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Bujanovac’s new economics faculty may have only 70 students but its opening is still seen as historic - the start of a new era for this run-down, ethnically divided community.
Finding a free table at the Plato café in downtown Bujanovac has gotten more difficult these days. Along with the old regulars, students of the new Faculty of Economics are frequent customers. Their department is just across the street in the renovated Cultural Centre.
Young Serbs and Albanians pass their time here between lectures in a pleasant and cosy atmosphere over coffees costing 60 cents each.
Owner Branislav Velickovic rubs his hands in satisfaction. Business has boomed since Serbia’s northern Vojvodina province offered to help finance the opening of the department for 70 local students.
“The students are my regulars. They don’t spend much, but I am glad they’ve picked my café for their breaks,” Velickovic says, as the murmur of the crowd overwhelms the music in the café.
The owner of a nearby fast-food outlet, Goran Dimitrijevic, has also profited from the opening of the Faculty, as many of the students buy breakfasts at his place.
“Since the Faculty opened, business has gone up significantly,” he said. “Both Serbs and Albanians come to my restaurant in equal numbers.”
Bujanovac is an ethnically divided town, home to Serbs and Albanians. Both communities have benefited from the opening of the new Economics Faculty.
But for the ethnic Albanian minority in Southern Serbia it is especially important. They now have their first opportunity to study in their native language at home without having to move over the border to Kosovo, Macedonia or Albania.
Just over a decade ago, in November 2000, armed clashes erupted between the Serbian security forces and Albanian insurgents in the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac.
The conflict ended six months later through the mediation of NATO and the international community.
Most students don’t recall those times. What’s important to them is getting diplomas in a few years’ time and finding jobs in one of the most underdeveloped regions in Serbia.
Afrodita, an Albanian from the Bujanovac area, just graduated from high school and this is her first year of studies. She is fashionably dressed, much like her peers in Serbia.
“Being able to study in this town means a great deal to me, particularly because of the money [that I’m saving],” she said. “The lecturers are good and my command of Serbian is good enough for me to follow lectures in this language as well.”
Her Serbian colleague, Jelena, finished college in Belgrade a couple of years back, married, got a job but now wants to get a diploma in economics in her hometown.
“I’ve studied in Belgrade and I can say the programme and the professors are just as good here in Bujanovac,” she says.
One storey of the Bujanovac Cultural Centre has been renovated and modified to meet the needs of the Faculty, which is linked to the University of Novi Sad in Vojvodina and financed by Vojvodina and the Coordination Body for Southern Serbia.
This government institution was set up 11 years ago to mediate between the local and central authorities and help overcome the consequences of the 2000 conflict.
A space 200 square metres in size, previously used as a conference room, has been turned into an amphitheatre with modern furniture and electronic equipment.
There are auxiliary services such as a library, a bookstore, technical service and an office that is soon to be turned into a classroom in which Albanian and Serbian language courses will be organised.
Lecturers from the Economics Faculty in Subotica, which is part of the University of Novi Sad, hold classes here in Serbian. Their colleagues from the University of Tetovo, in mainly Albanian western Macedonia, teach in Albanian.
At a Principles of Marketing lecture, the atmosphere is informal and friendly. Assistant lecturer Drazen Maric, who is not much older than his audience, is trying to pass on his knowledge to his students through exercises and discussions.
He says the opening of the Faculty in Bujanovac is of great social and economic importance because the economic backwardness of a region generates other problems.
“Increasing the level of young people’s knowledge and their skills in subsequently applying this knowledge is one solution to the problems in Southern Serbia,” Maric says.
“Our obligation in a multinational environment such as Southern Serbia is to bring together different nations and cultures that are still apart for various reasons,” he adds.
Maric believes that Subotica, on the border with Hungary, because it is also a multiethnic environment, shares specific qualities with Southern Serbia.
Classes at the Faculty are organized according to the so-called block system. This means that students have classes in one subject for a whole week, making it easier to organize the lecturers’ accommodation and travel.
Assistant lecturer Maric and his colleagues are accommodated some 20 kilometres from Bujanovac in Vranje, the administrative centre of the Pcinj district of which Bujanovac is a part. But they enjoy making the rounds of Bujanovac’s restaurants and cafés.
“The thing I like best in Bujanovac is the food. You just can’t find such a good barbecue in Vojvodina,” Maric says.
The opening the Faculty of Economics in Bujanovac on October 28 was a red letter day for the region. The US, British and Albanian ambassadors to Serbia were all present, as were Serbian government ministers and professors from Novi Sad University.
Nenad Vunjak, Dean of the Subotica Economics Faculty, said the main reason why they decided to cooperate with Southern Serbia was out of a desire to demonstrate a commitment to multi-ethnicity.
“Professors who are Hungarians, Croats, Ruthenes, Slovaks, Slovenes, Bunjevci [Croats from Vojvodina] and Serbs will all be travelling here to lecture,” he said. “They will talk only about the department’s work, and won’t be bogged down by the [region’s] past.”
Vunjak also reminded his audience that diplomas from Novi Sad are recognised throughout the world – a major issue in Southern Serbia, where Albanian students with diplomas from Kosovo have found their degrees unrecognised in Serbia.
“Although we are separated by 500 kilometres, we will not depart the slightest bit from the quality of lectures we give in Subotica and Novi Sad,” Vunjak added.
“Everyone in Vojvodina is happy to contribute to the stabilisation of the situation in Southern Serbia,” he concluded.
Because they were previously unable to study in their native language in Serbia, many young Albanians from Serbia continued higher education in Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Since then, Serbia has refused to recognize university diplomas from Pristina, leaving several hundred ethnic Albanians from Serbia with degrees that are of no practical use.
Galip Beqiri, president of the National Council of Albanians, a government body set up to handle culture, education, media and language issues, describes the opening of the faculty in Bujanovac as “the first step towards solving the old problem over higher education among Albanians”.
His dream is for Bujanovac to get a couple of other faculties and so become a true university town.
“I hope the authorities in Belgrade and international donors will… help us get a new building to host some new faculties,” Beqiri said, talking ambitiously of a new faculty of education and another for technical sciences.
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