The university where half the professoriate ‘has never published’
Nepotism and the isolation of war have left Kosovo’s oldest university battling poor research standards, but transparency campaigners hope this is changing
Lift me higher: a child runs past an inflatable yellow duck that was part of an anti-corruption protest in Priština
It’s hard to imagine a more alarming warning sign for a university.
At the University of Priština, the oldest institution in the tiny Balkan country of Kosovo, 208 of 465 professors have never published an article in a “legitimate scientific journal”, as defined by inclusion on indexing platforms such as Web of Science and Scopus.
“This is a very, very concerning number indeed,” said Rron Gjinovci, founder of the Organisation for Improving the Quality of Education (Orca), a Kosovan group that since 2016 has been shedding an uncomfortable light on an academic system trying to escape wider corruption in society and recover from a decade of war and isolation in the 1990s.
In a report released last October, Orca also revealed that 59 per cent of Priština professors had failed to hit publication targets required for their roles that were introduced in a 2011 higher education law. Assistant professors must have at least one paper in a “peer-reviewed international scientific journal”; a full professor must have five.
And a third of professors had published at least once in journals on Beall’s list, a now discontinued – and sometimes controversial – catalogue of allegedly predatory journals compiled by former University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall, according to Orca’s report, Academic Integrity, Scientific Publications, and the Management of the University of Prišhtina.
“This is the shocking reality of the universities in Kosovo,” warned Taulant Muka, a cardiometabolic health researcher at the University of Bern and a campaigner for academic integrity in neighbouring Albania.
“Most…academic titles in Kosovo and other areas in the Balkans are not allocated because of [an individual’s] scientific achievements” but rather are doled out on the basis of loyalty to a political party, he said.
According to Mr Gjinovci, an investigative journalist, universities have been used as tools by politicians, who distribute positions with the aim of securing electoral support. “They would hire professors there without merit…in order to create influential people who would help them to gain votes,” he said.
Unqualified academics are also sometimes promoted as part of internal university power struggles, with factions trying to elevate their own supporters, he said.
For its part, Priština’s management has admitted that the university has serious problems, and it is cooperating with Orca to tackle the situation. “Until recently, requirements for promotion and tenure have been minimalistic and ambiguous,” acknowledged Marjan Dema, Priština’s rector. This laxity allowed staff to publish a “stream” of research of “disputable quality” in blacklisted journals, he said.
The university was founded in 1969 as a teaching institution with no focus on research, Professor Dema pointed out – and it has since endured war and genocide in the region.
Most of the full professors at Priština were educated at unrecognised Albanian-language universities during the 1990s, and so “unsurprisingly they found it very difficult to publish anything outside the immediate region”, said Dennis Farrington, a visiting fellow at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies who has helped to devise new rules on academic misconduct in the region. “It is unrealistic to think this problem can be resolved until a new generation of professors with international exposure get into positions of authority.”
Of the 208 professors with no “legitimate” paper to their name, many are approaching retirement age, having been appointed when Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia, explained Mr Gjinovci. Younger faculty, on the other hand, are “becoming ever more capable and prone to deliver good research”, Professor Dema said.
And if Kosovan universities are not meritocracies, that simply mirrors the situation in wider society: Kosovo was ranked 93 out of 180 in Transparency International’s corruption perception index.
Meanwhile, Orca’s attempt to capture the value of Priština’s professoriate in a simple measure of papers published has its own pitfalls, as Mr Gjinovci acknowledged. Local, niche journals that specialise in Albanian culture and language are not listed in Scopus or Web of Science. Book chapters and conference proceedings are excluded, too.
But having strict, if imperfect, criteria for classifying valid research is currently a necessary evil, Mr Gjinovci argued. “Right now, this is the only way that we can control it,” he said.
The direction of travel, nevertheless, is seen as positive. “In two years, it changed rapidly. Now nobody is talking any more about not having these kinds of lists and these kinds of criteria,” Mr Gjinovci said.
The proportion of professors without sufficient published articles to justify their positions fell from 72 per cent in 2017 to 59 per cent last year. Some of this is down to academics updating their CVs, Mr Gjinovci acknowledged, but a flurry of papers secured publication in legitimate journals in 2017-18. “We are in a good direction right now,” he added.