Monday, February 28, 2011

Problems with textbooks at Macedonian institutions of higher education

The problem with textbooks at Macedonian institutions of higher education has been endemic for many decades, going back to pre-independence days. Until about two years ago there were only two universities in Macedonia, one in the capital Skopje and the other one in Bitola. There was not enough of a demand for textbooks written in Macedonian to justify the expense of writing textbooks for courses where the total enrollment in a course in the country might be less than 100 each year. Since Serbo-Croatian was a mandatory foreign language course for all students in Macedonia beginning in the fifth grade, it was expected that all college students were proficient in that language. It was, therefore, much more convenient for professors to assign textbooks in Serbo-Croatian, or in Bulgarian, a closely related language to Macedonian.

Another practice which was common and still continues to this day, is for professors to distribute their lecture notes to students, and students are tested based strictly on the content in these notes. Some professors publish their lecture notes either through the university's publishing service, or by an outside publisher. Students have frequently complained that they feel obligated to purchase these notes/textbooks before they are permitted to take an exam. The selling of these materials is usually left to a professor's assistant, who keeps track of the names of those who have purchased a textbook. Many students seem to favor this system because they feel that it makes it much easier for them to pass a course. They can show that they are supporting financially the professor's endeavor, and it's also much easier for them to commit to memory a few pages from lecture notes, than having to read a textbook of several hundred pages. In 1974/1975 I was a visiting student at University in Skopje and I lived in a house together with a student from the Medical Faculty and one from the Faculty of Economics. Neither of them attended classes, and they passed all of their courses by committing to memory their professors' lecture notes. Many times I had arguments with my house mates because just before an exam they kept me up all night with their loud recitations of their lecture notes.

In the last few years English has become a required foreign language for all students in primary and secondary schools. So, university professors and students now rely much more on textbooks and other literature written in English. The problem now is that textbooks written in English are usually published either in the USA or in Great Britain, and their prices are exorbitant and beyond the means of great majority of Macedonian students. Nevertheless, professors regularly assign these textbooks in their courses. So, what is a student to do? Fortunately, digital copies of many of these textbooks can be found online on torrents and can be easily downloaded and re-distributed to other students. Because of their cost, it is very rare to find these textbooks in a public or university library. The library of one technical university in Macedonia as of this date has all of 22 books in its entire collection ( By assigning impossible to find or purchase a textbook Macedonian professors in fact promote breaking international copyright laws.

I am familiar with the case of one professor at a faculty in Macedonia who assigned a list of twenty books written in English for a seminar. One of the students in the seminar approached me to find out if I have any of the assigned books. Unfortunately, I did not have any of them, nor could they be found anywhere in Macedonia other than in the professor's private library. The students in the seminar ended up borrowing and duplicating from the professor some of the books. Another student who had taken the same seminar the previous year told me that she duplicated about 3,500 pages in the course of the seminar.

The new law on higher education in Macedonia requires professors to post reading lists for their courses at the start of each semester. A cursory look at these lists indicates that these are either books written by the professor, or they are foreign books written in English. The lack of and easy access to textbooks does not seem to have been much of a concern to most professors. The Ministry of Education in recent years has tried to alleviate this problem by financing the translation of several hundred textbooks and other literature into Macedonian. While this on the surface may seem to be a logical solution, so far it has done very little to solve the problem.

First, no one is really sure how the Ministry selected the books to be translated. At news conferences and at book promotions the Minister claims that the books were selected by a committee of highly competent professors. But, it's hard to find a public list of these committee members anywhere. In other words, the book selection process was not transparent and it did not reflect the specific need of professors in specific areas.

Second, the word from the field is that the translations were done so poorly and in such haste that many of the textbooks are practically unusable. Apparently none of the translators were specialists in the fields in which they were translating. Translating is not a very highly paid skill in Macedonia, and to save money the government hired those translators who could complete the task at the cheapest possible rate.

Third, and most most important, the Ministry of Education approached this project without considering the specific needs of professors in the field. It was a top-down approach, and many professors resented being told which textbooks they should be using in their classes. Therefor, for all practical purposes the textbook translation project will end up being useless and a total waste of funds.

Now the question is, could the Ministry have handled this project in a different way so that it could have provided useful textbooks to professors and their students? The answer, in my opinion, is definitely yes. As a first step the Ministry should have distributed a survey to professors in the field to find out what are their specific needs. The Ministry should have set up a committee in each field to discuss possible lists of textbooks. All discussions and decisions should have been public and transparent. Once a selection was made, a textbook should have been translated by a group where there is at least one professor who is a specialist in the field. The next step before publishing should have been a testing period in the classroom for one year to see if the textbook is really appropriate for a given course. Only after that a decision on publishing the textbook should have been made.

When the Ministry of Education gets a complained that there is a lack of textbooks, the Minister's reply is often that professors should be writing textbooks since they are best qualified in their field. It is quite apparent that the Minister has absolutely no concept of what it takes to write a quality textbook. The reason why there are so many Macedonian textbooks of such poor quality is because they are written by highly qualified professors in the field, who have very little understanding of pedagogy. In addition, professors who are highly qualified to write high quality textbooks don't have an incentive to do this because there is no reward in it since the market is so negligible.

So, is there a solution for the problem with textbook at Macedonian institutions of higher education? The problem is not unsurmountable. However, as long as decisions about textbooks are made by political appointees, such as the Minister of Education, who don't have any practical experience in the educational process, it is certain that this problem will continue for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Adopting practices of the US educational system in Macedonia.

On February 15, 2011 Macedonia's Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski visited George Washington University where he met the president of the university and discussed cooperation between GWU and Macedonian universities, and specifically with the University for Information Science and Technology (UIST). Prime Minister Gruevski was the first to initiate the idea for establishing a new university in Macedonia where the language of instruction was to be in English, it was supposed to be staffed primarily by "eminent" scholars from abroad, who would receive salaries equivalent to those at a typical US university, and it was supposed to be modeled on a typical State university in the US. Peter Bock, professor of Machine Intelligence and Cognition at GWU is the Chair of the International Advisory Board for the University for Information Science and Technology. The UIST "History" page states:
"After several months of thorough analysis and design, the IAB compiled a formal proposal for the curricula, operation, and governance of a progressive undergraduate University for Information Science and Technology (UIST). In the fall of 2008 this proposal was presented to the Macedonian Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, as well as to members of the Macedonian academic and industrial communities, and was accepted wholeheartedly."
To this day there is no public access to the IAB proposal anywhere in Macedonia, so it's difficult for me to gage to what extent current practices at UIST follow the IAB proposal. I had an opportunity to teach at UIST as a Fulbright Scholar during its first year of operation, and having taught at US universities for 27 years I can attest that other than the fact that courses are taught in English there is practically nothing in the way the university is operated that resembles the US educational system. I applaud the Prime Minister's attempt to import US practices in the Macedonian system of higher education. However, I think there are two major obstacles that the system first must overcome before this can be realized. The main obstacle is the law on higher education, including the recent (February 2011) changes implemented by the Ministry of Education. Many parts of that law would be considered immoral and unethical by the standards of any US institution of higher education. Any US, or other foreign professor considering teaching at UIST should first read carefully this law, which spells in great detail all obligations and the monetary fines when these obligations are not followed. The second major obstacle is the "culture" of the system of higher education in Macedonia. I am certain that the International Advisory Board is not aware of the level of influence that politics plays in the running of institutions of higher education in Macedonia, nor of the level of influence that figures of authority, such as the Prime Minister, the Minister of Education and the Rector have in the day to day operation of the institution.
For the Prime Minister's plan to model Macedonian universities on those in the US to succeed, one of two things need to happen first. The law on higher education needs to be re-written from scratch, and I very much doubt it will happen during his lifetime. Or, a new law must be passed to exempt UIST and similar universities from functioning based on the current law, and I doubt very much that this would be acceptable to the academic community in Macedonia.
So, the question is, exactly what practices of the George Washington University and of the US educational system is the Prime Minister interested in implementing in Macedonian universities? I doubt very much it is anything beyond student and faculty exchanges. For better or worse, the current government has been more effective in establishing new educational institutions than any other government since Macedonia's independence. Since they have majority seats in parliament they have the power to pass any laws at will. It is just so unfortunate that they have so little understanding of the system and culture of higher education that they aim more for populism, quantity and photo opportunities than they do for truly enhancing the quality.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

New law on higher education passed

Today, February 9, 2011, the Macedonian parliament passed a new, sweeping and highly controversial law on higher education. The law was passed during a fast-track procedure requested by the Minister of Education Nikola Todorov. In the absence of the opposition block there was hardly any debate to speak of. My comments will follow shortly. In the meantime, the text of the new changes in the law can be found here.