Over the last 10 days, Albanian students have taken to the streets to demand improvements in education, their rights, and the conditions that they are forced to accept. If you live in Tirana, the chances are that you have seen them marching, heard them chanting, or seen pictures of them on your social media news feed. But what is it all about?
Getting the truth of the matter in English can be a bit of a challenge and having to wade through the carefully curated PR that is distributed to embassies and foreign agencies can leave people more confused than when the started. So, I decided to put down the facts of the matter, as I understand them, for your reading pleasure.
For the last 10 days (at the time of writing) students from all over Albania have been protesting against the educational reform policies of the Rama administration and the Minister of Education Lindita Nikolla. The event that triggered the protests was the approval of the Council of Ministers Decision (VKM) 288 from May 21, 2018, in particular Article 4 which introduced extra fees for students that would be retaking exams. At 700 lekë per credit, retakes could end up costing as much as 6000 lekë for each exam.
The reform also opened up public education funds to private universities, often linked to political parties, allowing them to “compete” for funds and students. As a result, public education became both more expensive, and less accessible. Meanwhile, corruption and plagiarism are widespread among faculty, and dormitories remain without even basic facilities.
As well as demanding the revoking of this Article, the students demanded the following:
- 50% reduction in university fees
- Improvement of the facilities at the dorms
- Addition of a student representative to the university board, to arrive at an equal number of university and Ministry of Education representatives, as required by the Higher Education law.
On the first day and some of the second, the protests were subjected to a media blackout with no mainstream media outlets reporting on it. Subsequently, social media was flooded with videos, Facebook Live events, and photographs. Following this, reporting of it resumed with most portals providing an update of the situation each day.
Then on the third day of protests, students from the University of Kamza presented a list of an additional 10 demands all related to student issues:
- Providing all students with the mandatory student card within the 2018–2019 academic year;
- Increase of the 2019 education budget with 8% of the GDP;
- 30% university fee reduction for 2018–2019
- 50% university fee reduction for 2019–2020
- Free education for 2020–2021;
- Improvement of the dorm facilities of the Agriculture University of Kamza;
- Support for student activities and projects with a special faculty fund;
- Support for scientific research by students;
- Support for doctoral students through a fund for scientific research;
- Increase from 10% to 40% of the weight of the student vote for new rectors and deans, increase of student representation in the academic senate to 20%
Then on the December 6, the Council of Ministers decided to withdraw the VKM 288 art. 4 but as the other demands were ignored, the protests grew bigger.
On the December 11 (Human Rights Day), Edi Rama threatened the protestors.
For me, it is the easiest thing to make a political manoeuvre to shut down the protest.
Then on the evening of December 11, Top Channel aired a programme ‘Top Story’ presented by Alban Dudushi, a Socialist Party supporter. A number of students were presented on camera and spoke about the protest in a way that was sympathetic to the Rama administration. These “students” were later found to be members of the Socialist Party that had been placed there as “independents”. They pretended to complain, then “accepted” Edi Rama’s responses and even said “thank you for letting us protest”. The students were immediately identified as the show was live and the host Dudushi replied “We don’t care what is happening on social media”. Edi Rama then became disruptive and said to the camera for no discernable reason “I don’t do drugs people, I don’t steal”. As a result, Top Channel have been banned from all of the protests.
Then on December 12, 24 Albanian and international NGOs demanded that 5% of the Albanian GDP should be spent on education, noting that only 3.3% is allocated at present – significantly less than other European countries.
On the same day, police initiated criminal proceedings against 25 students and protestors including artists, teachers, and lawyers. Members of the group include vocal advocates against the governments policies in education, urban planning, PPPs, and private constructions on private land. The individuals were charged with protesting without a permit, causing a breach of public order, and impending the move of traffic- superfluous charges in breach of their human right to peacefully protest.
December 12 also saw the protest move to parliament and then a group of protestors set up camp outside the Office of the Prime Minister where they spent the night.
Whilst the European Students’ Union and ERASMUS, amongst other international organisations, NGOs and media portals, came out in support of the protest, the European Union has remained silent on the subject, despite calls for comment.
Throughout all of the protests, the students have refused to enter into talks with the government. Having outlined their demands and made it clear that they have no intention of backing down, negotiating is seen as an unnecessary distraction. The students have been firm on this matter and consistent in communicating it to the media and anyone that asks. They have also stated that they will be happy to enter negotiations on time frames and other matters, once the government agrees to their demands.
Finally, on December 12, Lindita the Minister for education ‘resigned’ but was then quoted in parliament a day later stating that “I won’t resign because I am proud of the political force I represent.” Despite being the Minister of Education and earning between €20k and €30k a year, Lindita managed to send her daughter to study in Paris (because whilst the state education is good for the peasants, it seems it is not good enough for her darling daughter), and adorns herself in designer jewels worth tens of thousands of euros. She is also presiding over a Kindergarten system where Directors with political connections are allowed to beat children, abuse staff, and threaten parents, with total impunity.
On December 13, students protested outside of Parliament whilst a large number remained outside the Prime Ministers Office. The students are adamant that they will continue to protest until their demands are met.
It is also worth noting that the students have banned any other protestors from their action; this includes residents protesting in Astir against the illegal demolishing of their homes, and those that are set to protest about increased fuel prices. They have also said that they do not want the involvement of political parties because this is “not a political protest” however most of the placards and chanting at the protests have a distinctly political theme. This aside, the students are protesting peacefully and determinedly and I fully support them refusing to start dialogue with the government, whilst standing up for their rights, your rights, and the rights of your children and their children to come.
As foreigners and expats, we must not ignore such situations in Albania. As guests in a host country we must respect their right to protest for things that will better their lives and it is our duty to use our voice to stand up against injustices, some of which have been mentioned above. Talk about it, share this article, go and stand on the fringes of a protest and take a photo to post to social media- this is your business as well.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
– Nelson Mandela
First published on The Balkanista