The Honorary Academic

Higher Education for Sale in Countries in Transition from Communism

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.


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Written: September 8, 1999

Mira Markovic is an "Honorary Academic" of the Russian Academy of Science. It cost a lot of money to obtain this title and the Serb multi-billionaire Karic was only too glad to cough it up. Whatever else you say about Balkan cronies, they rarely bite the hand that feeds them (unless and until it is expedient to do so). And whatever else you say about Russia, it adapted remarkably to capitalism. Everything has a price and a market. Israel had to learn this fact the hard way when Russian practical-nurse-level medical doctors and construction-worker-level civil engineers flooded its shores. Everything is for sale in this region of opportunities, instant education inclusive.

It seems that academe suffered the most during the numerous shock therapies and transition periods showered upon the impoverished inhabitants of Eastern and Central Europe. The resident of decrepit communist-era buildings, it had to cope with a flood of eager students and a deluge of anachronistic "scholars". But in Russia, the CIS and the Balkans the scenery is nothing short of Dantesque. Unschooled in any major European language, lazily content with their tenured positions, stagnant and formal - the academics and academicians of the Balkans are both failures and a resounding indictment of the rigor mortis that was socialism. Economics textbooks stop short of mentioning Friedman or Phelps. History textbooks should better be relegated to the science fiction shelves. A brave facade of self sufficiency covers up a vast hinterland of inferiority complex fully supported by real inferiority. In antiquated libraries, shattered labs, crooked buildings and inadequate facilities, student pursue redundant careers with the wrong teachers.

Corruption seethes under this repellent surface. Teachers sell exams, take bribes, trade incestuous sex with their students. They refuse to contribute to their communities. In all my years in the Balkans, I have yet to come across a voluntary act - a single voluntary act - by an academic. And I have come across numerous refusals to help and to contribute. Materialism incarnate.

This sorry state of affairs has a twofold outcome. On the one hand, herds of victims of rigidly dictated lectures and the suppression of free thought. These academic products suffer from the twin afflictions of irrelevance of skills and the inability to acquire relevant ones, the latter being the result of decades of brainwashing and industrial educational methods. Unable to match their anyhow outdated knowledge with anything a modern marketplace can offer - they default on to menial jobs, rebel or pull levers to advance in life. Which leads us to the death of meritocracy and why this region's future is behind it.

In the wake of the downfall of all the major ideologies of the 20th century - Fascism, Communism, etc. the New Order, heralded by President Bush, emerged as a battle of Open Club versus Closed Club societies, at least from the economic point of view.

All modern states and societies must choose whether to be governed by merit (meritocracy) or by the privileged few (oligarchy). It is inevitable that the social and economic structures be controlled by elites. It is a complex world and only a few can master the knowledge it takes to govern effectively. What sets meritocracy apart is not the number of members of its ruling (or leading) class, usually no larger than an oligarchy. No, it is distinguished by its membership criteria and by the mode of their application.

The meritocratic elite is an open club because it satisfies three conditions:

  1. The process and rules of joining up (i.e., the criteria) are transparent and widely known.
  1. The application and membership procedures are uniform, equal to all and open to continuous public scrutiny and criticism.
  1. The system alters its membership requirements in direct response to public feedback and to the changing social and economic environment.

To belong to a meritocracy one needs to satisfy a series of demands, whose attainment is entirely up to he individual. And that is all that one needs to do. The rules of joining and of membership are cast in iron. The wishes and opinions of those who happen to comprise the club at any given moment are of no importance and of no consequence. Meritocracy is a "fair play" by rules of equal chance to derive benefits. Put differently, is the rule of law.

To join a meritocratic club, one needs to demonstrate that one is in possession of, or has access to, "inherent" parameters, such as intelligence, a certain level of education, a potential to contribute to society. An inherent parameter must correspond to a criterion and the latter must be applied independent of the views and predilections of those who sometimes are forced to apply it. The members of a committee or a board can disdain an applicant, or they might wish not to approve a candidate. Or they may prefer someone else for the job because they owe her something, or because they play golf with him. Yet, they are permitted to consider only the applicant’s or the candidate’s "inherent" parameters: does he have the necessary tenure, qualifications, education, experience? Does he contribute to his workplace, community, society at large? In other words: is he "worthy" or "deserving"? Not WHO he is - but WHAT he is.

Granted, these processes of selection, admission, incorporation and assimilation are administered by mere humans and are, therefore, subject to human failings. Can qualifications be always judged "objectively, unambiguously and unequivocally"? Can "the right personality traits" or "the ability to engage in teamwork" be evaluated "objectively"? These are vague and ambiguous enough to accommodate bias and bad will. Still, at least appearances are kept in most cases - and decisions can be challenged in courts.

What characterizes oligarchy is the extensive, relentless and ruthless use of "transcendent" (in lieu of "inherent") parameters to decide who will belong where, who will get which job and, ultimately, who will enjoy which benefits. The trouble with transcendent parameters is that there is nothing much an applicant or a candidate can do about them. Usually, they are accidents, occurrences absolutely beyond the reach or control of those most affected by them. Race is such a transcendent parameter and so are gender, familial affiliation or contacts and influence.

In many corners of the globe, to join a closed, oligarchic club, to get the right job, to enjoy excessive benefits - one must be white (racism), male (sexual discrimination), born to the right family (nepotism), or to have the right political (or other) contacts (cronyism). And often, belonging to one such club is the prerequisite for joining another.

In France, for instance, the whole country is politically and economically run by graduates of the Ecole Normale d’Administration (ENA). They are known as the ENArques (=the royal dynasty of ENA graduates).

The privatization of state enterprises in most East and Central European countries provided a glaring example of oligarchic machinations. In most of these countries (the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Serbia and Russia are notorious examples) - state companies, the nation's only assets, were "sold" to political cronies, creating in the process a pernicious amalgam of capitalism and oligarchy, known as "crony capitalism" or privateering. The national wealth was passed on to the hands of relatively few, well connected, individuals, at a ridiculously low price. The nations involved were robbed, their riches either squandered or smuggled abroad.

In the affairs of humans, not everything falls neatly into place. Take money, for instance. Is it an inherent parameter or an expressly transcendent one? Making money indicates the existence of some merit, some inherent advantageous traits of the money-making individual. To make money consistently, a person needs to be diligent, resilient, hard working, to prevail and overcome hardships, to be far sighted and to possess a host of other - universally acclaimed - traits. On the other hand, is it fair when someone who made his fortune through corruption, inheritance, or luck - be preferred to a poor genius?

That is a contentious issue. In the USA money talks. Being possessed of money means being virtuous and meritorious. To preserve a fortune inherited is as difficult a task as to make it in the first place, the thinking goes. Thus, the source of the money is secondary.

An oligarchy tends to have long term devastating economic effects.

The reason is that the best and the brightest - when shut out by the members of the ruling elites - emigrate. In a country where one’s job is determined by his family connections or by influence peddling - those best fit to do the job are likely to be disappointed, then disgusted and then to leave the place altogether.

This is the phenomenon known as "Brain Drain". It is one of the biggest migratory tidal waves in human history. Capable, well-trained, educated, young people leave their oligarchic, arbitrary, influence peddling societies and migrate to less arbitrary meritocracies (mostly to be found in what is collectively known as "The West").

This is colonialism of the worst kind. The mercantilist definition of a colony is a territory which exports raw materials only to re-import them in the form of finished products. The Brain drain is exactly that: the poorer countries are exporting raw brains and buying back the finished products masterminded, invented and manufactured by theses brains.

Yet, while in classical colonialism, the colony at least received some recompense for its goods - here the poor country is actually the poorer for its exports. The bright young people who depart (most of them never to return) carry with them an investment of the scarce resources of their homeland - and award it to their new, much richer, host countries. This is an absurd situation, a subsidy granted reluctantly by the poor to the rich. This is also one of the largest capital transfers (really capital flight) in history.

Some poor countries understood these basic, unpleasant, facts of life. They extracted an "education fee" from those emigrating. This fee was supposed to, at least partially, recapture the costs of educating and training the immigrants. Romania and the USSR imposed such levies on Jews emigrating to Israel in the 1970s. Others despairingly regard the brain drain as a natural catastrophe. Very few countries are trying to tackle the fundamental, structural and philosophical flaws of the system, the roots of the disenchantment of those who leave.

The Brain Drain is so serious that some countries lost up to a third of their total young and educated population to it (Macedonia in South-eastern Europe, some less developed countries in South East Asia and in Africa). Others were drained of almost one half of the growth in their educated workforce (for instance, Israel during the 1980s).

Brains are an ideal natural resource: they can be cultivated, directed, controlled, manipulated, regulated. They are renewable and replicable. Brains tend to grow exponentially through interaction and they have an unparalleled economic value added. The profit margin in knowledge and information related industries far exceeds anything common to more traditional, second wave, industries (not to mention first wave agriculture and agribusiness).

What is even more important:

Poor countries are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this third revolution. With cheap, educated workforce - they can monopolize basic data processing and telecommunications functions worldwide. True, this calls for massive initial investments in physical infrastructure. But the important input is the wetware, the brains. To constrain them, to disappoint them, to make them run away, to more merit-orientated places - is to sentence oneself to a permanent disadvantage and deprivation.

This is what the countries in the Balkans are doing. Driving away the best part of their population by encouraging the worst part. Abandoning their future by dwelling on their past. Caught in a fatal spider web of family connections and political cronyism of their own design. Their factories and universities and offices and government filled to the brim with third rate relatives of third rate professors and bureaucrats. Turning themselves into third rate countries in a self perpetuating, self feeding process of decline. And all the while eyeing the new and the foreign with the paranoia that is the result of true guilt.

Interview with Ljubica Grozdanovska of BID Consulting, Macedonia

Conducted: September 2007

 

Until recently and for five years, Ljubica Grozdanovska worked as a journalist in Macedonia's best-selling daily newspaper, "Dnevnik", covering issues on every level of education in the country. Three months ago, she became correspondent for the prestigious Czech e-zine Transition Online (TOL), again covering topics in education. Ljubica also works at the Faculty of Journalism in Skopje as a junior assistant. Recently, she co-founded "BID Consulting", where she serves as a market analyst, business and PR consultant.

 

Q: Some observers say that education in Macedonia is being revolutionized - others that it is undergoing a chaotic upheaval. Can you identify for us the major changes (private education, financing, major legislation, etc.)?

 

LG: The extension of primary education to nine years, the provision of a PC to every student, the Law for Higher Education, and the construction of schools through public-private partnerships are some of the big projects in education announced by the current Government. However, their implementation in practice yielded varying outcomes, sometimes deviating from the expected ones.

 

The implementation of the concept of nine-year long primary education started on the first of September 2007. Consequently, two generations of pupils enrolled in the first grade: those five and a half years old and those seven years old. Parents were more than confused.

 

According to the revised Law of Primary Education, children who are going to be five years and eight months old by the end of the year have the right to enroll in first grade. Therefore, some children were forced to wait till the next school year just because they were going to reach the proper age only in January.

 

The Macedonian constitution doesn't allow private elementary schools to be opened. Thus, parents can't choose teachers. The school does it for them. Another irony of the model of the nine year long primary education is that the pupils who are seven years old this school year and are in the first grade, will, next year, skip the second grade and automatically go into the third.

 

In a situation in which many schools in the country have ruined roofs, no toilets, no secure electricity wiring, the Government last year announced a project "PC for every child". Despite the grandiose announcement that computers will at first be installed in all high schools, at the beginning of this school year only three high schools were so lucky. By comparison, six or seven years ago, almost all the elementary and high schools in the country received a few PCs each: a donation from the Taiwanese Government. The equipment has soon become the target of robberies.

 

One of the major obstacles is that teachers - especially the elderly ones - are computer-illiterate. Another major problem is that in Macedonia, for a few years now, there is no model to measure the knowledge of students after they had finished elementary, or secondary school. Because of that, around 95 percent of the students that graduate from elementary education as well as from high schools, are straight A students. If this tendency continues, the predictions are that till 2010 all students in Macedonia will be straight A students.


3. Macedonia is a multi-ethnic country. How does its education system cope with this diversity (quotas, segregation, teaching in minority languages, etc.)?

 

LG: The constitutional right to study in one's mother tongue (in Macedonia, students study in the Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish and Serbian languages) and the influence of the conflict in 2001 caused and still are causing segregation among students. If this right initiated the segregation, the conflict and the prejudices it gave rise to increased the division among students - between Macedonians and Albanians, and in the past two years, among Macedonian, Albanian and Roma students.

 

Parents are also guilty because they fear that their children are not safe in an environment which includes "others" and they pass on their fears to the children. This is especially obvious in the capital of Macedonia, Skopje and in the cities in the western part of the country, where the majority of the citizens are Albanian.

 

For example: if Macedonian and Albanian students attend lectures in the same school, they usually go in two shifts. There is segregation among teachers too, although they deny it in public.

 

Two years ago, the Ministry of education made changes in the history books. This caused the lecture model to be altered: Macedonian students learn about Macedonian national history, Albanian students about Albanian national history. When time comes for the Albanian students to learn something about the Macedonian national history, then usually a Macedonian teacher does the teaching and vice-versa.

 

Since the last school year, there is also segregation among Macedonian and Roma pupils. For instance, a few weeks ago, nine mothers of Macedonian pupils refused to sign in their children into an elementary school in the city of Kumanovo because there were seven Roma pupils in that class. But, the pshychologist in the school and an NGO called "National Roma Center" managed to calm down the situation. This is not the only example. Roma students are being taught in the Macedonian language. There are no books nor teachers in the Roma language because their language is not recognized by the Macedonian Constitution.

 

In my opinion, the implementation of the teaching of religion in primary schools may cause the segregation among students to deepen. In this case, not only on an ethnic, but also on a religious basis. The Ministry of Education and Science plans to introduce the study of religion as a subject in the fifth grade and it gives two choices: pure religious teachings and the history of religions.

 

All studies and polls show that Muslims will probably choose pure religious teachings while Orthodox Christian pupils and others will opt for the history of world religions. The authorities don't have a solution for the problem of ethnic and religion segregation among students. They may have some corrective projects in mind, for instance for Macedonian and Albanian students to study English together, but projects are time-limited by nature and definition.


4. Is the education system politicized?
If so, in which ways, can you give some concrete examples?

 

LG: Way too politicized. A few days before the official start of the new school year, the mayor of one municipality in Skopje, who by the way is a member of the political party in power VMRO-DPMNE, expelled all the teachers whom he suspected of being members of the opposition party SDSM, thus allowing him to employ his own people.

 

The same thing is happening with school principals. As soon as there is a change of the political parties in power, the principals who are not with the "right" political orientation, who are not aligned with the newly formed Government, usually are afraid that they will lose their jobs.

 

Even more ironic is the fact that if they are not fired or changed, school principals are willing to praise the political party in power and to deny that they are members of the opposition party. In this case, they publicly extol the reforms that the Government is conducting.

 

Unfortunately, it usually is necessary to obtain a political party's membership card just to be employed in the public sector, schools included. In September, the Ministry of Education is granting approval for new employment in the schools. Until the middle of September, only approvals for Albanian teachers are granted, while approvals for Macedonians are granted much later. This especially was the case in many towns in the western part of the country.

 

Political orientation usually determines even which schools are going to be renovated, and where new ones will be built. Unofficially, on the list of school buildings to be repaired there are more schools from the western part of Macedonia, where the majority of the population are ethnic Albanians. The State University in Tetovo for example was granted the status of a budget financed university because of political reasons: it's an Albanian University. In Tetovo, by the way, there is one more university: the Southeastern Europe University. The fourth University, the one in Shtip, is also a political solution.

 

Even school names are confronted with politics. For instance, there are several initiatives to change some school names, currently eponymous with Macedonian historical figures to names of Albanian extract. In a part of Skopje, called Shuto Orizari, one school was supposed to carry the name of a member of the UCK (the Albanian insurgent group who initiated the 2001 conflict in Macedonia - SV).

 

5. Can you describe the problems with the accreditation process in Macedonia?


Corruption and the nepotism are the two main terms associated with the accreditation process in Macedonia. An increase in competition as well as in the quality of the courses taught were supposed to be the main reasons why numerous new private higher education institutions were allowed to be opened. Alas, it turned out that the effects were quite the opposite.

 

A physical location and a bank guarantee are needed for a new higher education institution to be established. However, this is often overlooked, because of money that changes hands, and friends and family members of decision-makers who are employed in various sinecures. Of a total of nine members of the Accreditation Committee, five have four years mandates. They cannot be discharged, regardless of circumstances. This impunity leaves enough manipulative space for illegal actions. The results are a declining quality of higher education institutions and universities and the ability to purchase bachelors, masters and even PhD diplomas, for reasonable amounts.

 

Nevertheless, foreign universities are faced with the biggest problem, because the Law for Higher Education does not allow them to establish faculties. There were some exceptions, though (for instance the New York University established in Skopje). This may be resolved by the Government's decision to liberalize higher education by allowing the top 100 universities in the world to be able to come and open faculties in Macedonia.

 

Finally, few people are aware that even the state universities are obliged to pass the accreditation process every year, although they were established decades ago. No permanent accreditation is given to them. And, they must revise the space, the rooms for lectures etc. Unfortunately, they are the "endangered" species.


6. Is the Macedonian higher education system integrated with Europe's (Bologna Declaration, etc.)?

 

LG: Partly. The European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) and the mobility of students and professors is at the core of the Bologna process. In Macedonia, the new evaluation system is causing big problems for higher education institutions. In most cases, those credits are not recognized in the European Union (EU) member countries and, consequently, there is no mobility.

 

It was easy for the faculties to change the models of teaching and of evaluation. The students get credits for their presence in lectures, for passing exams and for writing and submitting essays. However, because of some technical problems, most students are unable to pass the courses, for instance, because some credits are not noted in the system.

 

The Bologna process presumes that the lectures will be held with groups of up to 25 students. Yet, this is not the case in any of the universities in Macedonia. It seems that collecting money from the students is more important than providing them with a quality learning experience. Every year hundreds of additional new students are accepted and enrolled. Thus swamped, the faculties have no technical possibility to provide normal lectures.

 

The reforms are supposed to bring new courses to the faculties and combine them with more practical learning. The faculties don't have enough teaching stuff to introduce these new courses. As a sad result, there are some cases where one professor is giving lectures in four or five different courses.

 

Furthermore: there is no mobility, mainly because the faculties are not able to sign the necessary direct cooperation agreements with similar faculties in the EU countries. For this to be done, the Macedonian faculties must attain a higher percentage of compliance with the implementation of the Bologna process in order for their credits and courses to be acknowledged in the EU countries.

 

The second reason for the lack of mobility is the low living standard in Macedonia in which the majority of the students simply don't have enough money to enroll in such a program. The third and final major obstacle for the Macedonian student is the visa regime. It is very difficult for a Macedonian national to move freely across borders in Europe (or elsewhere, for that matter).

 

Unfortunately owing to institutional inefficiency, student mobility is not a possibility even inside the country's territory. Macedonia signed the Bologna Declaration in 2003 and is obliged to implement it till 2009. Reports of its progress compared to other countries in the region show that Macedonia is usually in the third place, graded with four. But, if you see that preceding Macedonia in the first and second places on the list are Slovenia and Croatia, and Albania and Serbia follow, than the results are not so uplifting.


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