Durante il regime di Milosevic ogni protesta studentesca era segnata dall'adozione di una legge sempre più repressiva nei confronti dell'autonomia universitaria. Ora la coalizione DOS procede con lentezza per riformare un sistema allo sbando.

24/04/2002 -  Mihailo Antović

The ongoing reform of the entire Serbian social and political system will focus on education as one of its fundamentals. This is largely so because education has been highly neglected in the previous period at all levels. Primary school syllabi were overburdened with facts and lacking in creativity, secondary school programs were often as detailed as university-level ones in some other countries, whereas the University was heading backwards in its development, and at the same time being persecuted for its political pressure on the former regime.
In such a situation, the former regime was doing its best to introduce high education legislature which would be as restrictive as possible. In 1992, after the first large student protest against Milosevic, the Serbian Parliament passed a university bill which, while not openly interfering with any aspects of university autonomy concerning the teaching process and research, initiated firmer state control to prevent any further rallies coming from students. Or so they thought. Namely, faculty and university Councils, in charge of all strategic decisions, for the first time had the makeup of 50-50 (half of the members were directly from the Government or its controlled-companies, whereas the remaining half were from the University, out of which most were supportive of the Government as well - pro-opposition professors were regularly left out). Even this relatively mild restriction in the new law was at the time seen as Milosevic's revenge for he had been publicly humiliated by student protestors a number of times in the summer 1992, the time the war in Bosnia was only beginning to heat up. It was after the three-month demonstrations for acknowledging the opposition victory on local elections in the winter 1996-1997, a series of stormy events initiated, led and maintained mostly by students, that the former authorities realized where their main problem was coming from. The defeat was acknowledged in early spring 1997, but Milosevic was recuperating fast and was ready to strike back.

In 1998, the public was surprised to find out a set of new laws was passed in the parliament, proposed by the coalition Government of Milosevic's Socialists, his wife's pseudo-communist Yugoslav Left and hardline right-wing Seselj's Serbian Radicals. In the dawn of the anticipated (or even prepared) conflict over Kosovo, the "red-black" coalition, as it was called at the time, introduced a set of practically war-time bills, led by the notorious ones on the media and on the university. This action swiftly transferred Serbia from an authoritarian regime to a nearly totalitarian one and, as the development would show, accelerated the events towards the inevitable agony of the 1999 bombardment and the final overthrowal of Milosevic in October 2000. Be it as it may, the 1998 University Law was one of the biggest humiliations for the academic public Serbia had ever seen. The name of the game this time was total governmental control. Academic councils, bodies made up of all faculty professors and assistants, which had by then decided on all teaching process- and research-related issues by majority vote, were put to the fringes and made practically useless. All decisions on appointments, hired or fired workers (even full professors!), teaching process and research were now brought by Deans, who were themselves appointed by the Government direct, and responsible for their actions to the Minister of Education only. There was even an article equalling Deans with company executives or corporation presidents, which was seen as an outrageous extension of the deans' authority at the time. The original intention (or, as we shall se, trick) was also to tighten the regime of studies a little bit, so that initially, students were disallowed postponement of any exams for the next year of their studies, and there was also a major blow to the student budget, since so-called self-financed studies became much more expensive. Upon the first signs of a new student protest, the Government abandoned this last part of the law and allowed to students all perks imaginable in order to calm them down. This turned out to be a good strategy - firstly outraged, and then becalmed, students missed the point this time - that the Government had not even intended to deal with them on this occasion, but that it aimed at rebellious professors. The outcome of all the fuss is familiar: virtual expulsion of Serbian universities from all European University organizations, the deflection of most honourable professors and assistants to semi-legal foreign-financed "alternative" academic institutions (which would for some time be the only academic institutions the West was ready to cooperate with in Serbia), and the total mess at universities regarding whose authority should be expected, how many new students were to be admitted each year, whoever were the people with frightening appearance walking through hallways and introducing themselves as 'new colleague professors' and even private security gorillas throwing disobedient students or lecturers off the premises, as was the case with some faculties in Belgrade.
Even though the consequences of the 'Seselj's law' as the University Bill of 1998 soon became nicked were catastrophic, what was even more outrageous was the snail pace which marked the new Government's introduction of the new university law after the October 2000 'revolution'. One of the major pre-election promises of the DOS coalition, that the acts on University and the media would be annulled presently upon their taking over the parliament, turned out a mere promise. The Law on the Media was indeed annulled quickly, but the university law of 1998 was valid for almost a year after. True, the new Deans and faculty management were mostly not abusing the authority the law was giving them, and they more often than not opted for the return to the 'best academic tradition', so that, for instance, academic councils were now again consulted in all major issues. But the aftertaste of 'the DOS-two-third-majority-controlled Parliament being unacceptably slow" was still present. Even though the new Government did respect the university autonomy fully, the fact this was a matter of its political decision, and not of legislation, was a bit frightening still. Finally, last summer, the 1998 Law was annulled, but the new law was not introduced - the parliament just reinstated the 1992 one, which was also considered restrictive, although less dramatically.

The latest development is that the Ministry of Education has finally completed the new law draft, and it should be passed in the Parliament in the first half of this year. A glance at its articles suggests this will also be a provisional law, since some major issues are still either left aside or simply rewritten from the former acts. The new, Europe-oriented, policy that Serbia is eager to follow is seen in the Law draft, too - for instance, all the trademarks of Bologna Declaration are to be respected. As far as the regime of studies is concerned, this means mainly undergraduate studies will be shortened, and the procedure towards a doctoral degree simplified. Today, undergraduate studies last 4 to 6 years, master's studies 2 to 3 years, and another 5 years are officially needed (rarely respected!) to get one's Ph.D. The new ratio is supposed to follow the 'new German' procedure of 3 - 2 - 3 years (B.Sc., M.Sc., Ph.D.). This is seen as too short, especially in the Slavic tradition which views Universities as much more generally-oriented schools than technically-aimed colleges present worldwide, so that many professors insist that at least 4 years be allowed for undergraduate study, perhaps just for those excellent students who want to be given an honours diploma. Anglo-Saxon system is mentioned as an example of such high education.
The second problem of undergraduate studies in Serbia is that they are way too difficult - best students are really little geniuses who end up top experts of world institutions once they flee the country to get a decent payoff for their hardworking student years, but those mediocre and poor ones simply cannot end their studies on time. The result: the average period of studying is prolonged to 7 or 8 years in some faculties, and this is devastating for the nation's economy. Therefore, the second aim is to make the theoretical part of studies easier, whereas the resources for practical studies and more extensive research (now virtually nonexistent) will also be collected, some from foreign funders.

The third problem is that of obsolete organization. Faculties are even physically detached, in different parts of towns, and they rarely cooperate in research. Multidisciplinary research is seen as eccentricity. For instance, the author of this text is working on a master's thesis on the interrelation between linguistic and musical cognitive faculties. The research ranges from generative linguistics, through music psychology, to neuroscience. Needless to say, many local whizzes look upon him as a weirdo, saying linguistic research should deal with adjectives, adverbs or nouns, and "what the heck has music got with it?" In other words, people are simply unadjusted to the new trends, and this must be corrected, too. Participation in TEMPUS projects, started last year at some departments, will introduce optional and multidisciplinary courses as one of the trademarks of the new Serbian University - but this is just an idea at the time being.
Controlwise, the new Government has decided to restore the autonomy to the University. Therefore, Rectors (University Presidents) and Deans will be appointed by the University Senate, and new faculties will be opened and old ones closed up by the Accreditation Committee. Both bodies are a novelty in the Serbian academic life. Students are promised they will be given more influence in decision making, and their proposals will be seriously considered in faculty management. Their interests will be defended by the Student Parliament, a body with representatives from all relevant student organizations (not just one of them, as was the case until recently). Armed persons will finally be disallowed from entering university premises, except in special cases of alert, and only if invited by the Dean or Rector, which is seen as a symbolic return to the University autonomy. Finally, the new law draft proposes some measures against corruption, which has flourished in many areas, University included in the previous years. Allegedly, faculties which 'pull some strings' to admit more students than allowed, will be fined up to 200,000 dinars. How much of this will become reality, we shall see soon.
In the end - one might just repeat that the situation is changing, but not rapidly. Serbia is already hopelessly late, and it is an open question why the Government did not step up the process of passing the new University law. Naturally, it is not only the law as a piece of paper that will change the university instantly. However, its fast adoption seems necessary as a first step toward a better academic future.