Pact for the University – Dialogue with Elbasan University students

Prime Minister Edi Rama’s meeting with students at “Aleksander Xhuvani” University in Elbasan:

Thank you for this opportunity!

We deem it very reasonable to keep discussing at every university as dialogue is an inalienable and irreplaceable process when a problem between the government and interest group needs to be addressed. The two sides learn their lessons in this process as they listen and understand each other better, figuring out at the same time the most important issues and ways how to address them in time.

The experience during the student protest, I believe it has been rather an interesting and intensive experience in all aspects, as a real concern has been expresses, together with the most absurd and appropriate ways of expressing it. Yet, the most important thing is the fact that since the very beginning we understood this indeed was our own protest. This was not a protest against us, but a protest holding an enormous potential for further transformation of the higher education system in Albania.

We have already made our attempt to think about all these issues, as well as reflect also on our own selves regarding the approach we have adopted to these issues and ways how can approach them more efficiently and, above all, how to build a synergy between the government and the university by developing a real partnership that would go beyond the institutional ties between the Ministry of Education and the university officials. A partnership between the government and the students, university professors and officials in a process, which, as we have already seen and as it is becoming increasingly obvious, has yet to address every problem concerning the higher education. Meanwhile there is a number of major concerns within the organization of the university, which cannot be solved through the government’s intervention, but it can rather assist by supporting the internal process.

Over the past few days, I have had an incredible experience with my whatsapp account as I open it for everyone to write and it was bombarded by a great number of interesting messages. A large share of these messages were sent by students, calling for the government’s help to make sure that the classes resume after being blocked by a small number of other students.

It is quite difficult to explain the fact that it is not the government the one that can solve this issue, because the university is autonomous and it is a territory being administered autonomously and should the government intervenes, then it would violate this very autonomy. Moreover, how the government can intrude by sending the police just because a group of people have blocked the corridor, the doors and the university yard? The police can intervene just upon a request by the university authorities and as long as there is no such a request, the police can’t act, but again it wouldn’t be the right way to address a problem, which is expression of a rather complex situation.

It is important that a great opportunity has been created for everyone. An incredible opportunity has been created for the university, the government and the whole society to concentrate energy, financial and political means it terms of supporting the university to take higher education to another level.

We can discuss this issue broadly, because many ask: “Why right now and not earlier?” In my view, a lot of important things have been already done – yet they are never enough – in all sectors and in the health and education sector in particular, the two most sensitive and most complex sectors that require incredible financial resources and instruments.

What is important to understand is that we have chosen to live in a system where it is presumed that no one knows everything. In dictatorship, someone knows everything and others simply repeat it. No free choices are possible in a dictatorship, but merely readily available answer to each question. Who does not teach the answers and does not repeat them is badly exposed to the system and puts himself in jeopardy.

In a democracy, there are no ready answers. Everyone has his own answers. Moreover, the true democratic process is not the electoral process only, but the whole process between two elections, between the elect and those who vote for them and the democratic means to voice a concern, including protests. These are all part of the system, exactly because it presumed that an interest group is not only entitled, but, at certain moments, is also obliged to exert utmost pressure to make sure that greater attention is placed on that group, or priority is given to the group’s cause when higher priority is seemingly given to other issues. What makes the difference is whether the government is or is not always ready to listen to their plight, whether the government is ready to understand.

A government is not gauged simply by what it does, but primarily by how it responds to those who have elected it, or the others who have the right to be served even if they haven’t voted for it. In this regard, we believe we have been at the height of the democratic challenge to listen, understand and react. Of course, in a complex process of discussion, we cannot agree on everything and, above all, I always disagree with anyone who, on behalf of students, on behalf of youth and on behalf of the rights, violates ethics of communication. Irony and sarcasm are both welcome, but not vulgarity, because it should not be part of normal communication between people.

Having said all these, we can confirm today that we have fully met the eight demands forwarded by students, clearly telling how we consider these eight demands even after listening to the students.

One might claim that the student vote in electing the academic staff should be accounted for 50% of the total number of votes. It won’t happen. Just for a very simple reason. Because students will leave the university, whereas the academic staff will remain there and the vote has to do with the academic career. It is a responsibility beyond a three-year time span, which is the cycle of a student’s coexistence with the university. But, on the other hand, it is understandable that such a request is a result of the need for more dignity and more respect for students.

On the other hand, it is quite clear that the tuition fees are below the cost. The previous tuition fees are below the cost. A student costs more than the fees. This is the truth. The tuition fees have been imposed by each university based on cost per each student and the government has imposed a fee ceiling on how high a fee is charged, not allowing higher tariffs as it could trigger problems. If we don’t impose a ceiling, the tuition fees could be higher and the demands put forth by the universities ahead of the fee ceiling imposed by the government called for much higher fees, based on calculation and not on needs.

A quality education also depends on how much you pay. Let’s be clear about it. However, taking into account not simply the fact how much a family can afford to pay, because the higher education is not compulsory, the government is basically obliged to support students coming from families in needs. This is the government’s obligation, yet the government is not obliged to always become a mother and father of everyone when it comes to the higher education. This is a principle, but facts show that conditions are not the most optimal possible ones and, given such conditions, we have fully agreed to consider as legitimate right the demand to halve the Bachelor degree programme fees.

The tuition fees will be halved for every student, including the poor performing students in order to provide them the opportunity to improve their performance next year. Should they fail to do so and the grade point average remains 4 and 5 during next academic year, then the society won’t pay anymore for them. They will pay full tuition fee, because the parents of other students can’t pay twice.

I know this word doesn’t sound nice, yet this is the Albanian word defining a category and it is a fact that someone who fails in the higher education can become an excellent professional in other areas, as he may become a great plumber, an incredible carpenter, an electrician or entrepreneur. He can attend the vocational education and become a skilled professional, because someone who attends the university and practically does nothing he just wastes his parents’ money to fail and five years later he just becomes a loser. Meanwhile, someone else who doesn’t enter the university and instead attends the vocational college, he can pursue a decent career and becomes a winner in his life.

This has not much to do with the students, as it is the government that should implement better policies in this regard. We should place more attention to a transformation already underway, though gradual. Together with the new Education Minister, we will insist upon opening more vocational education programmes.

During talks with the Rector of Elbasan University and other university officials I have been told that great interest has been shown in the first vocational training programmes here. We should certainly improve regulations in order to ensure that everyone attending a vocational programme enjoys access to the labour market and is no longer seen as a second-hand individual in terms of employment. We can no longer support the open and mass higher education policy with everyone entering the university.

Prior to this meeting, we visited an excellent enterprise in terms of craftsmanship, a manufacturing enterprise with its workers with 40 or 50 years of experience, but not a single young craftsman working there. And it was exactly this problem the owner of the enterprise was facing as he won’t be able to replace his workers once they retire. This means that the government alone can’t address the employment issues. This is utterly impossible.

We have been talking with Rector about the university infrastructure needs here. You are housed in a former surgery facility and its infrastructure needs to improve.

What we have already done, although not included in the student demands list, is the result of our reflection. During the dialogue process with the students – held in half-democratic yet interesting “curfew” situation – I have come across things one can’t clearly hear one seeing people screaming and saying over loudspeakers: “We don’t dialogue! Meet our demands!” One of the issues rightly raised during those meetings was the training practice, which previously used to be integral part of the teaching process and now are almost inexistent.

In the meantime, what are we going to do with the scientific research or the laboratories that are missing? To address these aspects, we have agreed to establish partnership programmes between the ministries and faculties. Such partnership will provide for the ministries to involve in bilateral relations with the universities to assist the latter in training practice programmes. To illustrate, the Faculty of Nursing students need to participate in training practice and therefore the Ministry of Health will directly commit to helping them and accommodate all student needs, including due funding. Likewise, the Faculty of Engineering will cooperate with the Ministry of Infrastructure, the Faculty of Geology and Mining will enter partnership agreement with the Ministry of Energy, Faculty of Economics will cooperate with the Ministry of Finance and Economy, and the Faculty of Teacher Education will cooperate with the Ministry of Education. This is one aspect. The other aspect has to with tasking the faculties with various projects and the relevant ministry will provide the necessary funding.

Private enterprises will involve by either providing social funding, or investing in building and equipping the university laboratories. For example, the private companies operating in the oil and mining industry will be asked to sponsor the laboratories for the Faculty of Geology and Mining.

A day ago, the Minister of Infrastructure announced the government decision to cancel the public private partnership procedures for Thumane – Kashar highway and channel this significantly large fiscal space to support the Pact for the University.

It is indeed a considerable amount of funding estimated at around $230 million and it will be allocated for the Pact for the University. You are already familiar with the claims, suggesting that the government is unable to provide such funding. When the road was about to be built, the same people claimed that the highway was a mega-theft project, while now they say the government lacks financial capacities.

It is neither this, nor that. No money was being stolen and indeed the private public partnership, or the concessions scheme, which has become a tool of criminalizing propaganda, is actually a wholly normal funding mechanism and it is quite simple. It is called public private partnership as the public sector, through the government, asks the private companies to sign cooperation agreements, stipulating that private companies develop various public projects with their own money and they are paid back in tranches during a long time. So, if we need the Arberi Road to be built in three years, because the state budget cannot support its construction within such a short period of time, then we cooperate with private companies to develop the project. The company will be paid once it completes a certain volume of construction works and what we had to pay in three years will now be settled in 13 years instead. This is the public private partnership scheme. The public will be able to use the road within three years instead of 13 years that the government would have needed to build the project. Thumane – Kashar highway was also a public private partnership concession, but we opted to call the project off and channel the funding to the Pact for the University. I already told the Rector that the student campuses will be managed by the universities according to a simple and more effective formula as the university can better combine the needs with the incentives for certain students etc. So I told the Rector that the new university building project should be integrated with the student campus project and the entire funding for the Elbasan university project will be included in the university infrastructure programme that will be developed through public private partnership contracts, or the same scheme used in the case of Thumane-Kashar highway. This is what all ministries will do. The Ministry of Culture will patronize the University of Arts and will set up a joint working team to identify needs for concert halls, piano halls, picture and sculpture halls and any other need. Projects will be then designed and presented to the public and private companies will be then invited to support and develop these projects.

We have provided the fiscal space and new schools will be built by the private companies with their own money. What the Tirana Municipality will be doing? Using this fiscal space offered under this programme, Tirana Municipality will pay the private construction companies in tranches during a 12-year period.

Greetings! I am a student at the Faculty of Technical Medical Sciences. It has been often said that the University “Aleksandër Xhuvani” is labeled as one of the universities with the highest number of corrupt academic staff. I would like to know what measures would be taken to tackle this phenomenon?

PM Edi Rama: I have heard a lot about this issue over these “recent whatsapp days” and my answer is quite simple. First, being right at the whirlpool of the “trash media” suggesting that all politicians are thieves. But this is not true. Here it is Taulant who won at trial after facing far more serious charges than alleged corruption acts. However, the accuser was unable to provide any evidence.

I think that whenever we talk about corruption, we should all have the courage to point a finger to any professor who has asked you to pay a bribe and provide evidence to support your claims.

What I want to say by this? I want to say that people make their choice. If a professor, a doctor, a policeman asks me to pay him a bribe, first of all I refuse to do so, being confident that in the end of the day I will win. Whoever believes and fights for his rights will always win. I am sure there are university professors who involve in corrupt actions, but the question is how to tackle this phenomenon. First, not all professors are to blame. Second, if we all break the silence, then no professor will ever dare ask you to pay bribes. So, this is a matter of force. I hope you have learned a lesson from your protest and wish you have figured out the force you possess.

I am proud of the fact that it is now much easier for you to gather and protest in front of the Ministry of Education, in front of the Prime Minister’s office and stand on the Prime Minister’s way, telling him you refuse to dialogue and urge him to meet your demands. I am proud of the fact that you can yell at the Prime Minister. But I am not proud when you gather in front of the faculty’s door saying: “we won’t allow this professor to enter class and he should go with us to the prosecutors to tell him there that he has asked us to pay bribes.”

This is the feeling you have created during the protest, that you are a huge power when united together.

You are complaining that you are being preventing from resuming classes. What are you asking from me? I didn’t instruct you when you came together in front of the Ministry of Education. Quite the contrary! You gathered in protest and I showed utmost respect, trying to figure out what is your problem and how we can help and support you. You didn’t ask me to reshuffle the cabinet, but I reflected while seeing you protesting. But what you should do when a handful of people gather and block classes in your faculty? You should also come together without confronting anyone, but understanding that you are in your own right.

The issue of corrupt university professors is linked to the capacity of citizens, who do not accept corruption and refuse to pay a single penny in bribes in exchange of a positive grade and raise the alarm over this phenomenon.

I have closely monitored the case of a university professor accused of corruption by the so-called “Movement for University.” Prosecutor looked into the case for six months with many students being asked to testify. None of the students said the professor had asked them to pay a bribe. On the contrary, they said that they had been told to made allegations. This is on what a student movement, or a so-called movement for university is based on, while calling for revolution and a which-hunting campaign against the university professors, but which leads to nowhere.

Corruption remains a serious problem and this is unquestionably true as no one denies the fact that there are charlatan university lecturers who disgrace the university, but they will still be part of the coexistence here and will continue to be untouchable if they hide behind others and say that all professors are corrupt. No, they are not all corrupt. it is necessary to distinguish among them. I am not like others. Not because I am 1.98 m tall, but, for 1001 of reasons, me it’s me, with both good and bad points. I have more deficiencies that the others in a certain aspect, but I don’t accept to be compared to others in many other aspects. People differ from each other. Even animals in a forest differ from each other.

It is impossible to escape from a bad thing, if you lack courage to point a figure to the evil and say: “We don’t accept this man and we are ready to testify against him.” And you will then see for yourselves that no one would ever dare and cross his mind to ask you pay a bribe. Do you think that this doesn’t happen in other countries because they don’t want money? No, this is not true. They don’t do it because they would suffer consequences. A German professor never crosses his mind to ask students to pay him bribes. But if a German professor was to work in our universities, you would see whether he will or won’t ask them to pay bribes. On the other hand, an Albanian professor wouldn’t do so if he were to work in a German university. This is what makes the difference.

I am a student of Master of Science degree programme at the Faculty of Medical and technical Sciences. I am also a student representative at the Academic Senate. Mr. Prime Minister, my first question is very sensitive. When the student card will be issued and what are the student benefits. Second question; one of the student demand is election of a student representative at the University Administrative Board. You have promised to fulfil this demand. Which criteria should a student fulfil and how will he be elected to the University Administrative Board?

PM Rama: First, the student card is a promise that, for the sake of truth, should have been fulfilled by now. This promise has not been kept, and I am not going over the reasons why. What we have done and we have always wished to do regarding the student card is that we join the European Student Card. It is a newly founded network. We have already launched discussions on this issue since beginning of the past year. We have got the OK from the French organization, the provider of the European Student Card and we are seeking to finalize the process so that the Albanian Student Card is valid also in the network’s member countries. It is a network opened to the non-EU member states too, so the Western Balkan countries, which can benefit from it. For example, if you are visiting Paris as a Student Card holder from “Aleksandër Xhuvani” University, you will be entitled to benefit everything just like any other student in France.

The process is already underway in collaboration with the municipalities and other institutions in order to make sure that the Student Card is valid everywhere, so the Student Card issued from the “Aleksandër Xhuvani” University is valid not only in Elbasan, but anywhere else.

Meanwhile, the Municipality of Tirana is working on an agreement with private companies for students to benefit sales discount in certain shops. Tirana Municipality will reach agreements with various private companies to ensure that Student Card holders benefit service discount by 10%, 20%, 30% etc.

As far as transport is concerned, this is a matter of municipal policies. There can’t be uniformity. It is different to use public transport in Tirana and the public transport in Vlora. We are exploring many possibilities regarding the interurban transport. It is not easy at all, because we don’t want the transport companies to increase the transport fare for other citizens. That’s why we need more time to address all these issues. We have promised to provide the student card next autumn.

The University Administrative Board is like a board of shareholders. The state is the main shareholder, because the government provides funding and the government is represented in this Board to check finances, and not to make decisions. Board makes no decisions on the university policies. The Senate makes these decisions. Indeed, Boards ratify the Senates’ decisions and have never turned them down.

The shortcomings of internal democracy in our universities are most obvious in the Senates and the Student Councils. You already know that the Student Councils are long-time elected political ghosts and largely manipulated bodies. Normally I still wonder why no one is asking for a re-election of the Student Councils. I don’t figure it out. No one demands it. One should not forget that the Senate is elected by the Student Councils. The Student Councils elect the student representatives at the Senate and they are the individuals with broad access to the Senate’s decision-making process. The Senate is the one to make decisions. The Board ratifies and oversees the decisions and the university finances. The government is represented in the Boards to oversee the finances.

What has been missing and what we will regulate now is that the Board members have not always a solid profile. We will launch an open process in these Boards and the government will be represented by distinguished public personalities. We will pick such representatives, telling them that it is a great honor for the government to be represented by you. Students will have the right to put forward three candidacies and the government will choose one of the three personalities, whom they consider as their representatives in the Board. Meanwhile, students can fight to secure a seat in the Senate.

I hear people asking why the government doesn’t interfere and oversees these university bodies? The government can’t do this. I am surprised that several university professors are protesting against the Council of Ministers’ decisions. They claim that the decisions violate the university autonomy. I don’t know which one infringes the university autonomy. The decision to halve the tuition fees? Does the government decision to establish the digital library violate the university autonomy? Or the decision to grant scholarships to students? Does the decision on issuing the Student Card violates the autonomy? Or the decision to open university boards to public personalities? Which one breaches the university autonomy?

If they mean the Council of Ministers’ decision regarding the verification of the academic degrees and plagiarism, we have already stated it clearly that the government is not the one to verify the academic degrees. The government can assist and facilitate this process by setting some rules and we have cited the Albanian Academic Network regarding the aspect of the digital register of the doctoral degrees. Then it is the university that should build a process to carry out the verification.

I have also come across statements, calling on government to take this matter into its own hands, suggesting that the universities would ruing this process. The failure of certain elements is not a reason for us to intervene and take over the university and strip university off autonomy.

We have also heard people saying that the Higher Education Law is to blame, but failing to mention any of the law provisions. Those objecting the Higher Education Law resemble to the Brexit initiators, who haven’t mentioned a single EU rule that would hamper them to draft a law or build a mechanism. The same is the case here. Could you point out a single Higher Education Law provision that hampers the higher education development and we are ready to amend it. Tell me just one provision! They claim that the Higher Education Law provides funding for the private universities. This is not true! Not a single penny has been given away to the private universities. Although I have repeatedly saying that the private university students are also Albanian citizens. Their parents pay taxes for you too. However, no money has been given to the private universities. Certainly, the private universities have been given access to the scientific research. Should a group of students and professors from a private university seek to benefit funding to support scientific research programmes, why they shouldn’t be entitled to benefit? However, the truth is that no private university has received government funding to date.

I am Master degree progamme student from Divjaka town. First of all, I would like to highlight the fact that I live in the student campus for five years now and not a single reconstruction project has been implemented here during this time. Will there be any change in this respect and what is precisely going to happen? When reconstruction projects will start and what do you offer in terms of improved conditions in the student dormitories?

PM Edi Rama: First of all, it’s absolutely true that no investment has been ever developed and nothing has changed since you were born, I guess. The last time an investment was carried out in this student campus was when your father was still a child. And I mean not only this, but other student campuses too. I don’t take pride in saying this, yet this is the truth. Just like it is true the fact that the first government that has started to invest in the student campuses is our government. During the meeting with the German chancellor Angela Merkel in 2014, I asked her to provide funding for projects on construction and reconstruction of the student campuses. Indeed, construction of four new student dormitory buildings at the Faculty of Engineering in Tirana has already completed, and work to construct nine other new dormitory buildings, 13 in total, is underway. However, this is absolutely not enough. And you might ask, sorry, but why should I care about what has been done there (in Tirana). I know that nothing has been already done here. This is a question that many in other fields too may ask. The thing is that this is what we can afford for now. In order for us to do more, we should enhance the opportunities. I tell you something. Should the student protest would have taken place two years ago, you could be still protesting in front of the Ministry of Education building and not a single penny was to be provided, because back then we couldn’t afford it. We wouldn’t have been able to meet your demand to halve the tuition fee two years ago. This demand is right and we are meeting it because we think it is right, and not because we are afraid of what you could do. However, this very demand was right two years ago too, but we wouldn’t have been able to meet it as we couldn’t afford it financially. Today we can. We know that you can’t wait so long in order for us to build the student campus and the university. But what can we do then? We cancelled a major infrastructure project to channel its funding again to infrastructure, but this time to university infrastructure. We will intensively work on projects this year. We will collect all existing projects. Together with the Rector, we discussed ways to set up project designing team. We will do the same with all universities and our goal is to unveil these projects to the public by September and we will the issue calls for expression of interest by the private companies so that work begins in order to fundamentally transform the university infrastructure within this term in office. The investment programme includes construction of the university campus in Tirana. This is the plan. Many might ask: “Should I trust you?” You can just wait and see. I can’t say more than that. We will do this as we can afford it now.

I am an excellence student at “Aleksandër Xhuvani” University, Faculty of Natural Sciences, Biochemistry Department, Master of Arts degree programme. One of the points included in the Pact for the University is the portal “Good Work” for employment of the excellent students in the public administration. These vacancies will be on offer in the country’s districts as well? Will this initiative be operational in 2019 only or in the years to come too? And last question, our university is one of the best ones. The teaching programme graduates can work in the primary education only. Why we are not allowed to work in higher education system?

PM Edi Rama: First of all, there is no excellent student on the planet who knows for sure what is going to happen once graduated. It is a daily struggle and competition and the idea that the government should find someone a job placement upon graduation has gone since December 1990. Back then we lived in a system where you knew for sure that the state would appoint you to a certain job position. The best ones were hired as university lecturers or were entitled to better job positions in Tirana compared to others.

Otherwise, although you could be from Tirana’s downtown, you could still end up working in a remote village of Tropoja for five years. Five years later, you could come back, while other newly graduated were transferred there. So, no university graduate could end up jobless. Everyone was working, yet not in the position or the city you would have wanted and you deserved. Instead, you were transferred to the country’s remotest parts. Such a system is now gone. What we should do – and I think the student protest has provided us this golden opportunity – is to create the conditions so that to allow excellent students to take up job positions in the public administration according to a merit-based system. We have built such a merit-based system for the teachers’ employment. You can’t work as a teacher, unless you earn the required points on the online Portal. Everything else is fairytale. Such a system has prevented abuses. This is stipulated by law that has been adopted by Parliament. No one can now enter the university instead of another candidate who has scored better. This is over. We want to set same standard regarding employment in public administration. We have put an end to the tradition of political employment in the public administration. The student protest has helped us a lot in this respect. More than 1000 vacancies in the public administration and the state administration will become available to best performing students with GPA 9 and 10.

The vacant positions are on offer not only in Tirana, but also in other districts of the country. If not wrong, I think that more than 30 vacancies are offered here in Elbasan district. Everyone should apply via the online student employment platform. Everything is transparent and you can check results online. There are no job interviews, neither direct contacts. It doesn’t matter who you know or you don’t know. The computer makes the choice. This will allow us to prevent political employments in the state administration and it helps you to build work experience, because if you lack job experience, you are not allowed to apply for a job in the administration.

Minister of Education, Besa Shahini: Local universities in the country’s districts have traditionally produced primary school teachers, while the University of Tirana has produced high school teachers. This has always been the case. What we are thinking to do now, in the context of strengthening the teacher degree programs, and this is still an idea and no decision has been made, we have increased the average grade to 7 for admission to different faculties that produce teachers, that is to increase the capacity of those who enter the teacher degree programs to be able to absorb as much as possible, with the idea to further raise the admission averages, the internal programs should further strengthen to get more knowledge and perhaps we will launch a master degree program that prepares high school teachers only.