bosnia report
New Series No: 53-54 August - December 2006
Virtual apartheid in the Bosnian school system
by Predrag Popovic, Sarajevo

Reforms to the school system in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which the international community strongly commends, remain a dead letter owing to a lack of political will, experts say. Since peace returned ten years ago, the education system has continued to reflect the country's stark ethnic divisions, with three different curricula existing for Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.

To promote better integration, a law on elementary and secondary education was passed in 2003, making the teaching of the mother tongue and culture into optional subjects, while standardising the teaching of maths, science and other less controversial subjects - meaning that students in those classes are supposed to use the same textbooks and follow the same courses, irrespective of their ethnic background. In reality, the promised change has not taken place. The main reason is that the Council of Ministers, the highest common institution in Bosnia-Herzegovina, has not endorsed it. Experts say that without some harmonisation of the school system, Bosnian citizens will not be able to study freely in the European Union.

A strong wish to preserve national identity is the key obstacle preventing the introduction of a more uniform system. Although Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs speak almost identical languages, their political representatives insist that students must study separately, even for such classes as maths, physics or chemistry. History studies pose a particular problem, because of widely differing views of the causes and course of the 1992-95 war.

Silence of Dayton

The Dayton Peace Agreement signed in November 1995, which set up the present constitutional structure, said nothing about education. The Agreement divided the country into two entities, Republika Srpska (RS) and the [Bosniak-Croat] B-H Federation, which in turn consists of ten cantons. As a result, schooling remains fragmented, with entities and cantons in effect controlling their own syllabuses. The two entities have their own ministers, and authority in the Federation is spread over the ten cantons, each of which has its own school minister. A ministry at state level and a ministry for the District of Brčko, which has special status, completes the total of 14 ministers, all of whom have input into schooling. The result is division and segregation, creating apathy and isolationism among the youth. Regulations make it difficult to move from one school to another. It is often necessary to take additional examinations to transfer, even within the same canton.

Apart from deep differences between the school systems of the two entities, there are sharp differences within the Federation, especially in the Croat-dominated Srednjebosanski and Hercegovsko-Neretvanski cantons. Schools here are often physically divided, and Bosniak and Croat children take breaks at different times. Claude Kieffer, head of education with the OCSE Mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, told Balkan Insight that the Catholic Church was to blame for blocking some reforms. ‘In spite of the approval of Croat politicians, the Catholic Church has stopped some attempts at reform - for example, the introduction of religious history as a subject,’ he said, while another problem was violations of the law on appointment of principals. In many cases, cantonal ministries instead of school boards appoint school heads, which is against the regulations. ‘Education here is far from at a European standard,’ said Kieffer. ‘Children are not acquiring the knowledge and skills they need in the 21st century.’

No political will

A recent study has shown that as many as 60 per cent of households living in poverty in Bosnia-Herzegovina come from uneducated families. The same study said that a basic problem was lack of political will to reform education, or to apply laws that have already been passed. ‘Although it was passed three years ago, the [education] law still has not reached the Council of Ministers, which is supposed to endorse it,’ complains Kieffer. ́The politicians are perfectly content with three educational systems, and the problem is that parents subscribe to this view as well.’

Politicians agree that lack of resolve is the main problem. ‘Political will is the main reason why the law is not being applied,’ said Samir Nizamić, an adviser on education to the prime minister, Adnan Terzić. ‘To resolve this, we need an initiative from the top.’ Another problem of the education system is that power has been delegated to the cantons, i.e. to local ministers. Safet Halilović, minister of civil affairs, the only state-level minister in charge of education, said he lacked the powers to coerce the cantons into surrendering their control over schools. ‘The educational system reflects the situation in the society at large,’ he said. ‘In a proper state, education would be regulated in a uniform manner [but]... our ministry has no major influence on education.’

The only schools that appear to surmount these intractable problems are elite academies that teach in English. One is the United World College based in Mostar. Part of a network of schools set up in 1962 to provide an International and multicultural education, ten UWC colleges now exist all over the world. ‘What matters to us is the quality and not the ethnic background [of students],’ said Mirna Jančić, UWC development manager. ‘Unfortunately, in spite of the ten years that have passed, war is still raging in the field of education,’ she told Balkan Insight.

The new UWC school works in the divided town of Mostar at the same premises as Mostar High School. Unlike UWC students, regular students at the latter follow different curricula, depending on their ethnic background. However, the two schools have agreed to cooperate, and teachers at Mostar High School will undergo training according to UWC programmes. Ankica Čović, head of Mostar High, hopes big gains will come from interaction between local and foreign programmes. ‘We believe that in this manner we can develop specific suggestions for improvement of the educational system in Bosnia-Herzegovina,’ said Čović.

Education and identity

The UWC also runs classes in Sarajevo and Banja Luka. The system enjoys strong local support - partly because so many leading politicians in Bosnia-Herzegovina are members of the school board. One is Adnan Terzić, who described UWC as a potential nucleus for the whole educational system. Osman Topčagić, director of the Directorate for European Integration of Bosnia-Herzegovina, is another. ‘Only a sick man could fail to support an initiative like this, especially in a town as peculiar as Mostar,’ Mladen Ivanić, the foreign minister, told Balkan Insight.

The UWC system has a high reputation in the region, in countries such as Slovenia and Hungary, and is accepted internationally as a model for high academic standards. But Ivanić said it would be naive to expect the UWC programme to have a significant impact on the educational log-jam in the country as a whole. ́The programme is an excellent model and it deserves support as an experiment,’ he said. ‘But to come to an agreement in Bosnia, it is necessary to strike a balance between education first as a means to preserve national identity and secondly as a mechanism for developing some kind of communality. ‘Segregation is not good, but I must remind you that Yugoslavia disintegrated in spite of its unity, when some of its peoples felt they were losing their identity.’  However, Kieffer believes it is wrong to assume that a divided education system is a prerequisite for the survival of national identities. He said it was ‘propaganda’ to suggest that attending mixed schools results in loss of identity. ‘They fear they will not learn their language, or their history, but this has nothing to do with reality,’ Kieffer said. ‘They don't understand that school is only one of the places where you get information in the world today, and that identity is built in many different places. Also, there is no Serb mathematics or Croat physics. It makes no sense,’ he added.

At the office of the European Commission, which has invested 5 million euro in secondary education since 1997, they emphasize other problems in Bosnia-Herzegovina's school system, such the outsized administration. ‘Bosnia-Herzegovina has no capacity to make use of all the possibilities offered by international funds, which is another problem,’ said one staffer.

Jančić says the chronic lack of coordination and cooperation between the various entity and cantonal ministries suits the politicians. ‘Their only agreement is not to come to an agreement, because it suits their political interests,’ she said.

International passivity

Kieffer thinks the international community, specifically the Office of the High Representative (OHR), shares the blame for the current segregated shambles. ‘They had the power, but they used their Bonn authorizations only twice in the field of education, and for a period of ten years that is not enough,’ he said. But since becoming the last High Representative, Christian Schwarz-Schilling has made it clear that he will use his autocratic powers only as a last resort. ‘The main concern of the OHR is in transformation and future functioning. Education is definitely not among our priorities,’ an OHR source told Balkan Insight. The Council of Europe (CoE), meanwhile, says that it regrets it is unable to have much effect on educational reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina, when power is so dispersed. ‘It is not possible to maintain contacts with 14 ministers of education,’ Frane Maroević, spokesperson of the CoE in Sarajevo, told Balkan Insight.

The status quo is unlikely to change in the near future. ‘In 2006 there will be no changes, and bearing in mind what happened in the past it is difficult to imagine a breakthrough,’ said Samir Nizamić. The only party that prioritised education in the recent election was the small Liberal-Democratic Party. ‘For us, education is a prerequisite for development,’ Lamija Tanović, an LDS representative, told Balkan Insight.

In the meantime, the lack of uniform standards for all schools adds to the question mark over the very existence of the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. ‘Divisions among the youth are deeper now than they were in 1992, because there is no system to connect them,’ maintains Kieffer. ‘They do not know about each other, they have studied three different histories, and they read different books,’ he says. ‘There is no feeling of community, and how can a state survive if the young show no will to build it, nor at least want it to exist? The state exists only thanks to a peace treaty - not because the people wish to live together,’ Kieffer concludes.


Predrag Popović is a contributor to Balkan Insight, online publication of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). This comment appeared in Balkan Insight, 13 October 2006.


   Table of contents

  Latest issue



  Support the Institute


home | about us | publications | events | news | Library | contact | bosnia | search | bosnia report | credits