Besa Shahini discusses her educational journey – as refugee, policy student, and now minister.
Besa Shahini originally intended to become an artist. Instead, she is now the Minister of Education, Sport and Youth in Albania – and the winner of the 2019 Hertie School Alumni Achievement Award.
In 2017, just eight years after she graduated from the Hertie School, she was appointed to the position of Deputy Minister to oversee pre-university education in Edi Rama’s Socialist Party government. She had to acquire Albanian citizenship to take up the post. Besa, who is 36, is originally from Kosovo.
After four years in power, Rama’s party won a landslide victory in the 2017 elections, enough to rule without coalition partners. His staffing strategy was to appoint more women to cabinet posts and to bring in professionals not necessarily connected with the party. After a cabinet reshuffle in 2018, Besa was appointed to run the ministry in January 2019.
Education is a subject close to her heart. Growing up in Kosovo, she fell victim to Yugoslav, then Serbian policies designed to eradicate ethnic communities through the assimilation of minorities, including Kosovo’s Albanian-speakers. Since World War II, Kosovo had managed its own Albanian-speaking schools. After 1989, the Belgrade government insisted on Serbian-language teaching in secondary schools. So Kosovars boycotted the official state schools and set up their own parallel, informal education system.
“For a few years we studied in private homes, all organised voluntarily by teachers and people who freed up their homes,” Besa says. “This is not a good education system. You maintain literacy and numeracy, but you don't delve deeper into any of the other elements.
“After the war, everything was brought back to normal and schools re-established. But this has had an effect. In the Pisa study that examines the basic skills of 15-year-olds, Kosovo today scores the worst in the region. This is because it wasted a whole decade in education development, due to this very discriminatory practice that was applied long before the war.”
Besa’s family fled the war, emigrating to Canada in 1999. She is passionate about painting, and for her first two years in exile, planned to study art or design.
“But I felt like I had been given a chance,” she says. “Canada had been very kind to me and my family. I escaped the war, I wasn’t one of the victims. I wanted to study something that would give me the tools to one day go back to the region and make an impact in the areas I thought were important and necessary.”
So she studied political science and public administration at York University in Toronto. On returning to Kosovo, she set up a think-tank, the Kosovar Stability Initiative, focused on socio-economic issues. A chance sighting of a poster for the Hertie School ended up taking her to Berlin, where she had the opportunity to examine theoretical and practical aspects of the policy process. She particularly remembers a class on comparative Europeanisation, looking at how different countries developed as a result of their accession perspective.
“There was all of this positive thinking, and this can-do attitude of all the countries, and things were moving in the right direction,” she says. “But 10 years later, the larger project – the EU – has taken a beating. It's very disappointing that instead of having the entire region in the EU, or very close to joining, we are further away than ever. But the course stayed with me because it was optimistic, it was something practical that was happening during our lives as students here.”
After graduating with a Master of Public Policy in 2009, Besa worked on EU enlargement as a senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative. She began focussing intensively on education in 2014, setting up another small think-tank, the Education Plenum, in Kosovo in 2016. She started looking into text-books and curricula. The question she wanted to answer, she says, is how does an individual – or a whole nation – catch up with the rest of their peers when education has been lacking or poor?
Now she has a chance to implement her ideas in Albania, where teaching has traditionally been demanding and rigorous “but very mechanical,” Besa says.
“It was never considered necessary to ease children into subjects – the subjects were forced on them,” she says. In chemistry, for instance, children were first faced with a formula such as H2O, then had it explained to them as water, instead of the other way around, she says.
A controversial step Besa has been in charge of implementing is to introduce textbooks by well-known British and American academic publishers, translated into Albanian. Another key focus is to compensate for the poor quality of teacher training during the 1990s: one goal, for instance, is to ensure all teachers speak a second language.
“Albanian is a beautiful language,” she says. “But there are too few people speaking it. It's like Finnish -- the Finns decided at some point that everyone needs to speak English as well, in order to have access to all of the tools and resources available. We are building a strategy for how to improve teachers’ skills, how to integrate universities into this, and how to strengthen second language skills.”
And does she still find time for painting?
“No,” she says. “I illustrate children's books, but not for school or commercially, just for my friends. Everybody's having babies, so I make books for them as a gift.”
Read more about the Master of Public Policy programme.