Besa Shahini was appointed minister of education, sports and youth in January 2019, and she is already bringing a fresh approach to the reforms and improvements that the country’s schools and universities are embarking on. From enhancing higher education to pushing forward the country’s already impressive multilingualism, she explains how the Albanian government is listening to the needs of students and responding in a way that will benefit both the youth and the country as a whole
What are your main goals and priorities as minister, especially given the student protests that took place in Albania during the winter?
This is the moment to re-energize the reforms that have begun in higher education. Albania has already managed to touch pre-university education in a way that has improved how we equip students with basic skills, such as literacy, numeracy and science. The new curriculum in 2014, modeled on the best European standards, aims to equip high school graduates with skills that allow them to study in Albania, study abroad or enter the job market. In parallel, a new law on higher education was put in place in 2015, giving universities the autonomy to improve their own performance by choosing their own curriculums and teaching material, as long as they meet certain standards. Apparently, this was not enough as we learned from the students who took the streets last December. Their protest campaign was very interesting and the slogans very creative. Students felt they were paying too much – despite low tuition fees – for what they get in quality. So we decided to intervene financially to further reduce tuition fees and increase scholarships, provide free access to an electronic library with millions of articles and journals to enhance academic research, while at the same time demanding that universities increase quality through program accreditation. The harder part, which is to change universities’ internal management, still lies ahead. We are doing the groundwork and we need to ensure that the changes are properly implemented.
Did you make a conscious decision to use the students’ protests as an opportunity rather than a crisis?
We looked at the protests and had to choose between waiting for things to calm down or take immediate action. We chose the latter because we could see that there was a truth to the demands put forward by the students, and that it was extremely important for the country that they were heard. Their participation in the democratic process should bring some actual results. The activism I saw gave me hope that this is a young country moving in the right direction – they shone light on issues that perhaps were being overlooked. This whole process showed how democratic this country has become. We are saying “I hear you and want to sit down with you.” This is added energy that will push us in the right direction. As you would expect, the students are still critical and impatient. But things are moving forward steadily.
How important is language learning in education policy and also as a strategic asset for future generations?
Albania is part of all Council of Europe initiatives that push forward multilingualism. In schools, we provide English as a second language, but also German, French and Italian. Students study two second languages, with one reaching high competency and the other more medium competency. Company leaders from Germany and Italy who come to Albania, remark on the language skills of our youth. At the university level, we have a policy that guides universities toward strengthening language skills for students because we believe you cannot be engaged in academic research if you don’t have competency in a second language. To come to students’ aid, as a part of the free electronic library, we bought access to self-taught language learning tools for 30 world languages. We hope this will help students improve language skills. Albanian youth speak a lot of languages, are ambitious and eager for new experiences, something that is necessary to drive the country forward. Tirana has become an amazing hub with many opportunities for youth. For some, however, this is not enough, and they want to move abroad to study or work. I was one of those youth: I moved to Canada and Germany for study and work, so I understand how important it is for small countries when part of their youth go abroad, learn things, collect skills, and come back to make a difference. The ones who do not come back become ambassadors for Albania globally.
What is your overall vision for the youth of Albania and the future of the country?
The vision I have for my mandate and for the ministry beyond my mandate is to be able to prepare today’s youth for an uncertain future. We are asking how we can build the skills necessary not only for the job market and development but also for a better life. For example, for digital skills, we are running a big project with the British Council through which all children will learn basic coding skills. We also know that mastery of a second language is a must to be successful inside and outside the country. Beyond this, I am wondering what it is that millennials need. This is a question we should answer as policymakers. This is the first generation that is so much more uncertain of its future than their parents, who followed more established career paths. Today we live in a world of startups and digital companies which require different skills than those of 30 years ago. Clearly, this is not just an Albanian question, but a global one. I am engaging with colleagues across government to answer the question: what does the plight of the millennial mean for the future of the country?
As a graduate of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, you have a unique perspective on the intersection of Albanian and German education. What opportunities do you see to further enhance bilateral cooperation?
I like the German system because it promotes the idea that education is a right and a public good that should be funded by society. We share this basic concept that guides our education policymaking in Albania also – subsidized public education. I am also happy that many Albanian youths go to Germany on exchange programs, as tourists or on with short-term work visas. In addition to Albanians going to Germany, we have had amazing input from the German government in Albania. Most recently, the development bank KfW has committed financing to help us improve student dorms in Tirana. The agricultural university in Tirana – one of the best in the region – has scholars from Germany who teach or do research there, something which has taken the institution to another level of quality in education. I would love for German youth to visit and spend more time in Albania, through the Erasmus programs – there are hundreds of placements in Albanian universities for youth from the EU. My message is that they should come and speak German, English or Italian with their Albanian peers and explore our country’s food, nature and hospitality.