Albania’s Enlargement Package: Education as a Keystone for Accession to the EU

As Albania continues its path of accession to the European Union (EU), the European Commission annually assesses its readiness for full EU integration. This process is called the enlargement package and is ongoing for all of the Western Balkans and Türkiye regions. In the 2021-22 enlargement package, the European Commission pledged to accelerate the integration of the Western Balkans as a whole, including Albania. The European Commission’s Albania 2022 Report (hereafter, “the Report”) details Albania’s many positive reforms, but also identifies many areas that are still below EU standards. Several of these areas affect and interact with education policy; some even explicitly derive from the Albanian education system. With a critical lens focused on education and human rights, this article will summarize and explore the Report’s findings and recommendations on Albania. Firstly, this article will focus on Albania’s readiness for EU accession before diving into the primary political and economic concerns.

Secondly, the education system as described in the Report, including its shortcomings regarding COVID-19, technological capacity, and minority incorporation. Finally, the current state of the rights of the child in Albania will be discussed.

 

Context

  1. Political Concerns

Many areas of the Report may not directly impact education or human rights but are still worth noting to contextualize Albania’s current political climate. Overall, the Report finds that Albania is “moderately prepared” for integration. The Parliamentary elections in 2021 revealed significant internal conflicts within the largest opposition party (DP) as well as the gridlock that characterizes the Albanian Parliament. The Report notes that these untimely and unfortunate barriers to consensus resulted in Parliament delaying and even abandoning certain reforms that would have furthered EU criteria, notably including electoral reform. Ultimately, the Parliament found common ground on several critical issues, passing nine laws aimed at EU integration.

 

Albania is also suffering from economic and political consequences associated with the triple shock of the 2019 earthquake, the COVID-19 pandemic, and, more recently, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. In particular, public administration remains in disarray as the establishment of agencies subordinate to the Prime Minister without a comprehensive framework detailing their purpose and limits raises questions concerning the standards of public administration. Nonetheless, Albania is making progress in public administrative reform, anti-corruption reform, the fight against organized crime, judicial reform, and migration. Although it is moderately prepared in economic criteria and competitive growth, it is still below EU standards and struggles to manage fiscal policy. This is a special concern given that Albania needs to generate and appropriately manage a more diversified revenue in order to implement the large expenditures necessary for adequate public and social services, as further explored below.

 

  1. Economic Concerns: Educational Funding and Employment

The Report notes that Albania is not fully prepared for the competitive pressure of the EU job market, but it is making advancements to this effect. Albania made progress through the National Strategy of Education and Action Plan 2021-2026, but a lack of financing has impeded this Plan—only an estimated 3.6% of GDP was directed toward this Plan. The funding of education is significantly below Albania’s needs. The allocated budget for the main ministries responsible for education, among other social services, remains below 1% of GDP. Individual schools lack financial autonomy and remain vulnerable to corruption. Anti-corruption measures that have recently resulted in criminal prosecutions of some high-level officials have had little effect on social services, including healthcare and education.

 

These financial issues are particularly acute because Albania heavily lacks human capital. Notably, human capital acquisition continues to be stifled by skill and education gaps, especially in technological and entrepreneurial know-how. This area is a blend of skilled labor and academic theory, and thus an area that would require greater communication and collaboration between the discrete institutions within the broader education system. The Report notes that “[e]fforts are still needed in the development of innovative policies aimed at promoting better links between academia, industry and government….” Albania is engaged in many projects to further human capital acquisition, including the Horizon 2021 program, the EUREKA network, and the “EU for Innovation” Tirana project, but few are producing results. The Report emphasizes that Albania will not be able to accede to the EU without improving its human capital gains. Among other reasons, the Albanian job market in its current state would be shocked after integration by the high human capital present in other EU countries. The resulting shocks would depress the employment of native Albanians and incentivize native Albanians to seek education in other EU member states.

 

Graduates and post-graduates in Albania are entering a recovering job market. Employment growth is steadily advancing after the COVID-19 economic downturn. However, the gender gap in employment remains wide. Structural changes in the labor market also reflect the increased need for graduates with higher education; the unemployment rate of tertiary educated persons dropped markedly, while it increased for workers with primary education and persons 15-24. These market distortions incentivize young people and other primary-educated people to seek higher education in order to increase their value in the job market. This dynamic is already taking shape, as the share of people aged 20-24 in tertiary education programs has increased from 12.3% in 2016 to 14.9% in 2022. However, as more young people seek an academic lifestyle, fewer seek vocational training, leading to shortages in skilled labor. These shortages contribute to higher pay for skilled laborers, thus incentivizing young people to seek labor-intensive jobs. These two competing incentives—the first for higher education and the second for skilled labor—create skill mismatches in Albania’s labor market as some workers with higher education are seeking more lucrative jobs in skilled labor, and vice versa.

 

Many youths without skills or education continue to struggle; the percentage of young people neither employed nor in education or training was 26.1% in 2021. To attempt to give direction to many of these young people, Albania created the Youth Guarantee scheme to give advice to and coordinate opportunities for floundering Albanian young people. In February 2022, the Parliament established an inter-ministerial working group to oversee the implementation of the Youth Guarantee scheme, including by allocating human and financial resources seconded from the ministries themselves. The Report again emphasizes the importance of incorporating these youth into the formal job market either through education or skills training in order to build human capital in anticipation of EU accession.

Tiran Univercity
Polytechnic University of Tirana – Source Wikipedia

The Education System

  1. Basic Characteristics and Current Initiatives

In 2021, Albania implemented a new competence-based curriculum for the grades 1-12 pre-university education system. Of 286,486 students currently enrolled, 260,953 received free textbooks under this new initiative. For reference, 158,528 students are in primary education, and 127,958 are in lower secondary education. The simultaneous attempt at preschool reform was not successful, however. Due to a lack of resources, the new policies passed for preschools could not be implemented. The Report notes that partnerships with local authorities are essential to ensure cooperation and avoid disrupting the everyday goings on in schools as new standards begin.

 

Albania’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) system is also being revised. Participation in the VET scheme remains low, with only 17.7% of upper secondary students enrolled in 2021 (18,279 out of a total of 103,467). In 2017, Parliament adopted a VET Law that established the National Agency for VET and Qualifications and attempted to standardize VET programs. The implementation of this Law is not yet complete, however. The National Agency requires further organizational clarification, especially in the human resources department. Legislation regarding VET providers is also lacking. The Report states that Parliament must adopt a law guaranteeing the financial autonomy of VET providers in addition to the Optimisation Plan endorsed by Parliament and VET providers in 2020. Both legislative efforts would require certain standards of learning and training, organizational strategies, functions, and activities from VET providers while simultaneously allowing them the independence to determine how to achieve these measures. In other words, these legislative efforts would regulate the VET providers while ensuring their discretionary rights and privileges. The Report states that this VET scheme must be implemented by 2023 to ensure the modernization of the VET.

 

  1. COVID-19

2021-2022 was a “year of adjustment and planning” after the shocks caused by the 2019 earthquake and the COVID-19 pandemic. The earthquake sent the education system into immediate turmoil as 21,000 children from 11 municipalities were forced to move to host schools or temporary facilities. Students attended classes in shifts, thereby straining already scarce resources, negatively impacting the quality of teaching, and negatively affecting students’ capacity to absorb information amid a stressful and constantly changing environment. 87 schools damaged by the earthquake have returned to normal operations. The problems derived from the earthquake are distinct from the problems that arose under COVID-19, but both exposed the same skills and resource gaps in the education system.

 

Already struggling with remote, hybrid, or part-time school due to the earthquake, teachers and students were forced to revert to fully online methods for which they were not prepared. Prior to the earthquake, most teachers had never even received IT training, much less training on how to effectively teach an entirely digital class—many were technologically illiterate. Albania began training 2,362 teachers on digitization in 2021, but this excluded the majority of a total of 30,000 teachers in need. This skills gap was compounded by a lack of digital resources available to both teachers and students for a free or reduced cost. Albania provides only one computer per 26 students, which is inadequate to ensure that all students have access to digital education. The Report compares this to the EU average of one computer per five pupils. As a result of these complications, enrollment rates 2019-2021 dropped considerably to 72.9%. Even more concerningly, enrollment in preschool education for children aged five to six decreased by 9%. The Report states that even as the COVID-19 pandemic eases, the government should continue to provide digital training to teachers and technological literacy courses to students in anticipation of a future emergency.

 

  • Minority Incorporation

On the flip side, changes to the education system related to the COVID-19 pandemic have generated increased inclusion of vulnerable populations, most notably Roma and Egyptian minorities. These groups suffer from a lack of access to certain socioeconomic benefits, lower income levels, and structural barriers to upward mobility. Strategies such as distance learning, remote teaching, and part-time education aligned with these groups’ needs by leaving room for flexibility in scheduling. This allowed parents of lower school children to guarantee their children’s quality of education even while struggling with the economic downturn. Similarly, this allowed older students to maintain their employment and living standards while simultaneously accessing higher education. As COVID-19 has dissipated, schools have reduced many of these measures. The enrollment rates of Rome and Egyptian children in pre-university and early childhood education have dropped. Inclusion efforts include scholarships, free textbooks, complimentary transportation, and part-time education programs. Measures that, in theory, facilitate Roma and Egyptian access to universities, such as a quota system and fee waivers for university applications, are generally not enforced in practice.

 

Nonetheless, the Report emphasizes that the inclusion of vulnerable populations within the Albanian education system is lacking. Some schools continue to segregate Roma and Egyptian children, resulting in a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights in May 2022 ordering the Ministry of Education and Sports to implement desegregation policies. Roma and Egyptian graduates are systematically discriminated against in the workforce as well. The low employment rate of these groups worsened due to COVID-19, health insurance coverage for these groups is sparse, and the digitization of many public services during COVID-19 (including healthcare and employment) impeded technologically illiterate members of these groups from accessing much-needed protection.

 

Ethnic minorities are not the only groups discriminated against in public service delivery, however. The Report notes that “no progress” has been made with regard to the incorporation of disabled persons in the Albanian education system. Already scarce resources are simply not being allocated to solve this problem. Teachers and other educational professionals receive slim to no training on the complex challenges and functional strategies of including disabled persons, alternative methods of teaching, or early detection of disability. Those teaching assistants qualified to assist disabled students are very few and not sufficiently dispersed throughout educational institutions. The Report highlights that “additional efforts are also needed to shift from a system with dual education towards a system where children with disabilities are integrated into inclusive mainstream schools.”

 

Written by Rowan Scarpinoagainst LGBTIQ persons is also rampant in Albania. A lack of knowledge and awareness about queerness and queer rights, especially in rural areas, drives high levels of intolerance. Physical aggression and hate speech, particularly on social media against LGBTIQ people are routine. This creates a hostile environment for LGBTIQ students in schools, thus disincentivizing them from engaging with the curriculum or creating bonds with teachers and other students. Further, discrimination prevents LGBTIQ students from fully accessing future educational opportunities, such as higher education, thus depressing their capacity to enter high-paying employment. Generally, LGBTIQ persons face discrimination in public services, including barriers to healthcare and housing. Albania lacks legislation authorizing cohabitation or same-sex marriage, thus perpetuating the social stigmatization of LGBTIQ persons. In November 2021, Albania did implement a new 2021-2027 action plan for LBGTIQ persons. However, Parliament has failed to implement the policies associated with this plan due to a lack of financing and political will. The Report stresses that Parliament must enact this action plan and other inclusive policies in order for Albania to meet EU criteria governing fundamental rights and freedoms.

 

Rights of the Child

Albania ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992 and has since implemented a legal framework protecting children. The Report notes that progress continues in institutional capacity-building to effectively execute the Convention. However, malnutrition and physical activity continue to be critical issues for children and pregnant women in Albania. The Report recommends that Albania develop a national nutrition plan that includes an awareness campaign in schools and community centers. Additionally, Albania remains a “country of origin, transit, and destination” of human trafficking. Institutionalized and minority children, including Roma and Egyptians, are more vulnerable to trafficking than adults or their peers. Fortunately, the number of Albanian victims significantly decreased in 2020-2021, but this may be due only to border closures associated with COVID-19.

 

The Report also finds that “the practice of child marriage still exists, and is primarily driven by gender inequality, poverty and social exclusion.” Because of a lack of official data, it is unclear how prevalent child marriage is, but laws protecting adolescents from child marriage are clearly ineffective or applied inconsistently. To remedy this fundamentally abusive practice, the government addressed child marriage in the national policy framework in 2021 for the first time in history. It continued to prioritize the issue by enacting the 2021-26 National Agenda for the Rights of the Child. Further, the Albanian National Deinstitutionalization Plan allocated funds to develop childcare services as an alternative to institutionalized social care, which has violated and exploited children. Despite this progress, violence against children, especially sexual violence, remains a problem. Child Protection Units received 2,389 cases of children in need of protection in 2021; a large amount made even more difficult by the lack of child protection workers. Albania needs programs and legal frameworks that prioritize social work and incentivize students to become social workers.

 

Conclusion

Overall, Albania could advance its moderate level of preparation in most EU accession criteria to the next level by increasing its focus on education. In order to meet economic standards, for example, skills and resource gaps must be remedied through higher and vocational education. Similarly, in order to meet standards relating to respect for fundamental rights and freedoms and social cohesion, Albania must increase the incorporation of minorities into society and formal markets, which begins with the incorporation of minority and migrant children into education. The list goes on; the areas in which Albania is most unprepared for EU accession, including public administration and economic competitiveness, all negatively impact the education system and yet can be solved through increasing funding, awareness, and participation in the education system. In preparation for the next enlargement package report, Albania should engage in educational reform to accelerate its preparedness for EU integration.

 

 

Written by Rowan Scarpino

References

European Commission. (2022). (rep. num. SWD(2022) 332). Albania 2022 Report. Brussels, Belgium.

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