The building blocks of higher education reform

Albania is a relatively small country, with a population of 2.9 million, yet the country is home to 59 public and private universities. Higher education enrollment rates rose from 33% of the university-aged population in 2009 to 56% in 2012 (Source: World Bank), a high number even for European standards. CID is working with the Ministry of Education to understand what these numbers mean for the quality of the country’s education system, and what can be done to improve higher education going forward.

Education is fundamental to social and economic development, yet access and quality are ongoing issues around the world. Albania has a solid system of basic (primary and secondary) education, including a system of standardized testing to ensure ongoing monitoring and improvement of quality across the country. Unfortunately, the same standards for quality control have not been applied to higher education.

In 2005 the previous government administration began a campaign to increase the number of students enrolled in higher education throughout the country. The campaign aimed to align the country more closely with OECD rates of enrollment and also ensure higher education was available across the country, not just in the capital.

Universities began popping up across the country, many with less than 100 students, and some actually built illegally on unclaimed land. The number of students jumped from around 60-thousand in 2004-2005 to 160-thousand in 2011-2012 (Source: Albania Commission on Higher Education). In the same time period the number of higher education institutions rose from 14 to 59 (Source: Albania Commission on Higher Education). However, budget increases did not keep up with these student numbers. Current spending for higher education is around 0.5% of GDP, far below the OECD average of 1.6% (Source: OECD). Neighboring countries are spending around 4-5 times more per student than Albania.

“At a moment when they could have increased the quality of their education system to align more with European Union (EU) standards, the government instead focused on an increase in quantity of enrollment,” explains Evelien Blom, a Master’s student at the Kennedy School working with Albania’s Ministry of Education. “This led to a rapid deterioration in the quality of the existing higher education system.”

This rapid growth in enrollment created such a demand for instructors that institutions had to lower requirements for the academic staff. Furthermore, because many schools are small, professors often teach part-time at several institutions to earn an income, leaving little to no time for academic research and writing. Corruption and fraud have also become prevalent in the university system, with degrees practically available for purchase in some schools.

Higher education reform is therefore a top priority for the Ministry of Education in Albania. They are developing a reform agenda that will focus on increasing the quality of teaching and scientific research by introducing performance based and competitive funding for teaching and research, increasing the autonomy of institutions while also increasing control mechanisms and auditing, and introducing a scholarship system based on merit and needs of the student. With this reform, the Ministry aims to align the country’s universities closer to EU standards and improve their ability to access funding through the European Research Council (ERC), which Albania is part of.  

“The Deputy Minister is aware of the challenges and of what needs to be done,” says Blom, “but he also knows the ministry will need a lot of support to achieve meaningful reform.” For one, the reform agenda places a lot of emphasis on quality control, which the universities are expected to carry out. However they currently do not have the capacity to do so. Albania does have a public accreditation agency for higher education programs and degrees, but the agency has limited experience and cannot keep up with the speed at which new institutions and programs are opening up across the country. The Ministry is working to restructure this agency, including more emphasis on the collection and analysis of statistics, with managerial oversight from an agency in the UK.

The reform agenda also plans to incentivize reforms within universities through financing. The government plans to increase the budget for universities and divide it between teaching, research and infrastructure development, with performance indicators applied to each area. Blom is supporting the ministry to develop this budget; including determining how much funding should be allocated to each area and what indicators could be used to steer the universities.

As the Albanian economy grows and the country moves toward greater integration within the region, an educated and skilled workforce will be in high demand. The Ministry of Education’s reform agenda is moving in the country’s higher education system in the right direction, but it will be an uphill climb.

About the author: Karen Vanderwillik is a summer intern for the Economic Growth in Albania project.