Ending Corruption in Bosnian Universities

Students who failed their entrance exams to the University of Sarajevo were enrolled anyway because “their parents knew someone” or they paid the right person: “With money, you can do anything”.

During a private meeting with a professor, a student was told that he would certainly pass an important exam if he bought the professor’s book for 40 €. “I think everyone at the university is familiar with this practice. No matter who I spoke to, almost everyone said they bought it.

A man who applied for a professorship was passed over for a candidate who had lower grades. “My agony continues because I took it all to court. It’s been going on for a long time and it’s exhausting. My colleagues and I are not the only ones, but it would be nice if we were the last.

These are three of more than 50 complaints sent by students and staff to the Center for Youth Activism Development (CROA). AORC is taking an old-fashioned approach to ensure they are the latest victims of the corruption-ridden university system in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Students, professors – anyone, for that matter – can file their concerns and complaints in simple boxes that CROA maintains at the University of Sarajevo and the University of Sarajevo East. Several years after the start of their campaign – “Knowledge IN, Corruption OUT” – CROA is so well known that the group does not even need to put its logo on the boxes.

“Students use the boxes, but the boxes are also a memory aid. They know what it’s for,” said Alma Fejzić, lawyer and project coordinator at CROA. “A lot of people see the boxes and then mail or email their complaints because they don’t want to be seen on campus.”

Fejzić, who herself studied at the University of Sarajevo, said corruption there is an open secret. “When I was studying, I saw cases, but I was not a victim. I didn’t have to buy books from teachers or give money to pass exams. But I I’ve certainly heard of problems.

AORC’s efforts caught the attention of universities, Fejzić says, and administrators began holding meetings with the group. “They want to cooperate with us. This is a big step for us,” she said. “They know they have a problem.”

CROA not only forwards some of the anonymous complaints to universities for follow-up investigation, but the group is also planning anti-corruption training for faculty, staff and students. It hosts “anti-corruption cafes”, produces awareness videos and provides free legal assistance to students in their appeals against unfair university decisions. The group is also working to include conflicts of interest in university codes of ethics. These efforts are part of the group’s broader initiative, “Youth Against Corruption: Don’t Be the Weakest Link”.

Fejzić says CROA is trying to break the attitude of resignation that pervades not only Bosnian society, but the entire Western Balkan region. “Corruption is a big problem in all walks of life. It is a widespread problem. Our people know the problems, but think they can’t fix them. They are depressed when we talk about it.

Investigations by AORC and other groups clearly document the problems. A survey of 2,000 university students and 500 employees found that one in four students had encountered corruption, such as paying for a better grade. In addition to bribes and forced purchases of textbooks, some students are pressured to join certain political parties and are extorted for a private phone number and sexual favours, according to CROA.

“Fixing corruption has to be done in small steps,” said Fejzić, who chose nonprofit work over practicing law. “I think I can give a lot more to my company in an NGO than as a lawyer in court. NGOs can do much more for my country and my society. Many of us want to stay in Bosnia and build our lives here.