Last September, when the institutional accreditation for six Bosnian universities expired, few of us thought it would become a serious issue. Despite university efforts to re-apply for accreditation through the Agency for Development of Higher Education and Quality Assurance of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HEA), the process was never actually completed. This put several institutions of higher education into an uncomfortable position: six Bosnian universities with expired institutional accreditations could be kicked out of the Erasmus+ program and their diplomas declared null and void in the EU.
The re-accreditation process has been blocked since 2016 due to “political disagreements” that could isolate Bosnian students and university teachers from international mobility programs and EU grants in the coming months.
For the second time in five years, Bosnian students are at risk of being deprived of the Erasmus+ program, which has given thousands of young Bosnians an opportunity to study abroad at some of the best European universities for free. The last time Bosnian students fought against the political decision to prevent them from joining the Erasmus+ program was in December 2013. Back then, Balkanist reported about similar political disputes that were then blocking Bosnia and Herzegovina from joining this €14,7 billion-rich EU program. In January 2014, students succeeded in pressuring politicians to allow participation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Erasmus+ program by organizing nation-wide protests.
This time, the source of disagreement was the HEA’s Steering Board, comprised of three members from each of the official constituent people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, meaning a Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb, along with one additional member representing the constituency of ethnic “others” — a clear reminder of the discriminatory nature of the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Steering Board decides with a majority vote about the total number of members, provided that such a majority includes at least two-thirds of votes by representatives of each of Bosnia’s constituent peoples. In other words, a vote from the board member representing “others” has no impact on, or rather, no ability to steer the decision-making process of this institution.
Why is the stalemate within the HEA such a big deal? University accreditation verifies and designates the academic standards at higher education institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It also serves as a precondition for participation in international academic programs such as Erasmus+. In September 2016, three Serb board members voted against adopting the proposed act “Decision on Norms Setting Minimum Standards in Higher Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina”. This act was nonetheless adopted on March 8, 2019 — almost three years after it was first proposed. Without this act, HEA was not in line with the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG) prescribed by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and unable to re-accredit universities. Adopting this act means the re-accreditation process can continue, provided politicians don’t change their minds yet again.
Academia meets politics
But first let’s go back one step. At this very moment, you’re probably asking yourself why the three Serb members of HEA’s Steering Board would vote against such a seemingly benign and routine act back in 2016. But where logic ends, Bosnia begins, so please bear with me now.
Matters of education in Bosnia and Herzegovina are under the jurisdiction of ten cantons within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Srpska entity, and the Brčko District of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Each of the twelve administrative units has its own Ministry of Education and Department of Education, as well as its own laws and budget. To make matters more complicated, in addition to the ten cantons, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina has its own overarching Ministry of Education. However, this ministry has no real jurisdiction over educational policies in the entity itself. As you’ve probably figured out by now, it’s the jurisdictions and who governs which political region that matters.
The three Serb members who voted against the “Decision on Norms Setting Minimum Standards in Higher Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina” in 2016 did so based on instructions from the Government of Republika Srpska because “the accreditation jurisdiction is being transferred from the entity level to the state level”. This was a real scandal because the members of the Steering Board of the HEA do not represent cantons, entities, or districts, but only the constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Members of the Steering Board of the Agency are elected by the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina and their work within HEA is defined by the Framework Law on Higher Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina adopted in 2007. No laws affecting HEA have been changed since then. The only things that have changed from time to time appear to have been the Serb board members’ decisions to continue taking part in the joint legal and independent accreditation process defined by the Framework Law on Higher Education.
The safe circle of ENQA membership
The HEA currently has two problems to solve. The first is acute: it must re-accredit six universities with expired accreditations. Later this year, an additional twelve universities will also have their accreditations expired and face serious hurdles if the HEA fails to re-accredit those institutions. Among those institutions is the University of Sarajevo, the oldest and largest higher education institution in the country. The first victims of such political games will be students and university teachers from unaccredited universities, including the University of Zenica and the University of Banja Luka.
However, the potential consequences can still be avoided. The EU Delegation to Bosnia and Herzegovina has given a deadline to the HEA to re-accredit the six universities with expired accreditations by March 31. If they fail to do so, these universities might be kicked out of the Erasmus+ program, and their diplomas will be potentially labeled as invalid in the EU. Isolation from the Erasmus+ program would prevent students from unaccredited universities from being able to study abroad and return to Bosnia and Herzegovina with the enrichment and experience gained in another country. Additionally, Bosnian university teachers from unaccredited universities could be blocked from implementing Erasmus+ projects at their universities and teaching at foreign universities through Erasmus+. There is also an additional threat that the unaccredited universities might need to pay back the funds from non-implemented Erasmus+ projects.
It’s clear that such political games are an existential threat to the essence of higher education in Bosnia and Herzegovina and its reputation internationally. Moreover, continuing studies in Sweden or trying to find a job in Germany might become a nightmare for students who have graduated from universities suddenly deprived of their accreditation. With the document HEA adopted last Friday, the re-accreditation process should start soon. However, students and their teachers should celebrate not before they receive a formal document confirming re-accreditation.
The problem with the potential lasting consequences that have gone under the media’s radar thus far is that the HEA is not a full member of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA). Back in 2017, ENQA rejected the HEA’s application for full membership in this European association. HEA’s membership in ENQA would serve as a guarantee of compliance with the European criteria for accreditation of higher education institutions. Of the ex-Yu countries, Croatia has already become a full member, while the higher education agencies of Serbia and Kosovo are considered members under review.
ENQA’s rejection letter came with 19 recommendations for HEA to be implemented by September 2019. If they aren’t, the Bosnian system of higher education might hit a dead end.
In its letter from September 2017, ENQA expressed concern about the lack of political independence of the HEA, stressing this as one of its most urgent issues to fix. One of the additional problems recognized by ENQA is that the members of the Steering Board come from the managerial positions of Bosnian public universities. Indeed, the rectors of two public universities are members of the current Steering Board. This represents a conflict of interest since the same official responsible for preparing the re-accreditation process at his/her university should not be in charge of evaluating the re-accreditation application and then potentially extending the accreditation of the same university. Several recommendations deal with unequal accreditation criteria for different universities and general standards that have to become aligned with the European criteria for accreditation of institutions of higher education.
By implementing the recommendations, HEA would solve some of the most pressing issues within its structures and also assure that the future of Bosnian higher education remain of a high quality. Without the HEA’s membership in ENQA, the re-accreditation stalemate threatening to deprive Bosnian students of Erasmus+ program might happen at any time. Staying outside the safe circle of ENQA membership, Bosnian higher education will stay in the jaws of politicians. ENQA membership can offer stability, block unpredictable political influence, and offer much-needed confidence in the Bosnian higher education sector. What the European Union represents for Bosnia and Herzegovina, ENQA represents for the Agency for Development of Higher Education and Quality Assurance of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Students are on the move
There is not much time left. In an online petition, student activists demand that HEA start the re-accreditation process as soon as possible and to implement ENQA recommendations by September 2019. What Bosnian students need to do now is write protest letters to their student associations, HEA officials, political leaders, and EU representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Going to the streets and protesting against unacceptable political influence in independent administrative processes in academia is something that should have taken place long ago. Still, better late than never because the lethal mix of politics and academia can only damage academic path of both Bosnian students and their teachers. Sometimes, the only thing Bosnian students need from politicians is that they not stand in their way when they are only striving for the best education opportunities out there. Sadly, even that is too much to ask.
Now, students are on the move!