one of the main streets of Mitrovica, a city in the north of Kosovo.

The elementary school Bedi Gjinaj in Southern Mitrovica. A place full of potential, for Kosovo as a country and the pupils themselves. Photo: Marion (Rio) Wierl

A man wearing a suit and a tie is waiting, opening the door with a big smile on his face and a mix of excitement and hope in his eyes. The school’s walls are getting a new, friendly colour. The classrooms getting dressed for all the children they are meant to host in one weeks time.

 Whilst the pupils are enjoying their spring break, the school’s principal Enis Kelmendi and his team do their best to improve the learning conditions for their fosterlings. Photo: Marion (Rio) Wierl

The school is in a state of construction and reorganization, just like the whole young country of Kosovo after gaining independence from Serbia only 10 years ago, on the 18th of February 2008.

Circumstances in Kosovo are difficult still, yet the Kosovars seem determined to make this country and their society work again. The classrooms in Bedri Gjidaj, the surrounding buildings, streets, people and the community’s structure are all experiencing great change.

Past happenings and future ambitions 

The man in the suit, Enis Kelmendi, Principal of Bedri Gjinaj, a school for Albanian, Bosnian and Ashkali pupils, is one of the people aspiring towards improvement.

Father of two boys himself, Kelmendi took over the work as a principal 6 years ago, a couple of years after independence. Whilst a lot of changes have been made in the country as a whole including the system of education, Kelmendi himself strives for change whenever possible.

“All the time we are doing this (working towards unity and progress) – not just weekly or monthly, every second! When we have the chance to do it, we do it,” he says.

One of the problems hindering impactful improvements of education in Kosovo is the fact that Kelmendi, his staff and the whole community cannot just focus on the future. Past burdens still hover above their heads.

One of these burdens is the Albanian parallel system of education which had been in place in the 1990’s.

During the Balkan War(s) from 1992 until 1999, the area of Kosovo had still been part of Serbia which tried to keep the political power in the region by oppressing the Albanian population. Part of this oppression has been the prohibition of all education for Albanian students and education in the Albanian language.

Adea Kondirolli, Project Coordinator at the NGO ORCA, an organisation for improving the quality of education in Pristina reports, “the Serbian government shut down Albanian schools, including the university. They kicked out all students from the schools.”

Teaching for Albanians has only been possible undercover during the 1990’s.
For example in abandoned houses like this. Photo: Gabriel Nitescu, Flickr

Albanian students, as well as teachers, risked their lives and their health by continuing education in a so-called “parallel system” to the Serbian school-system.

“The Albanian teachers decided to continue educating the pupils, but in private homes and abandoned buildings. They did that for the entire nineties but they were never paid for it, because it was illegal and it was like a parallel education,” Kondirolli says.

The Albanian teachers of the nineties have never seen payments for their work during the 1990’s, but according to Kondirolli, “not only did they not get paid for that (their work during the ‘90s), but the government doesn’t recognize the entire period of the ‘90s as work experience or working years.” This still affects teachers employment status today.

When education is just not happening at all 

Issues originating in the past are highly affecting the current and future of education in Kosovo. The teachers want justice, now. Therefore they have threatened to strike all over the country, and have already done so, more than once.

The 13th of April 2018 marked the last deadline for the government to react to demands of national teachers union SHBASHK’s, which included retroactive revenues as well as recognition for the completed work back in the nineties.

The teachers, who normally do everything for their pupils, also have to fight for their own rights.
Photo: CWCCC MSU, Flickr

The government did not agree on the teacher union’s demands.
Though the recently announced permanent national strike has not taken off yet, the threat of a teacher strike and national school shortfalls is not over yet either.

School shortfalls are no rarity in Kosovo. The list of issues causing deficiencies is long and extends from natural conditions, such as cold winters, to old dysfunctional facilities such as broken heaters or insufficient buses.
Missed lectures then have to be caught up on other schooldays or weekends.

When the teachers union starts to hold the strike they announced, all teachers in the country will lay down their work. It would be not just about the elderly, directly affected teachers, but all of them. And they will do so for an undefined time frame.

“We don’t have a choice, because all of our teachers are part of this unit and they paid for this”

“They (Kelmendi’s staff) haven’t agreed with these ideas (strike) and I don’t agree with this strike…they have no choice,” Kelmendi says.

Whilst especially the younger generation of teachers is against those strikes and the shortfalls it would cause again, elderly colleagues also do not agree with how the teacher union plans to handle enforcing their demands.

Political changes also influenced the educational system, making consistent content and 
proceedings at school impossible. 
Photo of Kosovo’s parliament building in Prishtina: Nick Doyle, Flickr

It is the system itself that causes trouble

Besides teachers fighting for justice being quite a consistent issue in Kosovo, the educational system itself is branded largely inconsistent over the last ten years.

“So many things happened to our system in the last ten, twenty years. In 2013 we (again) started a new curriculum,” Kelmendi states.

The curriculum outlines ways teachers should teach their pupils as well as the content itself.
Kondirolli provides insight into why the curriculum and the educational system of the young country, has been changed at all.

“Since the war, when normal eduction started again, there have been so many changes of government. And almost all of them wanted to do their own education reform. Nobody followed through the previous ones,” he explains.

This resulted in big confusion within all people and things concerned. Things that had been correct in the previous year are not correct in the following year. Exams, especially finals are hard to conduct. Nobody knows what’s right and what’s wrong anymore. This is then followed by bad test results and frustration.

Better education for the educators 

According to Kondirolli, “the quality (of education in Kosovo) is pretty bad. For example, in the universities, it depends on the departments. There are departments where the professors don’t know how to lecture.”

In some departments, like psychology studies, the teachers are qualified and well equipped. But, the department for education studies would need a lot of improvement regarding what is getting taught, and how.

The origin for lacking quality in Kosovo’s education is based on three major causes:
A too small amount of teachers for the huge and growing amount of students, a majority of old teachers with obsolete teaching strategies and bad training for the teachers who are at the university now.

According to Kondirolli “there is one professor for 150 students. According to the website of the University of Prishtina, there are around 70.000 students, and there are only around 500 professors.”

“The ministry of finances told the universities they could hire 2.000 people, they don’t. At the University of Prishtina has around 1.200 people employed, including assistance and everyone”

Why the University of Prishtina, in this case, does not employ further staff is an unsolved question, yet Kondirolli says it is a fact that “if you are a professor or an assistant and you have more classes than the norm, you get paid extra.” Inter-institutional arrangements may, therefore, be the reason for lacking sufficiency of staff.

Moreover, the teachers that are actually employed are getting (too) old and with them the strategies and methods used in schools.

“In our education system we have a lot of teachers that are older than 60 (years), and they don’t like to do change. They don’t like to be in this modern life, with the technology and everything which is now in trend,” Kelmendi states.

He demands a change in the law in this regard. “Change the laws about teachers who are too old, retired. They must go. 65 (years) is the limit of retirement. They should go five years earlier, at 60.”

“A lot of our teachers in Kosovo, they agree with that,” according to Kelmendi. The principal is by far not alone with this request. Even most of the teachers who would have to go due to an earlier retirement-age agree with the changes, according to Kelmendi.

The next generation of teachers 

According to Kelmendi, renewing the educational staff would be not just necessary but also feasible at any time as Kosovo holds Europe’s highest youth unemployment rate, with 53.3 % and a huge amount of young, graduated teachers are looking for a job, without success.

After all the teaching-quality would not be fixed by just replacing the old staff with a young generation of teachers, as it is not only the pupils in primary and secondary schools, struggling with their education’s quality but also the young education graduates themselves.

“The faculty of education in Prishtina has the monopoly on producing teachers for entire Kosovo – for elementary and high-schools. You are only allowed to teach in public schools and universities if you studied in public universities,” says Kelmendi.

It is a vicious circle when the ones responsible for education are not well equipped and skilled themselves. A problem whole Kosovo has to face at the moment. Photo: CWCCC MSU, Flickr

This may not be that big of a problem in itself, but Kondirolli points out that the faculty of education in Prishtina itself does not do a good job. ”Knowing the quality of the faculty of education, you can imagine the quality of education in both, elementary and high-school is very bad,” he says. As a result, poorly trained teachers would cause the next generation to be poorly educated.

Leaving school or getting taught the unnecessary 

The high unemployment, especially amongst the younger generation of Kosovars, is simultaneously a result and a cause of school drop-outs.

“The unemployment rate here ( in Kosovo) is extremely high, and the university doesn’t deal with what the market needs. So there is a severe a mismatch between what you are taught in school and what the market actually wants,” Kondirolli says. In her opinion, the universities should offer their places more corresponding to the vacancy-information extracted from the labour market forecasts.

This mismatch between alumni and job vacancies, however, just depicts a problem when Kosovo’s young people make it to university. Getting people to university in the first place is a challenge in itself. “There is also a huge drop-out percentage of people who don’t go to high-school or they don’t go to university,” according to Kondirolli.