Mass student protests bring down Albania’s science minister

The government has bowed to pressure to fix the country’s research and higher education — but stopped short of repealing a controversial law.

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Thousands of students protest in front of the Ministry of Education in Albania

Students in Albania have been seeking higher-education reform.Credit: Gent Shkullaku/AFP/Getty

Albania’s education and science minister has been replaced in a government reshuffle amid weeks of mass student protests that brought the country’s public universities to a halt.

For years, students have been complaining about growing privatization of education, which, they say, has hiked fees without adding benefits.

The government has now said that it would meet many of the students’ requests for cheaper and better-quality higher education, but it has stopped short of repealing a controversial 2015 law that protesters say is the source of many of the problems plaguing Albanian academia. The issues include a ban on starting new PhDs, lack of time and funding for research and poor quality control.

The nationwide protests of thousands of students were sparked by a 4 December boycott of classes by architecture students at the Polytechnic University of Tirana, who didn’t want to pay government-imposed fines for not taking their exams on time.

Lindita Nikolla, a mathematician who had been running the education ministry since 2013, offered her resignation on 8 December, and was removed from the ministerial post on 28 December.

Poor-quality education

“Ours is a handicapped public education system,” says Franci Çepele, a master’s student in social sciences at the University of Tirana who organized some of the protests. “Teaching is bad, most schools lack heating and the fees are high.”

Çepele and others blame the deterioration of the public education system on insufficient government funding. Higher education currently receives around 7.3 billion Albanian leks (US$64 million) per year, or about 0.49% of the gross domestic product.

To make up for poor funding, they say, universities have raised tuition fees and admitted more students. This has overburdened academics with teaching duties at the expense of research, says Aleko Miho, a botanist at the University of Tirana.

The lack of time, funding and established quality standards means plagiarism abounds, critics say.

“Research is dire,” says Erika Bejko, who lectures in social work at the University of Tirana. “The standards of publication and research are absent.” This, she says, has led to an inflated number of research papers being published and degrees being awarded.

Controversial law

Many believe that the problems were exacerbated by a 2015 higher-education law intended to remedy them. Protesters continue to demand that the government repeal the law, but Prime Minister Edi Rama has so far refused.

The law encouraged competition between private and public universities, for example, by allowing private universities that turn into non-profits to get government funding that was until then reserved for public universities. (Some 83% of the country’s 150,000 students go to public universities, but 26 of Albania’s 41 universities are private.) It also encouraged a reduced dependence on government funds, and set up university governing boards with government appointees. Student presence on these boards was reduced from 20% to 10% of the seats.

Critics including Jani Marka, a biologist at the University of Tirana and part of the protest group Movement for the University, say that the law failed to improve the issues it sought to address. Marka says it “forces the public universities to cover their costs by increasing student fees. The government regards the university as a business”. He adds that current government support is not enough to cover academics’ salaries for the entire year, forcing universities find other ways to cover costs.

“The law’s worst effects are yet to be seen,” says Holta Shupo, a lecturer in communications at the University of Tirana. For example, she says, private universities have not yet started competing with public universities for limited government funds as allowed by the 2015 law.

But not everyone agrees that the law is to blame. “The law itself is not bad,” says Arjan Gjonça, a demographer at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who helped to draft the legislation in 2014 and is chair of the accreditation board at Albania’s Agency of Quality Assurance in Education (ASCAL). But he concedes the system has many accumulated problems. “Funding is absent, university hiring has been mediocre and the law was slow to implement. All that has brought higher education into a state of coma.”

PhD problems

Some students are also protesting against an effective ban on starting new PhDs at public universities — which is compounding problems for research. The government issued the ban alongside the law in 2015 to halt what it saw as a potential diploma mill, after a predecessor of ASCAL decided that universities were awarding too many PhDs for a country of just under 3 million people. The University of Tirana, which has around 27,000 students, had issued some 300 doctorates a year between 2010 and 2015.

Critics say the universities were attracted by the relatively high fees, around 300,000 leks per year, that they could charge PhD students. But increased student numbers meant that some academics were supervising more than 20 doctoral students, Albanian officials for education quality found.

The government has now pledged to remove its representatives from university boards as soon as an agreement with students is reached, and to halve undergraduate fees, which range from 15,000 to 45,000 leks per year. It has also cancelled fees for overdue exams, pledged the creation of a system to evaluate teaching performance, and promised to impose fines of between 1 million and 3 million leks for plagiarism.

Meanwhile, the universities have not resumed classes, and the protests continue.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00144-7
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