Private education in Kosovo: A chain of problems (and how to solve them)

This article originally appeared on Kosovo 2.0. Available here in English, Albanian, and Serbian. 

The historical timeline of Kosovo’s private education sector is full of false starts, sudden jumps and odd progressions. Simply put, the universities and colleges came first, and their regulation came later. Though Kosovo’s Law on Higher Education defines who can open a private university or college and what private institutions have to do in order to receive a license and accreditation, the process is rather open-ended in practice.

The conditions for licensing a private university or college are quite flexible: All you need is to provide the proper paperwork, an institutional statute, a suite of work regulations, premises, academic resources such as libraries and computer labs, academic and administrative staff, a list of publications, syllabi, and “a healthy and safe environment” (which is as nebulous a factor as any). Once these criteria are in place, you can then get your licence from the Ministry of Education.

A licence, however, isn’t enough. Though a licensed institution can do promotional work and recruit students, it cannot start teaching until it receives accreditation from Kosovo’s Accreditation Agency. The history of this particular government body is characterized by its shaky start: In 2004, the Ministry of Education began putting together an Accreditation Agency — an autonomous body which would be responsible for evaluating the quality of private colleges and universities. In 2008, the agency was finally created, but it did not get to work immediately. Following a strange turn of events, the Ministry of Education decided to outsource a report on the overall quality of Kosovo’s private colleges and universities to the British Accreditation Council in order to determine which institutions should be re-licensed. This report was not flattering: It advised that nearly all of Kosovo’s self-titled “universities” be re-designated as colleges, and that a number of unlicensed programs and degrees not be recognized.

Oddly enough, it was only after the publication of this report that the Accreditation Agency began… well, accrediting. Since 2008, the agency has kept tabs on Kosovo’s colleges and universities through the publication of regular reports. The reports are detailed, elaborate and unforgiving, and are written by experts brought in from abroad to evaluate and re-accredit programs and institutions. Decisions on who receives accreditation and who doesn’t are ultimately made by the National Quality Council — a body which often faces accusations of being politically influenced.

What Do Kosovo’s Private Institutions Offer?

The quality of Kosovo’s private colleges and universities varies greatly. The quality of these institutions is contingent on a few factors: the quality of the classroom experience, the quality of academic resources offered, and the degree to which the institution is able to define and carry out its specific mission.

Although private institutions tend to have a lower student-to-professor ratio than public sector schools, many professors in the private sector are employed at a variety of universities and colleges. This greatly reduces the amount of time and attention that a given professor can give to a single course, let alone a single student.

Academic resources are generally better at Kosovo’s private institutions, but there remain problems in terms of their overall institutional capacities. It isn’t uncommon for their physical premises (classrooms, buildings, study spaces etc.) to be inadequate and for libraries to be understocked. In a broad sense, it is not always clear that Kosovo’s private sector institutions are using the tools they have in order to add to the quality of their students’ educations.

Perhaps the biggest problem that the private sector needs to figure out is what kind of institutions they want to foster. The majority of Kosovo’s private universities and colleges claim to hold lofty goals such as “offering a quality education” or “developing critical thinking among students,” but their programs are nearly identical. Economics, law and business are the most popular programs, attracting thousands of new students every year. However, the private sector does very little (if any) market research to evaluate whether Kosovo’s labor market can absorb that many economists, lawyers and managers. The future of Kosovo’s universities and colleges must lie in skill-based missions, offering programs in specific fields of knowledge that are relevant to the national economy.

How Can Things Change?

According to a 2008 study published by the GAP Institute for Advanced Studies, Kosovo’s private education sector is worth about 26.5 million euros. The promise of revenue has created a vast array of universities and colleges that function primarily as businesses, rather than as academic institutions. The same study suggested two models for better regulation of the private education sector:

1. The “free market” approach, allowing all institutions to receive licenses and accreditation. In this scenario, it would be the job of the Accreditation Agency to assign a grade to the institution, which would serve as an indicator of quality to prospective students. The idea here is to allow the market to “weed out” the weak schools.

2. Governmental institutions, or in the current context, the Accreditation Agency should be given more authority to control quality. This means making licensing and accreditation conditions much tougher, specifying required infrastructure levels, specific institutional structures, and other criteria for each institution.

In this case, the government would serve as a filter, and would shut down private institutions that do not meet the new criteria. In this scenario, the responsible institutions would make the licensing criteria more concrete, and the government would specify the infrastructure that is required, the number of Master’s and PhD-holding professors needed, and other criteria such as these.

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