Francesco Bigagli holds a PhD in Humanities from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, and an MA in Education and International Development at the Institute of Education, University College London, UK. He is currently serving as an Expert Evaluator for the European Commission. He held academic posts across the Gulf Region in the Kingdom of Kuwait and the Sultanate of Oman. From 2007 through 2013, he served with the OSCE in Kosovo first as a Senior Adviser/Youth and Higher Education, and, subsequently as Head of the Youth and Higher Education Unit.  Prior to his engagement with the OSCE, he played a key role in the development of the Faculty of Teacher Training of the then nascent multi-ethnic and multi-lingual South East European University (SEEU), an OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities’ project in post-conflict North Macedonia. We are publishing a part of the paper on which his intervention in the conference was based. The full version can be found here: Bigagli, F. (2020). “Higher Education in Emergencies: The Case of Consociational North Macedonia”. Journal Of Curriculum Studies Research 

Education and Consociational Democracy

By Francesco Bigagli

After almost two decades from the finalization of the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA), which ended the 2001 conflict by introducing a consociational democracy through territorial decentralization and extended rights for the Albanian-speaking minority, amid a deteriorating economy and high unemployment, especially amongst youth at 46% (EC, 2018), North Macedonia remains a country deeply polarized along ethno-national lines with implications for the maintenance of peace.

From 2005, the responsibility for a number of public services, imprimis basic education, had been entirely assigned to municipalities in accordance with the OFA which stipulated, inter alia, extended linguistic/cultural rights to persons belonging to non-majority communities, with an emphasis on access to education in the mother-tongue given the importance of education for conveying aspects of a group cultural identity. The OFA not only reiterated the right of access to primary and secondary education in the mother tongue, a provision of the Yugoslav “separate but equal” policies which “fixed and crystallized ethno-cultural nations and were deliberately constructed as belonging  to particular ethno-cultural nations” (Brubaker, 1996) but introduced a principle of positive discrimination in the enrolments of minorities in State universities and prescribed publicly funded access to higher education in the Albanian language, considered as key conflict drivers. The OFA also established Albanian as an official language in addition to Macedonian in areas where ethnic Albanians make up at least 20% of the population. In January 2019, a new law that extends the use of the Albanian language across the country has come into force. Ethnic Albanians see this as the last remaining stipulation of the OFA. As Fontana (2017) argues, the education and language reforms have come to epitomize the new power relationship between ethnic Macedonians and the ethnic Albanian minority, who had been mobilizing for greater collective and political rights since the country gained independence from Belgrade in 1991.

While the introduction of a single official language is traditionally used as a nation-building (and nation-maintenance) tool to guarantee national cohesion, reinforce participation in public life and, ultimately, as a precondition to the integration of diverse groups, there is always a risk that language can be employed as a means of domination to preserve the privileges of the majority group in society; resulting into a “nation-destroying process” (Walker, 1972) with the formation of antagonistic and profoundly resilient “minority nation-building” stances (Kymlicka, 2001) that could work counter the exclusive state policies and lead to conflict and/or enduring tensions. This is because language constitutes one of the key “markers” of ethno-national identities and, by extension, not only any perceived threat to a particular language, both within and outside the education system, is construed as a threat to the survival of a group identity, but language symbolizes the “worth and status of the community that speaks it” (Horowitz, 2000). As Horowitz explains, if “the demand for a single official language reflects the desire for a tangible demonstration of preeminence, so linguistic parity is transparent code for equality”. And yet, the question is whether improved language access and (educational) decentralization correlate with improved integration and cohesion. This is because a focus on access alone as a quantitative indicator in the measurement of progress does not necessarily translate into a more cohesive society. Access to education alone, for instance, does not, per se, fulfill the right to education. The conditions in which education takes place, the quality of education as well as the capacity of educational institutions to prepare graduates for political, economic and social life are equally important categories. As a result of educational decentralization, UNICEF (2009) reports a decline by more than 10% of “mixed schools” (under whose roof children are still ethnically split by language or taught in different shifts/buildings) in the 2001-2009 period and an increase in the number of monolingual ones. UNDP (2008) indicates a reluctance to send children to a mixed school amongst 69% of ethnic Macedonians and 42% of Albanians. Higher education has also expanded dramatically in consociational North Macedonia: In 1994-1995, only 1.95% of graduates were ethnic Albanians against 19% in the 2014-2015 period (Muhic & Memeti, 2016). The expansion, however, has occurred only along ethno-cultural and territorial lines with newly founded Universities delivering instruction exclusively in Albanian or Macedonian. Arguably, if increased access to mother tongue-based education can help preserve cultural identities and settle ethnic grievances, it can also contribute to cementing boundaries between groups along ethno-national identities in the absence of inter-communal points of contact and shared values; ultimately leaving little to no margin for “other ways of being and other forms of politics”(Finlay, in Fontana, 2017) other than identity politics. An OSCE study (2010) indicates a high level of adversity between Albanian and Macedonian students with nearly half of their schoolteachers appearing to have made derogatory remarks against the other community in their classroom. A review report on the implementation of the OFA (OFA Review on Social Cohesion, 2015) takes stock of the increasing lack of cohesion, spreading of negative stereotypes, intolerance and mistrust between the two dominant nations.

As Fontana (2017) contends, the emergence of a “parallel” education system can result in the development of a sense of belonging of one group against another (and even against  the State) and education is often used in deeply divided societies as a “gatekeeping” tool by manipulative ethnic mobilisers to nurture exclusive identities and challenge the legitimacy of other groups’ discourses. Higher education is not free from attacks and manipulations due to its relevant political role. As Milton (2018) claims, higher education is not only often perceived as a hotbed of political radicalism (i.e., through student activism, production of critiques against the status quo) but can become a “focal point” of ethnic mobilization.

Analysts argue that the problem of access to higher education (HE) in the mother tongue represented one of the main drivers in the process of ethnic mobilization during the ‘90s by ethnic Albanians. As Czapliński (2008) claims, citing the then OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), Max van der Stoel, “He believed that the solution to the problem of Albanian language HE was a prerequisite for achieving progress in other aspects of minority rights and, after it had been addressed, it would be much easier to move on other issues.” While mother tongue-based schooling was guaranteed by the Constitution, higher education was exclusively delivered in Macedonian, with the exception of pedagogical faculties. According to Czapliński, the widespread inability to speak the state language and discriminatory practices on the grounds of ethnicity, resulted in great disparities in access to HE among ethnic Albanians in the ‘90s. This, in turn, hindered access to employment opportunities, representation in decision-making institutions and was perceived as a threat to Albanians’ longing to become a constituent nation.

In recent years, research has mostly focused on the consequences of educational decentralization at school level in North Macedonia. The school system largely reflects the consociational structures and narratives of power along “mutually exclusive communities” reproducing pre-conflict cleavages and tensions (Fontana, 2017). However, a comprehensive study on the unintended effects of higher education in the mother tongue in North Macedonia has yet to appear. Recent research shows that higher education can not only contribute to economic recovery after conflict but could play a role in peace-building and conflict transformation. This is particularly the case for North Macedonia given the prominent role of higher education in conflict causation and the strong focus on equality of access established by the OFA. However, the question is whether access to higher education in the mother-tongue is per se conducive to sustain peace and/or whether a univocal focus on access has perhaps served as a (political) tool to cement divisions and reproduce ethnic nationalism along the Yugoslav “separate but equal”policies.

In line with the OFA, non-majority students have the right to study in their mother tongue at all levels of education with the State language (Macedonian) being introduced at fourth grade. Although a quarter of schools (primary and secondary) are bilingual or trilingual, only 13% of these have students de facto studying under the same roof (Bakiu & Dimitrova, 2016). This is because in the so-called ‘mixed schools’ pupils attend classes in detached buildings or different shifts with little to no interaction among different ethnic groups (ibid.). This is particularly relevant in the case of ethnic Macedonian and Albanian children who study in an ethnically mixed environment but rarely have contact with each other. According to the OSCE (2010), “one third of children (i.e., 30% Macedonian and 35% Albanian) claim that they have mutual contact outside of the classroom environment and if they do is mostly not out of personal initiative”. However, the degree of ethnic separation is mostly pronounced at higher education level. In the academic year 2017, 2018 and 2019, for instance, the number of ethnic Albanians that graduated from the University of Skopje (UKIM), the largest public tertiary education provider which mostly deliver instruction in the Macedonian-language, represented respectively 7,4%, 6,7% and 6,7% of the total number of graduates compared to 85,19%, 86,77% and 86,40% of ethnic Macedonian students. The figures are similar with regard to other two largest higher education providers in the country delivering instruction predominanlty in Macedonian: At Golce Delcev University, only 0,58%, 1,4% and 0,93% of ethnic Albanian students graduated respectively in 2017, 2018 and 2019 compared to 94%, 91,31% and 89,90% comprised by ethnic Macedonians. Similarly, 1,6% (2017), 2,3% (2018) and 3,35% (2019) of ethnic Albanians graduated from Bitola University. While there is no data available yet for the newly established Mother Theresa University which deliver instuction in Albanian, ethnic Macedonians that completed their studies at the University of Tetovo, the largest Albanian-language higher education provider, represented 4,3% of its total graduates in 2017, 4,3% in 2018 and 4,6% in 2019 (State Statistical Office, 2019).

A commitment to the values of diversity as part of identity formation processes in deeply divided societies is especially relevant at higher education level, in the years between adolescence and adulthood (Gurin et al, 2002). In this sense, universities could be uniquely positioned to support peace-building processes as traditionally heterogeneous spaces of civic socialization and through their intrinsic role in fostering independent thinking. However, higher education can also operate counter conflict transformation by strengthening the social roots of conflict through, for instance, the presence of negative ethnic stereotypes in textbooks or the attitude of faculty members geared towards the exclusion or belittlement of minorities. The employment of teacher-centred pedagogies and rote-learning methodologies that stifle students’ initiative and creativity can also undermine peace-building efforts by making students more vulnerable to political manipulation. The lack of opportunities to engage with diversity on campus also affects the quality of the educational experience. In this regard, recent reports by the European University Association address the need to enhance student-centred learning across all Macedonian public monolingual institutions and strengthen higher order thinking and life skills to promote students’ critical and communicative abilities.

Although diversity could be experienced through specific curricular content, evidence suggests that without a direct exchange of ideas with the Other, this could even have negative effects on students’ development.

Arguably, if the right of access to higher education in the Albanian language contributed to ending the 2001 conflict, the presence of ghettoized campuses and lack of instruments to promote rapprochement, undermines the significance of what Robeyns (2006) terms “the personal and collective instrumental social roles of education”, and, in turn, the possibility of engineering a social change.

In conclusion, without a strong governmental commitment to deethnicizes education by transcending the OFA’s exclusive access-oriented policies, the persistence of a situation of “voluntary apartheid” (Baumann, 2009) makes consociational power-sharing permeable to political manipulation which critically hampers social transformation and increases the probability of inter-ethnic tension, ultimately weakening the peace process.



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