The transparency index has helped making students more aware of corruption at the universities, says Jovana Tripunovic, project manager at Belgrade Open School.
Photo: Susanna Wasielewski Ahlfors/Sida
Greater openness will generate better trust and democracy
"If you graduate at a university that is known for corruption, this will affect your cv and future career opportunities."
So says Jovana Tripunovic, project manager at the organisation Belgrade Open School (BOS) in Belgrade. Since almost two years, they work with a project to reduce the high level of corruption at the country's universities.
The approach of BOS is that if transparency is high and all information is available on the universities’ websites, then it's harder to demand bribes or charge additional fees. But students also need to become aware of that corruption is a problem that will ultimately affect them, and how they can act to discourage it.
"The biggest problem is that many students are required additional fees during their studies, without knowing what they are paying for. If the faculty could better communicate all their fees and what they are used for, it would be more difficult to charge for things that should be free," she continues.
Belgrade Open School is one of 15 organisations that the Olof Palme International Center cooperates with, within its Sida-funded programme to increase transparency and accountability through actors in civil society. The first part of Jovana Tripunovic’s and her colleagues' anti-corruption project has involved contacting all universities with request for information, assessing how they responded to the inquiry and searching for information available on their web sites. A transparency index involving all institutions was then launched on the web and promoted in media as well as directly to students. Moreover, BOS has engaged the students, especially through social media, and asked them to answer surveys about corruption at their universities.
The next focus will be to get the students to make use of the national transparency index when applying to university, which in turn could pressurize the faculties. Some of the faculties who scored well on the index have already announced it publicly. Others, who scored badly, will get help from BOS to improve their transparency. The organisation's reputation in the media makes it more relevant for universities to listen, says Jovana Tripunovic, even if they won’t accept the recommendation they get.
Extra student fees for students is one problem, forced purchase of textbooks written by professors themselves is another one. Direct bribery is not the biggest problem, she explains, but when it happens, there might not be any consequences.
"We had a huge scandal five years ago in the city of Kragujevac, where over three quarters of all professors at the Faculty of Law had received bribes in exchange of exams. One woman was even filmed with a hidden camera by an undercover policeman, as she received an envelope with money. But the judicial process against them is still ongoing, and the woman still lecturing, despite the film evidence; until judged guilty, she is considered innocent."
Lengthy judicial processes are nothing unusual in this country. A glance through the large picture windows in BOS’ office on the 16th floor is a reminder of that. A few hundred meters away, some ruins with collapsed walls lay nestled in between other buildings: a memorial of the NATO bombings during the war. 14 years later the land right issue of the house remains unsolved, and the bricks are still lying on the ground.
Hard to find actors to serve as watchdogs
Danilo Milić at OPIC.
In Serbia, unlike Sweden, the NGOs are traditionally weak and are not based on voluntary work, explains Danilo Milić, Local Programme Manager at the Olof Palme International Center’s (OPIC) office in Belgrade:
"We want to strengthen civil society organisations in the important role they can play in protecting the interests of citizens and holding the local rulers accountable. But it has been difficult to find good actors who dare to participate in a programme that inspects the local government, as they also receive some funding from the municipality," he says.
Unfortunately, most local authorities don’t see the advantage of being checked, although it could serve as a guarantee that they are doing a good job. Instead, their reaction is often "who are you to control me?" or "who do you represent?”.
Some progress has been made though and Danilo Milić gives a few examples:
"We had a municipality that was very bad at communicating with their citizens, and the local politicians made a study visit to Swedish municipalities, which made a strong impression. After that, they revised their website in order to better provide information and handle questions from the citizens, and they began distributing printed newsletters to the households."
Another Serb municipality that visited Sweden changed the allocation of their budget to be more need-based, and local residents got involved in the process through the application for funds for various projects. The distribution of the money was then published openly.
"Public officials will never be more transparent because Swedish donors tell them to do so. But if the residents require it, that can lead to change," concludes Danilo Milić.
About the support for greater transparency and accountability:
The Olof Palme International Center, or the Palme Center, is implementing the Civil Society programme for transparency and accountability in Serbia. The program runs from 2012-2015 and is funded by Sida with a total of 23,790,000 kr.
The vision is to have strong, democratic and accountable civil society organisations that legitimately represent citizens who are being listened to by local decision makers.
The Palme Center is the Swedish labor movement's umbrella organisation for international activities and advocacy work. Sida finances the majority of the organisation's cooperation projects around the world, with the goal of promoting democracy, human rights and peace. The Belgrade office was the first Palme Center's office to be opened outside Sweden.
Belgrade Open School was established in 1993 as an alternative educational program for talented students who want to gain more knowledge and skills than the state university could offer. The program provides no official university diploma, but it is a recognized mark of quality in the students cv within the academic world and the working life. Today, students are no longer the main target, but the organisation’s work includes for example public authorities in order to prepare them for how to benefit from an EU membership.
The work is primarily funded by foreign donors, but also by the Serbian Ministry of youth and sports.