What really happened to the Kosovo Accreditation Agency?
The former minister of education’s office suite was very quiet a few weeks before the new government was formed.
The quiet belied the drama of the last few years when the higher education establishment was rocked first by Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj’s direction to Minister Shyqiri Bytyçi in September 2017 to dismiss the Kosovo Accreditation Agency’s (KAA) entire board, more commonly known as the State Council of Quality (SCQ), for alleged reasons of incompetence.
Shortly afterward, in February 2018, the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR) — a list of trustworthy national quality assurance agencies that are found to comply with European standards — removed the KAA, pointing to political interference in its work.
Then, in October 2019, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) — a membership organization of national quality assurance agencies that represents its members internationally — also expelled the KAA.
“I am sure that this will affect our future careers.” – Doruntina Golaj, student.
To support its expulsion decision, ENQA released a comprehensive report, citing poor financial and human resources, a lack of consensus among the higher education-wide community on the roles and activities of the agency and a lack of internal quality assurance and professional conduct, among other reasons.
It will be two years before Kosovo can apply for ENQA membership again.
“When I first read an article that spoke about this topic I was terrified,” says Doruntina Golaj, who is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in journalism.
“It was the most discouraging news that we as students of the University of Prishtina could have heard. I am sure that this will affect our future careers. Kosovo is turning into a place where the only solution for young people is to create a new life somewhere abroad.”
All universities in a country need to be accredited, meaning that there must be some guarantee that their quality is overseen by a national quality assurance agency. The agencies themselves should be able to apply and get membership in regional agencies like ENQA, which in turn guarantees their quality.
While the KAA is currently not in EQAR or ENQA, it still remains a part of other regional agencies such as the Central and Eastern European Quality Assurance Agency. But this does not cover the whole of Europe. ENQA and EQAR accreditation also make it easier to transfer diplomas to other countries, such as the United States.
Pressure from all angles
“I think there is a need for a broad political consensus that higher education institutions and accreditation bodies — such as KAA — need to be independent in their work and do their work free from political influence,” says Colin Tück, the head of EQAR.
“In addition to formal regulations and mechanisms, it is also important that measures are taken to promote a culture where those relevant positions — in government, institutions and agencies — take seriously the need to avoid conflicts of interest and to promote transparency.”
Until now, it seems that everybody agrees such measures have been sorely lacking in Kosovo and that political and financial pressure has been rife.
The sacking of the SCQ is perhaps the most glaring example.
Shyqiri Bytyçi was the minister of education who sacked the KAA’s board in 2017 after being instructed to do so by then Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
Looking back at that decision, Bytyçi blames inexperience for the way in which the dismissals took place, saying he had just been named minister and didn’t know enough about the Ministry. He also says he thought Haradinaj was being guided by experts and he felt it wasn’t “ethical” to go against the prime minister.
Bytyçi says he now believes Haradinaj had been guided in fact by “rumor and supposition,” rather than analysis. However he ultimately believes that the result was the right one and that the SCQ had been politicized. “Let’s just say that if [the decision] was negative, it led to more positives,” he says.
But not all pressure and intervention in the work of the KAA is so overt.
According to Rron Gjinovci, executive director of the Organization for Increasing Quality in Education (ORCA), one of the big pressures on the KAA comes from the extent of overlaps between the universities and politicians.
“Almost every parliamentarian in the last parliament is working for a private university,” Gjinovci says. “So everyone has an interest in what the KAA is doing. The pressure comes from all directions.”
There has also been a growth in the number of private universities in recent years. Twenty-three private colleges are now operating in Kosovo, according to the KAA, for a population of a little under 2 million people.
Gjinovci estimates that these colleges generate about 35 million euros a year in income on average. If so, these colleges form one of the biggest industries in Kosovo servicing local and international students.
Such growth inevitably brings with it additional interests and pressures.
Gjinovci recently posted a status on his Facebook page accusing Germany’s Ambassador to Kosovo Christian Heldt of intervening on behalf of the College Heimerer. In an email from Heldt to the head of the SCQ, Gazmend Luboteni, sent last November, the Ambassador asked for a transparent accreditation process and says that he would like the KAA to take a decision “by the earliest time possible.”
In response, the German Embassy released a statement saying it is in “continuous communication” with public institutions, including the Kosovo Accreditation Agency, regarding the assurance of a transparent process for the accreditation of high-quality education programmes.
“The German Embassy shares the interest of Kosovo’s international partners in independent and timely evaluations and decisions of this Agency, based on the rules and regulations set out by the Government of the Republic of Kosovo to reach EU standards. The Embassy strongly values an independent, substantial and transparent assessment of Kosovo’s higher education institutions and their programmes,” read the statement.
Difficulties at the KAA
The KAA is very open about its struggles. No one disputes the criticisms but they do ask: Who is at fault?
Avni Gashi was the former acting director of the KAA. In January, two weeks before leaving office, Bytyçi dismissed Gashi, citing “irregularities” and replaced him with the former monitoring and evaluation officer at the KAA, Shkelzen Gerxhallu.
Gashi says that when he was appointed in August 2018, joining the KAA from the National Quality Assurance Agency that reviews vocational schools, he had only been due to stay for six months.
“They couldn’t find anyone else,” he says.
Avni Gashi was appointed acting director of KAA in 2018 and held the role for almost 18 months before being dismissed by the outgoing minister of education in January. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
The 2019 ENQA report noted that the agency had an optimistic attitude and that a new e-accreditation information management system that helps to track and manage accreditation applications was a positive improvement.
But it also pointed out that the KAA was short on human and financial resources as well as office space.
Gashi says that recruitment was a real problem and points to a recent IT professional opening, for which he says no one applied. By the end of his tenure, the KAA had only six staff covering more than 30 higher education institutions.
Gashi says the problem with staffing lies in the low salaries. “Four hundred and fifty euros a month isn’t enough for a job that requires qualifications and lots of work,” he says.
The KAA has complained at a lack of resources and office space, problems also highlighted in a comprehensive ENQA report in 2019. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
While the KAA is supposed to be independent from the Ministry of Education and government in general, the Ministry helps to fund it, primarily through covering wages.
KAA also generates much of its own revenue by charging universities and colleges for accreditations. But after the dismissal of the board in late 2017, with no immediate replacement board, the agency was unable to do accreditation reports and it’s finances sunk.
In 2017 the KAA’s budget was around 411,000 euros; in 2018, it fell to just over 187,000 euros, as reported in the ENQA report and in KAA’s own budgets that K2.0 has seen.
The ENQA says that even when the KAA was producing accreditation reports, they were of poor quality, and also noted that there had been none of the required student involvement in the agency’s decisions.
The universities, for their part, were said to be extremely defensive in their attitudes toward the KAA, with ENQA feeling that most of them negatively perceived the KAA as “controllers.”
ENQA’s stakeholders survey reports that confidence in the KAA had remained unchanged since they first polled stakeholders in 2014 and that “not more than 29% of the stakeholders believe that a Kosovo degree is credible in the international world. Twenty-eight percent state they completely lack credibility.”
Gjinovci says that from his experience of working closely with the Ministry of Education and the KAA, the agency lacks leadership. “[Gashi was] the third acting director,” he says.
ORCA’s Rron Gjinovci has accused the KAA of a lack of effective leadership, but also points the finger at politicians, saying that there is a need for greater political will to support meaningful reforms. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
The ORCA executive director clashed with Gashi over what he claims are irregularities and what he feels is a lack of transparency and incompetence within the agency.
Meanwhile, former Minister Bytyçi says that ENQA should shoulder some of the blame for the KAA’s downfall for raising the criteria after Kosovo became a member in 2014; he points to raised standards for higher levels of student involvement in the accreditation process as an example.
He also adds that ENQA did not take the larger socio-economic context in Kosovo into account. ENQA acknowledges that the Ministry and other stakeholders felt international experts did not understand the context when evaluating the system in Kosovo.
“If we go back to the ENQA report, first I think it was not a realistic answer for our agency,” he says. “Because you can see clearly the movements that the agency made. Most of the points from the report, more than half, were completed.”
Gjinovci, however, believes that dispensations have already been made for Kosovo in the past when it comes to higher education standards. He alleges that the original decisions to allow Kosovo to join ENQA and later EQAR were “political,” suggesting that ENQA and the international community wanted to help Kosovo by being tolerant toward checking the fulfilment of the criteria they had at that time.
What happens now?
The EU has been one of the main donors to the higher education system in Kosovo and says it has assisted in helping Kosovo get memberships in ENQA and EQAR. Nevertheless, it has also consistently criticized local actors for the politicization of the accreditation process.
It says that more than 23 million euros have been allocated to Kosovo for the next three years through the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) and that it will continue to financially support the agency’s monitoring mechanisms.
“First and foremost, parties should refrain from political interference in the work of the agency, but rather focus on providing the necessary legal framework, budgetary and human resources to enable the agency to implement its complex and important tasks,” reads a statement given to K2.0 by the EU Office in Prishtina, which adds that it has helped the Ministry to develop criteria for a transparent accreditation process
Bytyçi says that before he left office, he tried to take steps to reduce politicization, including having the new KAA board approved by parliament, cooperating with organizations such as ORCA to include more oversight from civil society and taking steps to ensure greater involvement of students in important processes.
He also established a working group of experts, students and NGOs to draft a new law covering the KAA, in an effort to both ensure its independence while setting up a clearer accountability relationship with the Ministry of Education. Membership of both ENQA and EQAR are set to be required in the current draft of the proposed law.
It will be the responsibility of the new government to pick up the pieces of the KAA’s demise.
Gjinovci, who is part of the new law drafting process, insists that the law will only be as good as the political will to ensure it is properly implemented. He also notes that student involvement does not per se address the issue of political involvement, since many student organizations are closely linked to political parties.
The EU Office meanwhile says that there are existing legal provisions that provide for the KAA to carry out its mission independently and that the same legal provisions were in place when the agency became a member of the European quality assurance bodies. “It is possible to provide further legal safeguards to protect the Agency from external influence, but there needs to be political will to improve the Agency and its work and the quality of education overall,” it said.
With Bytyçi and the government he represented now removed from office at the hands of the electorate, it will be the responsibility of the new government to pick up the pieces of the KAA’s demise — they have almost two years in which to do so, before the agency can re-apply for ENQA membership.
K2.0 contacted the new minister of education, Hykmete Bajrami, to discuss her plans for achieving this, but she has yet to respond to our request for comment.
For students and diploma holders, they will have to wait it out. Not having ENQA and EQAR memberships does not absolutely preclude the ability to study, live and work abroad. It does make it that much more difficult.
In one of Haradinaj’s final acts as prime minister, he released a letter to the KAA asking them to be more respectful of private colleges. He did not respond to K2.0’s requests for comment.
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.