Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 20
8 November 1999

Ljubljana University S L O V E N I A:
Ljubljana University:
Between hopes and anxieties

Ales Debeljak

A visiting American professor of international business at Ljubljana University recently complained that he cannot accommodate as many students in his seminar as there are applicants. No surprise here. As many as ten new degree-granting programs and scores of elective academic courses have emerged over the last years in response to increasing demand. Marketing, corporate management, international business, tourism and diplomacy studies are among the many subjects offered to the rapidly growing number of students eager to improve their prospects in their newly created country. English-speaking graduates in these areas are the darlings of both foreign corporations in Ljubljana - which have entered the two-million strong Slovenian market hoping to obtain a foothold in the larger, now largely inaccessible Balkan markets - and of local corporations hoping to extend their reach into Western markets.

Ljubljana University has seized the opportunity. Many visiting professors teach side by side with some 1500 local academics, one-third of whom are full professors. Scores of students travel abroad each semester, making use of financial incentives offered by European and American institutions, which prior to Slovenian independence flowed primarily to Belgrade. The nation's central research and educational institution is today a full-fledged independent institution of higher learning, with its 14 faculties, three art academies and three professional schools providing learning to 27,000-odd students. Students come not only from Slovenia but also from Third World countries, neighboring Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Italy and a number of other countries farther afield. The university also provides full tuition and stipends for students from former Yugoslavia, making it a desired destination for displaced persons from the war-torn region.

Yet, while Slovenia's university and education system has improved significantly, stubborn problems linger as a result of the country's short academic tradition and of the sluggish and ineffective efforts to force the departure of Communist professors. Although the desire to politically purge Communists and to infuse new blood into the educational process has its merits, the struggle has caught the university administration in a crossfire. The administration has argued with Parliament, still the principal legislative body for higher education, that a proposed age limit with the aim of ridding the university of Party cronies, would also banish older academics with untarnished (or blank) political records.

At the same time, the university is striving to come to terms with its own history of ideological compromise. Painless resolution of dispute is impossible, and no one seems to have the courage to either inflict or endure pain. The university thus accurately reflects the social and political forces at large: the inability to grant amnesty while refusing to slip into amnesia, as Polish dissident intellectual Adam Michnik would describe the situation.

Historical amnesia is certainly not considered an option by many Slovenians whose road to their own university has been far too long and arduous. Over the centuries, Franks, Bavarians, Hungarians, Charlemagne, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army were some of the foreign powers bent on subjugating Slovenians, an easy prey not only because of the geo-strategic importance of their lands but also because of the absence of an independent nation-state. While Jesuits laid out the foundation for higher education in Ljubljana as early as 1619, the best and brightest Slovenians pursued their advanced studies, for the most part, in Vienna but also in Padua, Prague and Krakow. The short-lived Napoleonic Illyrian Provinces (1809 to 1813), with their fully accredited Ecole Centrale of Ljubljana, promoted Slovenian as the every-day language of the middle class to an extent inconceivable to the House of Hapsburgs, traditional rulers of Slovenian lands.

Unfortunately, the more liberal French rule did not last long. The struggle for national identity against the culturally invasive Hapsburgs continued until Slovenia entered the Yugoslav state at the end of the First World War. In 1919, Ljubljana saw the establishment of a national university, which gradually developed into an institution that today maintains productive liaisons with 30 European and North American universities.

Small wonder, then, that given these historical circumstances, many Slovenians who have risen to academic prominence in the past did so under the aegis of foreign universities. Ljubljana-born and Ljubljana -educated Friderik Pregl, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1923 as a professor at the University of Graz, is a good case in point.

Today, Slovenians educated abroad continue to play an important role in the intellectual life of the country and in the development of the university system. The spirit of the open society has ushered in many a young professor that came of age in the 1970s and 1980s and was educated abroad, particularly in the United States and Germany. Their enthusiasm, however, has been somewhat dampened by the academic mandarins who still attempt to sandbag, albeit unsuccessfully, the overhauling of the entire institution.

The privileges of the ancien regime, which owed much of its legitimacy to the support of many politically acceptable, though academically mediocre, professors, are being gradually eroded by a loose coalition of open-minded professors and their supporters within the university administration. Thus, not only does the university reflect the societal struggles being played out between the old regime and the new, between the young generation and the old, but it also reflects the heightened tension between the cosmopolitan or international outlook and the provincial world view.

The formal difficulties faced by foreign-educated students and professors in obtaining "nostrification" is but one example of the reluctance of the old guard to open up the university to free competition for jobs and vigorous exchange of ideas from universities around the world. Nostrification is a certificate granted (or withheld) by the university administration that essentially puts a foreign-earned degree on par with a local degree. Any potential professor or continuing student who wishes to enter the university is required to nostrify foreign-earned degrees, a process which is not only time-consuming but also surprisingly costly due to the associated unreasonable fees. In its legitimization of local instead of international standards, the system of nostrification betrays the same logic, albeit infinitely less destructive, as the former "moral-political criterion," a blatantly political screening device employed by the university during the Communist regime. While this latter notorious vestige of the past was removed a few years ago, it nevertheless survives in some pockets of the institution's current power structure.

Graver yet is a profound structural problem that cannot be remedied by decree or consensus. For reasons of both extremely limited opportunities in a country with only two universities and the absence of tenure, it is not unusual for prospective academics to pursue their BA, MA and PhD degrees under the tutelage of one adviser only. Such an academic will in all likelihood continue to teach in the cocoon of the absorbed method without being exposed to or exposing his or her students to different intellectual voices in vivo. Academic inbreeding thus poses the main danger for this incestuously small intellectual environment. To the current university administration's credit, it continues to create - with the help of state, corporate and international funds - both stipends and positions that make it possible for students to gain advanced degrees abroad and return to Slovenia after completion of their training.

In addition to this slow evolution, the academic landscape has undergone more dramatic transformations. The most spectacular of these changes occurred when the Roman Catholic Theological Faculty, excluded in 1952 from the university, was again given full academic status and when five prominent dissident professors, who were fired from their academic jobs in the totalitarian 1970s, were politically rehabilitated.

That one of these former dissidents has become a chief executive officer of the national radio and television and another was elected president of the first democratic parliament is a gem of historical irony. It is very likely that the ironic grin, this Janus-like face of wisdom, will continue to be the best response to the changes ahead.

Ales Debeljak

The author is Associate Professor at the Department of Cultural Studies, School of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana.

This article originally appeared in Neue Zuercher Zeitung.



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