Quo Vadis, Education? Another lost (pandemic) year in the Western Balkans 5 min read

 In COVID-19, Eastern Europe, Opinion, Politics
Pre-university education is close to the end of its second academic year under pandemic conditions. While the outbreak of the epidemiological crisis in spring 2020 caught almost all educational systems worldwide unprepared, expectations to counterbalance the state of emergency were definitely higher in 2021. Regrettably, this academic year has yet again led to disillusionment and frustration. 

In the Western Balkans, there is little doubt that education remains hostage to political interests and ironically, is nobody’s responsibility. In fact, education has never been immune to political scandals and higher levels of corruption. Hindered by the political landscape, disturbing interferences take a heavy toll on teachers and school personnel whose low performance stems from lack of motivation, self-censorship, and fear of losing their jobs.

Doing Politics with Education

Albania and Kosovo’s political parties use education for their ruling ambitions and as a means for promising employment opportunities in public institutions during electoral campaigns. In the first quarter of 2021, both countries held general elections and several parallels could be identified in the education policies of the political parties. Prior to the elections, the ruling governments offered a salary supplement to teachers for extra teaching hours provided during the pandemic. The timing of the supplement’s provision was disappointing, as it appeared more as an intentional pre-electoral move. During these electoral campaigns, promises of investments in the healthcare system and education sector dominated political debates and placed political parties in line with citizens’ expectations. Yet only a few parties were found able to elaborate on policies that could properly handle the pandemic-posed challenges.

The case of education in Albania’s electoral campaign is emblematic, as the government avoided considering the real challenges that the system is facing, or the students’ learning losses accumulated during the last five trimesters due to the pandemic. Instead, the Prime Minister portrayed his reform in education as one of the successes of his second term, and during the third mandate, the government’s vision relies on high-tech schools, new practical subjects for the pre-university system and an increase of teachers’ wages by 40%, yet without any concrete reference to the education budget allocation. One positive step that the last three months have brought is the high rate of vaccination of school staff. In fact, approximately 40,000 teachers have been vaccinated by mid-June, which should allow schooling in person as of September.

In Kosovo, meanwhile, the change of the governing alliance has provided for a deep reflection on the country’s education system, with the new head of government admitting publicly its poor conditions and the disappointment of citizens in it. In mid-May, the prime minister announced in the parliament that the government will undertake a thorough education reform, introducing new educational programs, training 5,000 teachers per year, and conducting assessments based on teachers’ performance. Meanwhile, the vaccination of the educational staff must speed up, in order to catch up before the new academic kicks off.

In Serbia, education is seemingly absent in the political agenda. Far from reaching immunization, the government has offered a financial stimulus of 25 euro compensation for all citizens who will voluntarily get vaccinated. Throughout this academic year, however, both students and school personnel have feared and distrusted safety measures and institutional decisions.   

Reloading education through digital divides

In the Western Balkans, education has suffered from systematic structural challenges and underinvestment, leaving little room for the boosting of digital skills and infrastructure. Flexible school schedules, homeschooling and new digital modes of teaching and learning only placed an additional burden on the already agonizing systems.

In Kosovo, the lack of a national standardized online platform left 9,000 students without technological support at home. Similarly, Serbia’s students and teachers have so far struggled to catch up, despite having full access to the internet and online education platforms. Ironically, the growth of the IT sector has not reached the majority of rural areas and suburbs, where such resources are most needed. In Albania, despite the ministry’s offering of a unified teaching platform www.akademi.al, poor internet connections and platform access issues pushed a considerable portion of teachers to work with free TeachPitch online platforms and holding lessons through Whatsapp and Viber.

Teachers’ floating between different teaching modalities resulted in an increased workload and a collective psychological burnout. In response, Western Balkans’ ministries of education adopted general safety measures and policies that came to paradoxically deepen social fragmentation and exacerbate digital divides. Overlooking differences between urban and rural areas, as well as structural challenges and digital divides in both contexts, school dropout rates rose. Especially among extremely poor and disadvantaged families, students will be less likely to find space in the future labour market. Compared to 2020, today’s situation appears even more problematic: structural challenges, students’ learning losses and teachers’ digital alphabetism are still major concerns.

The pandemic should have already paved the way to deep reforms in the education system across the region. The adoption of common measures at the regional level would certainly contribute to reinforce educational institutions. However, in the short run, governments should make room for summer programs for compensating students’ learning losses and better training teachers. The next academic year would acutely benefit from a tailored set of policies whose scope would be counteracting the deepening of the learning losses and reloading education as a whole. Yet Balkan ministries of education still turn a deaf ear, whereas education remains at stake.

This op-ed was written as part of wider research and advocacy efforts supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society in the context of ‘Kosovo Research and Analysis Fellowship’.

Gentiola Madhi is a policy analyst based in Italy. Since 2018 she works as a consultant researcher for non-governmental organizations and she contributes to Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso – Transeuropa. Previously, Gentiola worked as project manager for the Center of Excellence at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Albania and as a national programme officer at Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation in Tirana. Gentiola is an alumna of ‘Kosovo Research and Analysis Fellowship and a former Think Visegrad Fellow at the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague.

Featured image: Education / Ivan Aleksic
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