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The neoliberalization of Albanian higher education

Arlind_QoriOne of the last public strongholds to be taken and transformed along neoliberal lines has been higher education. First introduced in Chile, and afterwards in other Latin America countries, these reforms are about to be experimented on even in Albania. Coming from a Stalinist socialist past, since the nineties Albania has been one of the testing grounds for neoliberal reforms. For example in the first half of the nineties the IMF considered Albania one of the models other East European countries should follow. The fact that that model ended in the Ponzi scheme financial bubble of 1997 didn’t shake the IMF from  pushing Albanian governments, “left” and right, to deepen the neoliberal restructuring of the economy, one of whose last un-privatized sectors is higher education.

What has happened in Albania in recent years is the expansion of private universities and the governments’ tentative to introduce not only facilities for them, but to remodel the financial funding scheme of universities so that private ones can profit. These reforms began under the last right-wing government in 2010, and are now being taken and furthered by the newly elected third-way Socialist government. The fact that the Socialists opposed these reforms before doesn’t influence their decision to implement the same ones, albeit using rhetorical tricks like the one by Edi Rama, the current prime minister, who said that knowledge is not a commodity, and that universities are not commercial units, which in his mind doesn’t mean anything radical, but just that universities, especially private ones, should stop “selling” ready-made diplomas. In substantive terms the Socialists’ current attempt definitively to neoliberalize higher education doesn’t differ from the right-wing Democrats’ earlier attempts, so this article is going to deal with their logic and consequences jointly.

Private universities emerged more than a decade ago, and they filled a quantitative gap that the public ones left behind, namely by offering a formal opportunity for people who didn’t pass the admission tests to attend public universities, especially those located in Tirana. And having a formal higher education was considered important for many young people for ideological and practical reasons, one of which was that after graduation a minority of them could hope to be part of the highly clientelistic public administration. For several years these private universities managed to survive in this Wild West competition. But in recent years, due to the economic crisis, the return of the emigrants especially from Greece, most of them bankrupted, and the falling of the latter’s remittances, these universities are facing financial problems. That’s why a few of them, better organized, with political connections, owning even sections of the mainstream media, have been pushing forward a voucher-system financial reform.

The first attempts were made in 2010, and continuously till 2013 the right-wing government considered the alternative of a voucher-system financing of universities. These attempts failed due to two very contradictory factors. On the one hand, there was the pressure of a newly founded student movement, and on the other, most of the private universities feared that this reform was intended to give oligopoly power to a few amongst them, so they fettered the last government attempt. Anyway, the current government seems eager to fulfil the neoliberal agenda, and it’s expected to pass into law in the coming weeks, as if they’re trying to prove definitively that third-way leftists are the best pupils of neoliberalism.

The way they legitimate this restructuring of higher education is by considering that universities should serve the market, turn themselves into commercial agencies, so that they can counter such economic problems as growing unemployment, which recently has officially reached more than 20%, but unofficially is considered even higher. They are also expected to raise funds autonomously, to cooperate with business enterprises, to open themselves up to every kind of business influence, so that they can survive in the new competitive market.

Basically this means that public funds, until now traditionally directted to public universities, are going to be redistributed following a competitive scheme to public and private universities alike. Differently from Chile, whose financial scheme allows private for-profit universities to compete for these public funds, the proposed reforms imposed a condition on the private universities to gain public funds: they should be turned legally into non-profit private organizations.

Let us open a parenthesis. Albania is widely considered one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, whose political elite, judicial system and public administration can be easily bought off. So it would be practically a piece of cake for whatever private university to declare legally its non-profit character, and go on doing business as usual. This supposition becomes even more probable if we consider that these financial reforms are being lobbied publicly by some of the most important private universities, using their media power in an attempt to hegemonize the field of political discourse. It is unlikely that for-profit private universities, publicly defending the principles of neoliberalism, would pressure the government to turn them into non-profit institutions so that they can serve better public needs.

The voucher system would “follow the student”, at least those who would have a certain ranking after the high-school national exams, meaning that part of them will follow students who prefer private universities. Faced with this kind of competition for “souls”, public universities would be forced to change their internal structure, bend to the market logic, build marketing units inside to recruit students etc. On the other hand, for every student partly subsidized to attend private universities, public universities have to consider raising student fees, trying to cover their costs, and basically turning the university from a public-oriented critical sphere into an open-market field which sells basic instrumental knowledge to those who can afford to pay for it.

This transformation has even deeper implications. Following international financial institutions’ “suggestions,” higher education is progressively being perceived not as a basic right, as the fastest way-out from dire socio-economical conditions, or as a tool for class mobility, but as a service one has to buy nearly at full price. Consequently higher education is being considered widely as a privilege, and, bending to the pressure of international financial institutions, governments worldwide are focusing instead on primary and secondary-level education. By considering higher education some kind of middle-and-upper-class privilege, the Albanian governments have pushed forward the idea of focusing on primary, and mostly on professional secondary education, which they hope will boost employment. So by not taking into consideration that the current economic system has progressively pushed the poor out of higher education, they just take note of the fact, and close permanently the doors of universities to the poor.

Following the same neoliberal logic, especially its financialization aspects, these reforms are aiming to “ease” the financial burden of future students by facilitating their indebtedness to banks. This way, students may not have to pay the full fee immediately, but by taking loans from private banks so that they can return their debt after graduation or mostly after having found a job. In an Orwellian Newspeak one of the draft-reforms even called this “free education at the access point.” As if in a bar someone tells you that having a coffee will be free as you drink it because you’ll have to pay when you leave.

But what are the deep implications of this financial indebtedness? On the one hand they make life easier for private universities; giving them the state’s supported loans for recruiting students. On the other hand private banks will profit from a new wave of borrowers whose returning debt guarantee will be the state. Last, but most important, this will turn the students into indebted subjects. They will be disciplined not only during their studies, but also will be made docile subjects who should work obediently in order to pay their debts. Consequently this would mean the depoliticization of students, whose sole perspective would be to attend classes, learn obediently about marketable themes, not care about social issues, and when the time comes to find a job, if one is lucky enough, to be part of an indebted and docile qualified working strata.

The effects of the nearby reform would be felt on public universities. Being forced to compete with private ones, following their logic, they will have to restructure themselves as market units. So the voucher system would force them to try any kind of marketing trick to attract students. Currently, private universities use a lot of advertising, especially on mainstream television, offer scholarships to V.I.P.’s etc. In order to survive economically the public universities will need to do the same, and this means that part of the scholar’s work will be focused on marketing issues. One of the last draft reforms of the previous government openly asked public universities to employ lecturers from the business community.

On the other hand, one of the main problems with private universities’ easy graduation stems from the corrupt and clientelistic public administration. Each political party that wins elections reshapes the public administration, meaning that they employ especially young people who have worked or contributed in the elections for them. In this system, what was needed was just a formal diploma from whatever university, and most of the private ones were eager to welcome and graduate them, even if they were metaphorically illiterate. The implementation of this kind of financial reform in the Albanian specific context would mean basically a race to the bottom, where the until now quasi-serious public universities, especially those located in Tirana, will be forced to comply to the new game in town in order to survive the competition: To each his/her diploma at will.

As in other neoliberal restructurings the Albanian governments are opening the ground for public universities to build the so-called public-private partnerships with private companies eager to work with them. Whatever the consequences of these reforms in highly developed and industrialized capitalist countries, in Albania, whose industries are quasi-absent, this would mean for the speculative businessmen to use public universities’ facilities for advertisement. If you visit a private university in Albania today you will find large advertisement posters in the main entrance.

The last direct consequence this reform would have on public universities is the growing antagonism between faculty and students. When students are to be considered mere clients whose money pays directly for faculty salaries, any emancipatory hope of building together a common struggle would vanish.

Anyway there’s still a ray of hope. In the University of Tirana, the largest public university, students are organizing. They are gathering in assemblies, explaining the consequences of the reform, trying to build progressive alliances with part of the faculty members, so as to build a large movement against this last neoliberal blow. They say the struggle will go on.

By Arlind Qori

Arlind Qori works as a lecturer of political philosophy in the University of Tirana, Albania. He is also an activist at the radical leftist organisation Organizata Politike.