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"Diploma Factories": Kosovo and Albania Churn Out Graduates with Few Prospects

More and more young people are getting university degrees but many end up jobless or in low-skilled work.

Jeton Mehmeti Pristina, Tirana, Vienna and Graz
 Students at the University of Pristina in October 2015. Photo: Agron Beqiri

Avni Avdiu has an impressive range of academic qualifications from three different countries. The 42-year-old has three bachelor's degrees from universities in Pristina, Kosovo; a master’s degree from the University of Tirana, Albania; and a PhD from Saints Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, Macedonia.

But one thing Avdiu does not have is a job. His case is an extreme example of a phenomenon in all three countries where he has studied, and elsewhere in the Balkans — people are graduating from universities in ever larger numbers but many cannot find work. And if they do get a job, it often does not reflect their level of education.

By interviewing graduates, academics, policymakers and analysts, and by drawing on official data, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, has identified several reasons for this predicament.

These include cronyism in the dispensing of state jobs, policies focused on boosting the number of students rather than the quality of education, the dire state of the region's economies and a failure to design courses that fit the needs of the labour market.

This BIRN special report also explores potential solutions to these problems, including a look at the education system in Austria, which has one of Europe's lowest youth unemployment rates.

Avdiu is an ethnic Albanian who was born in Kumanovo, Macedonia, and divides his time between Macedonia and Kosovo. He is a citizen of both countries. His undergraduate degrees are in journalism, sociology and philosophy and his PhD focused on the evolution of Albanian political parties in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia from 1990 until 2010.

But his only regular income is 45 euros per month in unemployment benefit from the Macedonian state.

"Mine is a discouraging example for young people," he says. "There's no point in studying hard and trying hard."

Avdiu's story highlights one reason why many graduates have difficulty finding work — in the public sector, jobs are given out through political patronage.

For years he has been applying for jobs at the universities of Pristina and Tetovo, in western Macedonia. In Tetovo, he says, he has been explicitly told that he has no chance of a job unless he joins a political party with the influence to get him on board.

"They make fun of me. They told me 'without joining the party even 15 PhDs can do nothing for you'," he says.

"This is the price I am paying for refusing to be a conformist and a bootlicker to political parties in Kosovo and Macedonia."

Wiretapped conversations released by Macedonia's opposition earlier this year appear to provide concrete examples of government officials discussing hiring and promoting public sector workers because they are supporters of the ruling party.

Kosovo's master baristas

Since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, the number of unemployed graduates has more than doubled from 2,953 to 6,840, according to the Ministry of Labour.

A large number of these graduates come from the University of Pristina, the oldest public university in the country, which confers around 5,200 bachelor's degrees and more than 900 master’s degrees each year.

In recent years, a kind of "master's-mania" seems to have gripped Kosovo, with students increasingly concluding they need a postgraduate qualification to get work. But even a master's degree is often not enough to secure a decent job.

"Almost nothing has been done to improve the quality of higher education"

- Dukagjin Pupovci of the Kosova Education Centre

Blerim Cakolli, 30, has both a bachelor's and a master's degree from the Faculty of Law at the University of Pristina. Since he graduated with his second degree three years ago, he has been working full-time — not as a lawyer, but as a waiter in a café.

Such a high level of education among catering staff may explain why one travel site last year claimed Kosovo baristas make the greatest macchiato coffees in the world.

"After I finished my studies, I applied for lots of jobs related to my profession, in government ministries, courts and other public institutions, but I was never successful," says Cakolli.

Law graduate Blerim Cakolli works as a waiter in a café in central Pristina. Photo: Jeton Mehmeti

Cakolli has completed a one-year internship at the Basic Court in Pristina and has attended various training courses.

When he asks employers why he has not been chosen for a job, the most common reply is that he lacks three years of professional experience. But, like Avdiu, he believes the real reason he cannot get a job is widespread cronyism.

"It's become the practice that jobs are advertised in the public sector just as a formality," he says. "The person they want for the job may be already working there."

Cakolli's view is widely shared. According to a poll [pdf link] published this year by the United Nations Development Programme, 81 per cent of Kosovans believe that family connections, bribes, party allegiance and other factors that have nothing to do with merit are most important when it comes to getting a public sector job.

Only about 15 per cent think education, professional experience and vocational training play a role.

Quantity over quality

But analysts say graduates are also struggling to find jobs due to poor education policies.
In the last 10 years, ministers have focused on increasing student numbers at the expense of quality education, says Dukagjin Pupovci, executive director of the Kosova Education Centre, a non-governmental organisation that aims to improve standards in schools and universities.

Since 2008, the number of students at the University of Pristina alone has increased from around 30,000 to more than 53,000 — a very large number for a city with a total population of around 200,000, according to the 2011 census.  The government has also opened five other public universities and accredited around 25 private ones.

The University of Pristina is regarded as the best public university in the country. But in October 2015 it was ranked 4,046th in a list of world’s best universities — far behind others in the region, including the University of Ljubljana (ranked 216th) and the University of Belgrade (431st).

"Almost nothing has been done to improve the quality of higher education which has resulted in producing large numbers of graduates who are not prepared for the job market," Pupovci says.

"Although a university degree increases the chances of employment, nevertheless the huge number of graduates makes employment more difficult."

However, the government has an incentive to encourage as many as people as possible to go to university. According to Kosovo's statistical rules, students are not counted in the official unemployment rate, which is already extremely high at around 35 per cent.

‘Diploma factories’

Albania too has seen a rapid increase in universities and students. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of students in Albanian public and private universities almost doubled from around 93,000 to about 173,000, according to official statistics.

This has also raised concerns about quality. Last year, Prime Minister Edi Rama ordered the closure of 18 private colleges after an inspection report concluded they were handing out diplomas and degrees of dubious quality. Over just a few years, Rama said, private universities had handed out 32,000 degrees — half of them issued by a single university.

Before coming to power, Rama had criticised the lax accreditation of private universities which he said had turned into "diploma factories".

In both Kosovo and Albania, officials say they recognise the university system needs reform.

Kosovo's Education Minister Arsim Bajrami says the main focus in higher education policy so far has been to increase the number of public universities, to raise the number of students and to bring the Kosovo system into line with European standards.

But, he says, "now we are implementing a project that aims to study the needs of the labour market, and we will ask universities to review their programmes in accordance with the results".

"We are working on a new bill on higher education that will bring a lot of changes, all in the spirit of increasing the quality of higher education," he says.

Rama's government asked a group of experts led by Arjan Gjonca, a demographics professor at the London School of Economics, to draw up reforms of the higher education system.

"We need institutions that will be able to create that student of the future, that well-trained student, who can find a job and is prepared for life," Gjonca declared.

The bill based on the commission's proposals was blocked by Albania's president in August, showing how hard it can be to turn rhetoric about education reform into reality.

It came into effect after being passed by parliament again, in the face of continued resistance from student organisations and many academics. They see the new law as an attempt to privatise higher education and argue it violates the principle of autonomy for universities.  

"Owners do not hire diplomas and qualifications any more but people who 'can do the job'"

- Ardian Hackaj, Albanian analyst

Meanwhile, shortcomings in education policy mean that some private companies have to deal with the shortage of a skilled workforce.

Brickos is a company that produces bricks in the small municipality of Ranillug, eastern Kosovo. It employs nearly 90 people but bosses say finding well-qualified workers is a big challenge.

During a tour of the plant, one manager says the firm had to hire an engineer from Serbia to set up their machinery because they could not find someone from Kosovo.

Yet, from the University of Pristina alone, more than 100 students graduate in mechanical engineering each year.

Connecting theory and practice is a major challenge for Kosovo's universities, however. The University of Pristina, whose annual budget is just 30 million euros, cannot afford to create state-of-the-art labs. But staff say they use what they have to give students a sense of the real world.

"We can't provide much practical work here, but at least we try to make students feel the noise of the engine, so that they're not terrified when they go into the field," says Shaban Buza, a professor of mechanical engineering in Pristina.

Shaban Buza, a professor of mechanical engineering, with students in the laboratory at the University of Pristina. Photo: Jeton Mehmeti

Buza, who was appointed in October as rector of the public University of Gjakova in western Kosovo, says any reform of higher education has to go hand in hand with an analysis of the labour market.

"We can't have an education strategy without an employment strategy, which will show which profiles we need in the future," he says. "Today we have an excessive number of graduates in economics and legal studies."

Young Europeans   

A year after Kosovo declared independence, the government paid the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi millions of euros to produce a short film with the tagline "Kosovo, The Young Europeans", presenting an upbeat image of Europe's newest country and its youthful population.

But the reality has proved very different. Youth unemployment now stands at around 60 per cent.

Many of Kosovo's young Europeans have decided their future lies elsewhere on the continent.

In the early months of this year, between 50,000 and 100,000 people poured out of the country, seeking better economic prospects in the wealthier countries of the European Union.

Some analysts argue ministers should accept economic migration as a fact of life in Kosovo —and education policy should be tailored to the labour market not just at home but also abroad.

"Migration is a necessary lifeline for Kosovo, as it has been for generations," says Besa Shahini, one of the authors of a report by the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank, entitled 'Why Kosovo Needs Migration'.

"The jobs which Kosovars get abroad are affected by the quality of education in Kosovo," Shahini says, adding that too many young people study subjects such as economics and law, rather than learning "marketable skills" such as working in carpentry, textiles or the caring professions.

"A refocus on vocational schools in Kosovo is needed to train youth for jobs in Kosovo but also abroad," she says.

Among those whose skills are in demand abroad are doctors. In the last three years, more than 400 doctors have left the country, according to the Kosovo Health Trade Union. The average salary for a specialist doctor in Kosovo is just 600 euros — if they can even find a job.

One specialist doctor who declined to be named told BIRN he was now working in a supermarket after being fired from a clinic because he supported a political party that lost power locally.

Opportunity calling

In Kosovo and Albania today, the sectors that are expanding and hiring workers are often not looking specifically for university graduates.

On a sunny day in June, Andi Fosa, the manager of Tregi Kosovo, a call centre company based in the Pejton district of central Pristina, wears a big smile as he welcomes a new candidate for a job interview. Each week he receives dozens of job applications. The company employs about 70 people, selling Italian food products on the phone in German and English-speaking countries.

The size of the workforce at Tregi Kosovo — a branch of 3G Brothers Holding, an international company based in Lugano, Switzerland — can vary considerably depending on the work the centre is undertaking. A few years ago, it had more than 170 people working the phones.

Having a university diploma is not necessary to work in a call centre and does not mean a larger salary, even though many of Fosa’s employees have more than one degree.

"Knowledge of the language, basic computer skills, and being a positive person is all you need to work here," says Fosa.

Kristiana Gjoni tells BIRN she has been working at Tregi Kosovo for almost three years. She earns 270 euros a month, with the possibility of commission on top. She has two bachelor's degrees from the University of Pristina, one in German and one in journalism.

"I enrolled in two different faculties just so that if one profession didn't offer me a chance of a job, maybe the second one would," Gjoni says. "But in the job that I'm doing, a university degree means nothing."

Workers at the Tregi Kosovo call centre in central Pristina. Photo: Jeton Mehmeti

 Tregi Kosovo's parent company also has seven call centres in Albania. In fact, there are 12 call centre companies among the top 100 employers in Albania, employing a total of 9,500 people, according to Ardian Hackaj, the author of a study on employment trends in Albania published this year.

Hackaj says one of the most surprising findings of his research was that 80 per cent of the companies he surveyed had no plans to hire graduates in the next 12 months.  

"They do have plans to employ young people, but not necessarily graduates," he says. "This shows that owners do not hire diplomas and qualifications any more but people who 'can do the job'."

The Austrian angle

In Austria, where the unemployment rate is only six per cent, you can get a well-paid, skilled job thanks to a good education — without going to university.

Fevzi Hajra, 21, finished his primary education in Kosovo but is now in his final year at a vocational school in the southern Austrian city of Graz, while also working at an engineering company. He earns around 1,400 euros per month and will soon be a qualified welder. He has decided he no longer wants to go to university.

Fevzi Hajra at his vocational school in Graz, southern Austria. Photo: Jeton Mehmeti

Austria has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the European Union, at around 10 per cent as of June 2015.  

In the Austrian education system, pupils choose one of two pathways — a general education that leads towards university, or a more vocational option that leads to qualification as a skilled worker, known as Vocational Education and Training, VET. Around 80 per cent of schoolchildren opt for a VET programme after their lower secondary schooling [pdf link].

"Austria has not focused exclusively on higher education, as other European countries have done, because ... we have a very strong VET system, which qualifies people for jobs which are actually demanded by the labour market," says Thomas Mayr, director of ibw Austria, a think tank in Vienna that focuses on vocational education.

"Over 90 per cent of those who take VET are employed later on."

Vocational education is not an unknown concept in Kosovo and Albania. There are public vocational schools in both countries, but with a very poor reputation — nothing like the school in Graz where Fevzi Hajra is studying.

At his school, students can become engineers specialised in steel, machine or tool construction. They can become welders and even fitness instructors.

The Austrian system involves close cooperation between schools and companies, where students complete apprenticeships. At a Siemens engineering works in Graz that makes train undercarriages, apprentices are trained in fields including mechatronics, steel construction and machine operation.

Apprentices at the Siemens engineering works in the Austrian city of Graz. Photo: Siemens

"Each year, 12 to 18 apprentices are enrolled here at Siemens. They practically learn everything that a mechanical engineering student does at the university level," says Martin Kahr, who supervises apprentices at the plant.

Back in Kosovo, tens of thousands of high school students apply for a university place, hoping they will not end up as the doctor working in a supermarket or the lawyer waiting tables.

Fevzi Hajra, meanwhile, dreams of returning to Kosovo and taking over the metal works in his home town of Vushtrri with the help of an Austrian partner.

That may sound overambitious, but at least Hajra still has a dream — unlike Avni Avdiu, who is thoroughly disillusioned from his years of trying to find work with five university degrees.

"In this region meritocracy is long dead," he says. "This is the place where family ties, political parties and corruption do the talking."

Jeton Mehmeti works as a policy analyst at the GAP Institute, a Kosovo think tank, and teaches at the Department of Journalism at the University of Pristina. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network

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