Bosnia and Herzegovina, 25 years post-Dayton (7/12) : Parched universities thirst for change


The number of students – and professors – continues to shrink in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s universities as a result of the exodus devastating the country. The next generation, however, is realizing its power to change the system. A report from Banja Luka and Sarajevo.

This series is presented in partnership with the Heinrich Böll Foundation

A quarter-century since the end of the war, the Courrier des Balkans has started series to examine Bosnia and Herzegovina’s economy and politics, the social and environmental movements making their way through society, and the potential path to a brighter future. These articles will be accompanied by a two-day seminar on 2–3 December.

Students in front of the Faculty of Arts in Sarajevo, a symbol of the lethargy of the university’s administration.
© Geoffrey Brossard / CdB

By Marion Roussey and Nina Šćepanović | Translated by Clarissa Howe

Class is about to start as students bustle down the tree-lined avenue leading to the building of the philology faculty. The main campus of the University of Banja Luka is a fifteen-minute walk from the center of town in a large park that houses the faculties of architecture, political science, languages, and others. Some scholarship recipients and foreign instructors live here year-round in residence halls where rents vary between 40 and 60 euros per month. In-person instruction continues despite the pandemic, with strict sanitary measures in place. In a French classroom, two students wearing masks await their instructor.

Milica Mijatović has been a lecturer of French language and literature since the program started in 2007. “Initially, things were very positive and promising, with lots of students and plans for the future,” she recalls. “In the past few years, the situation has gotten tougher.” Two of her colleagues have left the country recently without being replaced. “We divided their classes up among ourselves,” she continues. The five remaining instructors have to give twice as many classes as they used to for the same pay. “We would love to hire a native French speaker to teach, we’ve already asked the university and the French embassy. As usual, though, the problem is the budget.”

“As usual, the problem is the budget”

Enrollment has shrunk dramatically in recent years. The numbers range from four to six students per year level, or twenty-odd in total for the four-year course. Five years ago, there were almost 50. Last year, the university even threatened to shut down the program for lack of students. “The rules say you have to have at least ten enrollees in the first year,” Milica Mijatović explains, “but we only had five. In the end, the administration granted us an exception and the question didn’t come up again at the start of this year.”

Students of French are by no means the only ones abandoning Banja Luka’s classrooms. Every department is affected. “In the last three years, there has been a steep drop in enrollment,” says Biljana Babić, interim dean of the Faculty of Languages. Nationally, university enrollment fell by fifteen percent between 2016 and 2017.

To bring in new students, the faculties promote themselves to high schools. “We highlight our Erasmus partnership with a French university, which has already sent more than twenty of our students to do a semester abroad in France,” Milica Mijatović mentions by way of example. “And we emphasize the quality of our program. With so few students, instruction is practically one-on-one ! The students make very quick progress.” After four years of study, they have no problem when they enter the job market. “All of our graduates have found work, sometimes even before they graduate,” the instructor says with a smile. As negotiations loom for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s potential EU membership, a number of online European service companies have recently opened offices in the country, making students with languages degrees a hot commodity.

And yet, the promise of employment is not enough to convince high schoolers to enroll. For college, many students prefer to go straight to Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana, or farther west. Sajra Kustura is one of them. A sixteen-year-old high school student with perfect command of English and a volunteer with a number of charities, she dreams of going to university in Sweden or Italy. “I have a really positive image of those countries from the films I’ve seen and books I’ve read,” she says cheerfully. “I want to travel, see new places, and find myself. Over here, I feel a lot of the time like this divisive nationalism is suffocating me.”

Sajra, a member of the Sarajevo Red Cross, checks voters’ temperatures as they arrive at the polls for the November 15th municipal elections.
© Geoffrey Brossard / CdB

Seeing the need to increase their profile abroad, Bosnian universities have begun a major move towards internationalizing higher education in the country. In 2003, they joined the Bologna process ; partnerships have multiplied ever since. While getting his bachelor’s degree in communications and master’s in marketing, Nersad Ikanović was able to do two semesters abroad, one in Spain and one in France.

“We absolutely have to internationalize the university system.”

Nersad, a recent graduate hailing from Tuzla, now works for an international company in Sarajevo. He dreams of leaving again for more professional experience, education, or travel. According to him, “we absolutely have to internationalize the university system to keep the best students in the country and attract foreign ones. We’ve made some progress and now Sarajevo is lucky enough to have a pretty international student body. But compared to other countries, it’s not enough.”

To increase their chances of emigrating, some choose their major based on its international prospects. Sarajevo Medical School has 260 students enrolled this year, 80 more than last year. “When it comes to choosing a program, parents often push their children to become doctors or nurses so they can emigrate to Germany where their pay and standard of living will be higher,” says Boris Pupić, spokesperson of the Sarajevo employment bureau.

The upshot of this is that nearly 6000 Bosnian healthcare-sector graduates have left since 2012, with most of them benefiting from hiring programs set up by Berlin. “That creates a pull factor that causes an imbalance between supply and demand,” notes Boris Pupić. Bosnia and Herzegovina currently has more than 7,000 unemployed nurses who were unable to emigrate or find work.

Aid Kahrimanović grew up in Sarajevo. In high school, he dreamed of going to college in Austria. Today, he is in his sixth and final year of medical school and is now planning to move to Germany : “The courses over there seem very practical and residency-focused. Here, instruction is still very theoretical,” he laments. “It all needs an update, with more emphasis outside the classroom.”

Reform the system, but how ?

During the pandemic, Aid started a volunteer project with more than fifty other medical students. The idea was to help out health care workers to ease the burden on struggling hospitals. He says the project is similar to “what they’ve done in France, Italy, and Germany”. But after knocking on multiple doors to get the necessary authorizations, his initiative was rejected for lack of legal basis.

“We went to the university, the canton, and the Federation government. Nothing. Our bureaucracy is mind-boggling,” he says with a sigh. The student considers the red tape to be a direct consequence of Dayton. After all, 25 years after the peace treaty was signed, higher education in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a reflection of its politics : disjointed. The administration and budget of the eight public universities are divvied up among thirteen different authorities : the Brčko district, the two entities, and the Federation’s ten cantons. According to a recent survey, more than half of students think the accords have not lived up to expectations and should be revisited.

In Banja Luka, instructors in the French department are stymied by administrative hurdles. “We wanted to merge with the Italian program to create a sort of Romance languages degree,” Milica says. Eventually, the idea is to create a multidisciplinary program combining the two languages as they apply to law, economics, and political science. “France has offered master’s degrees in applied foreign languages for a long time, but over here we’re blocked by bureaucracy. They approved the plan, but we don’t know when we we’ll be able to implement it.” The decision is in the hands of RS’s Ministry of Culture and Education.

Student activism

While they wait for those doors to open, Banja Luka’s French professors can rely on support from the new dean. Since her arrival two months ago, she has introduced a number of changes, such as the construction of a small open-air amphitheater in the quad, to be completed in late November, where exhibitions and professional talks can be held. “I really want to encourage creativity and build partnerships with cultural institutions and local communities,” Biljana Babić explains. “That is how we can make our faculty grow.”

Equally tired of waiting, Sarajevo’s medical students have started butting heads with administrators. The source of the conflict is the cost of tuition fees and the absence of an agreement with healthcare facilities to provide clinical instruction. “Until now, we had those classes at the university clinic,” explains Nemanja Jovičić, student body president at the Faculty of Health Studies. “But this fall, the agreement expired between the university and the medical school and clinical classes were suspended.” Jovičić’s group then joined forces with the pharmacy and medical students. “We started by writing letters to a number of politicians – including the EU High Representative and the US and UK embassies,” he explains. “When no one gave us a satisfactory response, we organized a weeklong strike and a three-day protest.”

A protest demanding facilities for clinical courses and better financial aid for tuition.
© Geoffrey Brossard / CdB

The campaign has recently borne fruit : clinical instruction was eventually provided at a public hospital starting in late November. The next step is to modify the criteria for merit-based scholarships to make more students eligible for financial aid. One year of medical school costs €3,000, about ten times the average monthly salary in Bosnia. For anyone taking their classes in English, the price doubles. It is a price tag that most students cannot afford without state aid. On the telephone, Nemanja Jovičić projects confidence : the protests have garnered a lot of social media support. They might encourage other people to join. “We’re going to keep it up,” he announces. “After all, when the students speak in one voice, it means we know that we can improve our own system.”