January 27, 2015 | Tuesday

What has Kosovo achieved over the last seven years? – Sophie BEAUMONT

As I start thinking about packing my bags to take up a new post at the EU Delegation in Skopje, I have been reflecting on the time when I first set foot in Kosovo in November 2007.  I was impressed by how friendly the people of Kosovo were (and still are) – with a strong sense of community spirit. Despite the continuous power cuts and administrative inefficiencies the people of Kosovo have a patience and fore-bearing which I have not seen in other European countries – certainly not in England where I am from.

What changes have I seen since 2007 then?  Well, the Kosovo Declaration of Independence in February 2008 was a unique experience which cannot be forgotten.  Of less political significance but worth noting – a reduction in the frequency of power cuts (much to be welcomed); lots of new apartment blocks (but with less evidence of urban planning considerations) and some nice new hotels.  Wheelchair ramps in pavements – excellent -although much more needs to be done to bring about disability access to the built environment in Kosovo.  Also, of course, new motorways and a brand new airport.

But what about developments in the education and social sector which has been the focus of my work at the EU Office in Kosovo over these seven years?

To be fair, it takes time to see results and achievements in the education sector – normally a ten year cycle is required to see the changes on the ground. But investment in education and the social sector is crucial to socioeconomic advancements in any country.  In these seven years I have seen important reforms and modernization of the school curriculum, in teacher professional development and reforms at the Faculty of Education of Pristina University – much needed to meet the demands of the new curriculum.  These reforms cultivate a student centred approach to teaching and learning and advance the analytical skills of children.  This competency based education focuses on what children have learned – skills and knowledge acquired – but it is a new approach which needs time for the schools in Kosovo to get used to.

The establishment of the Qualifications Authority in Kosovo has brought external and internal assessment and evaluation processes for vocational training institutions and put in place a Kosovo qualifications framework which aligns to that of the European Qualifications Framework.

The set-up of the Vocational Education and Training (VET) Agency and the VET Centres of Competence supported financially by European donor partners has provided a greater focus and an injection of much needed resources to the VET sector.  However, the Ministry of Education has not been successful in giving attention to occupational standards development or at engaging and involving employers.  The Government of Kosovo continues to underfund the VET sector and, unfortunately, students and parents continue to perceive VET education as of lesser value than a more academic education.

The variable quality of education in Kosovo continues to be a big problem.  The higher education institutions in Kosovo, and Pristina University in particular, have a crucial role in shaping and advancing the quality of the education system at all levels of education.  What is disappointing is the extent of politicization existing in the university system in Kosovo.  This has an extremely negative effect and undermines the confidence the EU member states and European universities have in the quality of higher education institutions in Kosovo.

The EU Office and the member states support the reforms being made by the Rector of Pristina University at this time.  These are much needed for the transparency of University operations in relation to engagement of professors and enrolment of students, student assessment and support the career advancement of talented younger academics and researchers.

Turning to the social sector, the decentralisation of social services has been an important commitment made by the government of Kosovo and it is an important means to ensure local needs are understood and met.  The development of standards for social services and the introduction of a social licencing process in Kosovo has been important. It is needed to allow for the licencing of social NGOs with capacity to provide community based social services.  However, full decentralisation of social services has still to be realised and the fact that heads of municipal directorates of health and social welfare are largely political appointments leads to a disruption and lack of continuity in how the sector is supported.  At the same time the focus of the Municipality tends to be largely focused on health services with social services rather neglected.

The social service provision in Kosovo is, by far, the poorest and weakest in Europe and not given the attention or the financial support it deserves.  Provision of basic social services should be regarded as an investment to support employability and the social inclusion of vulnerable and marginalised groups.  The extent to which social services are supported by the authorities in Kosovo is an important indication of how Kosovo is advancing in socio-economic terms.

Lastly a mention about how I see the situation for persons with disabilities living in Kosovo.  I have a disability myself and have a background as a disability rights campaigner so I have a personal interest.  I have been nicely surprised by how people in Kosovo have supported me in my daily life here.  But people with disabilities in general in Kosovo, are very much discriminated.  People with disabilities are not able to move freely in the streets due to access barriers.   They are often stuck at home and have limited opportunity at this time to live independently, without relying on family support, or to access the labour market or socialise as everyone else.

I have noticed that local authorities in Kosovo have gradually gained a greater awareness about disability issues – the need to design accessible urban environments and ensure access to public buildings for example.  But things are moving too slowly and much more could be done.  There is still much more to do to ensure children with disabilities do, indeed, go to school and that day centre support and home based support for children and adults with disabilities is properly funded by the Kosovo authorities.  The need for assistant teachers is very important to support inclusion of children with disabilities as is the need for general awareness among the general population in Kosovo about disability issues and how to ensure children and adults with disabilities are not left to one side.

In conclusion, I hope that the new government of Kosovo will give much more attention and priority to essential public services.   If investment in people is neglected then Kosovo will struggle to meet European standards and compete successfully in a European and a global economy.   The people of Kosovo, compared to peoples in other European countries, are uncomplaining – but whilst patience is a virtue it cannot be said that all comes to those who wait. Kosovo civil society needs to work for greater progress over the next years – a positive change which reaches the most vulnerable in society is one which shows how far the society has progressed.  EU member states want Kosovo to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. So Kosovo – please retain your positive features and discard those which put a drag on Kosovo society.

Author is task manager for education and social development projects at the EU Office/EUSR in Kosovo