Amendments of Law on Higher Education should be the subject of extensive social dialogue

Centre for Civic Education (CCE) estimates that a number of proposals by the Ministry of Education in the case of current amendments of Law on Higher Education introduce radical and potentially dangerous applications which could be of further detriment to the already poor quality of higher education in Montenegro.

First of all, Ministry of Education suggested the abolition of existing Council for Higher Education and the establishment of the new body – Agency for the provision of quality of higher education, which would essentially be completely dependent on the Ministry of Education. They deliberately omitted the provisions on the structure of Agency, election of its members, and the manner of its operation, so that they could ultimately create an Agency with enourmously wide range of authorisations in the area of regulation of higher education, but with no legal defining of the composition of that Agency and who would make these key decisions. This is an unexpected and dangerous move backwards and CCE hopes that final version will still be in line with the needs of public interest. CCE believes that these authorisations of newly formed Agency must be followed by adequate legally defined responsibilities and transparency of its work, as well as the inclusiveness of all stakeholders, which will ensure the competitiveness and legitimacy of key bodies of the Agency, thereby its independence and effective ability to respond to volume and complexity of planned responsibilities. Specifically, CCE proposes the establishment of Council for this Agency which would be elected by the Parliament, based on the public competition, for specific professional profiles and social sectors, which include the representatives of NGOs from the area of education according to the proclaimed policy of Montenegro on the cooperation with NGO sector, as is already the practice for a number of similar bodies which contribute to independence of such bodies with different dynamics. Government should not appoint the members of Agency exclusively, since the Government itself is the founder of state university, while the Agency should be perceived as an independent and autonomous body by all stakeholders in higher education, as a body which presents the pluralism of social efforts with the aim of improvement of quality of higher education and work of every higher education institution in Montenegro.

Second questionable proposal by the Ministry of Education is the unnecessary reduction of evaluations of higher education institutions for the purposes of re-accreditation, which leaves room for misuse and unconscionable conduct. More precisely, plan is to erase the external evaluation as one of the mechanisms of impartial assessment of past achievements of certain programmes and their quality response to requests of international and domestic practices in higher education. Practice in other European states indicates that external evaluation is necessary for the objective assessment of achieved results, and it is unclear as to why Montenegro – which is not the synonym for the quality of higher education – is creating legal possibilities that are suitable for the continuation of negative trends. Finally, the proposed Agency, which is dependent on the Ministry of Education, would have the legitimacy deficit to conduct the external evaluation.

Thirdly, CCE does not understand the constant rejection of Ministry of Education to classify the definition of plagiarism under the umbrella of Law on Higher Education, which must contain basic legal norms in the area to which it relates, regardless of whether the law on academic integrity will be developed. This would encompass an important part of harmonisation of amendments of this Law with the existing amendments of Criminal Code, which recognised plagiarism for the first time as criminal offense and classified it in the category of those that have socially negative consequences, in terms of the severity of offense.

Forth, CCE also indicated on the rejection of Ministry of Education to create the legal obligation to render the works of all persons who completed Master and doctoral studies on domestic universities publically available, which is of crucial importance for the development of scientific research on universities and confirmation of authenticity of documents on academic appointment. It is important to mention that the repository of University of Montenegro (UoM) does not contain the complete electronic base of every work that has been published on UoM, in terms of publically available and complete scientific Master or doctoral thesis. Instead, it only provides the topic and name of authors, which leaves the public unduly deprived of complete information, while creating an illusion of transparency. Considering that we live in the age of advanced technologies when various materials are being researched regardless of the location of persons which conduct the research, it is pointless to expect that everyone comes to UOM for direct access to such information. Publication of complete works in the electronic form has become a practice on credible universities in region, which makes the resistance of Ministry of Education to regulate this issue all the more incomprehensible. Latest research of CCE on the corruption in education has shown that even 84% of citizens believe that this measure would be useful in the solving of issue of plagiarism.

Fifth, an important recommendation by the CCE is the public availability of financial reports and reports of external evaluation, which should contribute to transparency and responsibility when it comes to manner of spending on UOM and private faculties, regarding the part of resources that they receive from the Budget of Montenegro. Numerous subjects are interested in the manner of spending of citizens’ money and these data must not be secret or incomprehensible, but clear and precise. CCE previously warned of numerous misuses in the financial operation of Faculty of Philosophy, which was discovered precisely based on the internal financial report of UoM for the Faculty of Philosophy, but the case passed without the adequate reaction from the management of UoM and prosecution. For these reasons, CCE insists on the classification of this measure under the Law, and it should be the priority of Ministry of Education.

Sixth, CCE commends the introduction of greater and much needed scope of practical part of curriculum which is now becoming the legal obligation, and which was also one of the CCE recommendations.

CCE provides its contribution to the amendments of this extremely important legal text through the membership in Working group for the amendments of Law on Higher Education. So far, this has involved written comments and proposals to the integral version of Law on Higher Education, verbal comments on the meetings of WG and, once again, written comments on the draft of latest amendments that were proposed by the Ministry of Education. CCE is informing the public on its stands before the opening of public discussion, because it has the information that it will be conducted based on short procedure and thus wants to inform timely on the importance of upcoming changes so that the interested part of the public could get involved. CCE underlines that this is the case of systematic law on higher education and that it would be in the interest of public if the version which the Ministry of Education suggests to Government yielded quality improvements in this area.

Mira Popović, programme associate and member of Working group for the amendments of Law on Higher Education