We don’t need no education – Bosnia and Herzegovina’s higher education reform

Posted on 28. July 2017

by Hatidza Jahic and Adnan Rahimic


The word ‘reform’ is the most commonly used word in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). One way or another the country has been in some kind of reform process for the past 22 years. Reform became like a family member: we live with reform every day; we eat fruits and vegetables that are produced according to ‘reform’ instructions. The constant use of this word by politicians, teachers, family members and media create the sense that if you want to succeed in life, you have to reform.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is on its path toward the European Union. But guess what the European Commission asked us to do in order to become full member of this big European family? Yes, you guessed it: we need to reform. This country needs to change parts of its institutional framework and government structure in order to apply for EU membership. Of course, “to reform” is not only a political thing – reform means changing your everyday practices, from bad to good, from non-productive to efficient. The healthcare system, the media, agriculture, human rights, infrastructure, environmental sustainability … all need to pass the reform test. Education is no exception in our story of reforms, although reforming the education system in BiH has never been a priority of the government. Well, at least not in the way the EU intended.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Bologna process as well as higher education is implemented through variety levels of law enforcement. On the state level we have National framework for Higher Education – a document that establishes several postulates of the higher education and allows to be implemented through varied of sub-laws and rule books. The next level are entity laws: Higher education law in Republika Srpska entity and Higher education law of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (there’s a Brčko district Law, as well, but that’s a whole new chapter). Fun doesn’t stops there. Federation of B&H is consisted of 10 cantons – federal units that have its own constitution, assembly, government, ministries and … yes, you guessed it: its own Cantonal Higher Education law. So, in recap, Bosnia and Herzegovina offers 14 (fourteen) Higher Education Laws.

A proposal to reform the higher education law in the Sarajevo Canton is making waves in the country. This draft law is under particular scrutiny because,  being the oldest and most attended university in the country, the University of Sarajevo is treated as an “object of educational affection” in BiH: the changes are criticised by media, politicians, society and other universities. The quality, budget, and the content of the study programmes have always been thoroughly checked, questioned, and discussed, and for good reason: the University of Sarajevo churns out several thousands of new, highly educated citizens that will try to respond to the demands of the market. Students enrolled in undergraduate studies at the University of Sarajevo make up about 41% of the total number of students enrolled in other higher education institutions in BiH, both public and private..[1]

In this context of necessary reform, the draft of the cantonal higher education law contains some substantial changes aimed at making the university more competitive. However, there are many who believe that the proposed changes put some of the key principles, values and priorities of European higher education at risk.

At a first glance, the draft law brings about significant improvements: closer collaboration between the education system and the labour market; bringing the real economy into the university classrooms, centralising the financial management and budget control of the school. But these improvements are overshadowed by some important drawbacks.

Numerous academics, NGOs and opposition parties have all criticised the draft law, pointing out the numerous incongruences related to the Framework of Higher Education BiH (state level) The entire process of creating and putting the draft through the assembly lacked transparency, and the final draft is in conflict with the Framework concerning the politicisation of higher education, the limitation of academic autonomy and constraints on academic freedom.

With regards to politicisation, the draft proposes a procedure whereby 6 out of the 11 members of the University Board of Directors would be elected by the Cantonal government. This would increase politicisation and give the cantonal education ministry almost unlimited powers. Article 132 of the draft law also identifies the cantonal education ministry as an institution that will deliver the guidelines for the universities to follow. The university will also be obligated to submit a written report about the progress on the implementation of the guidelines. Policymakers are using financial transparency as the justification for such a reorganisation, but a return to a past of highly centralised and ideologically-controlled education systems should be avoided.

The draft reform also completely puts aside the university’s autonomy and the academic freedoms that are highly needed in BiH’s transition society. The same (new) law limits academic staff promoting, especially the younger generations, and their mobility; especially between different faculties of the same university. In addition, the draft law enables the academic staff to work on public and private universities at the same time, thereby undermining the public’s interest. .

The EU had already stressed in its latest Progress Report that higher education is an area with a high risk for corruption, mostly due to the country’s complex administration. Even though it was rather positive about BiH’s progress, no progress was identified in the area of public administration, under which education falls. The European Council recommended a limited and gradual harmonisation of national and existing EU legislation. Faced with growing criticism from academics, NGOs  the opposition parties, the Cantonal Government has decided to temporarily withdraw the troubled draft law and discuss it at the next cantonal assembly meeting. The government also faced opposition from the coalition parties.

Nevertheless, the NGOs’ and opposition parties’ protest against the draft law feels like “much ado about nothing”. The government has announced that it it still expects that the law will be passed and that its implementation will be “as it goes along”.

What is disheartening is that the students, which will be affected most by the new law, seem to have missed the risks that the new law entails Representatives of student organisations such as the student parliament (University of Sarajevo) were involved in the process of drafting the proposal. However, it seems that the lack of long-term and even medium-term perspective limits the students’ ability to see how the higher education system will change if the new law is passed. Instead of demanding more power in the management and decision-making bodies of the university, and more students rights, students  seem to be satisfied with the proposed draft because it allows them to transfer two courses (12 ECTS) to the next year or get one additional term to retake exams in September (at the end of the academic year).

High levels of unemployment, a significant brain drain and a painful integration process into the EU’s highly competitive knowledge-based economy are just some of the issues that need an urgent and systematic approach. And yet education is still not seen as an important tool in tackling these challenges. Education needs to become a priority, with a coordinated and strategic approach at all levels. Let’s hope that the voices of academics, opposition parties and NGOs have been heard.