EUROPE: Serbia and Kosovo strike degrees deal

The European University Association has welcomed an agreement between the governments of Serbia and Kosovo that will pave the way for the mutual recognition of degrees issued by their universities. The deal was stuck in Brussels on 2 July.

A communiqué said Belgrade and Pristina would identify a "mutually agreed international body or third party academic institution" to certify the degrees.

The deal also involves the exchange of students, teaching and research personnel and participation in joint projects related to education.

Until now, with Serbia and Kosovo both claiming jurisdiction over Kosovo government-controlled territory, Kosovo students have not had their degrees recognised in Serbia and vice-versa, including ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo, which is overwhelmingly Albanian by ethnicity.

The Serbia government stressed that the agreement did not involve any recognition of the independence of Kosovo, although that has been challenged by Pristina. The details of the mutual recognition deal will be agreed at the next meeting, later this month.

Lesley Wilson, Secretary General of the European Union Association (EUA), said: "We welcome this announcement as the universities concerned are EUA members and it marks a clear step forward in the interests of the young people in the region."

She highlighted the gains for Kosovan students, whose country - still unrecognised by some EU member states, such as Spain - have been in legal limbo.

"While many students in Europe now take for granted unprecedented opportunities to benefit from a genuine European educational experience, Kosovo youth has largely been isolated from these positive developments."

She hoped the deal would help students from Serbia and Kosovo benefit from the harmonisation and regional recognition of European degrees under the Bologna process.

Branko Kovacevic, Rector of the University of Belgrade, also welcomed the deal. "The university was, is and is going to welcome and respect all decisions and obligations that the Serbian government makes and takes.

"Also the university, as institution for education and science, respects all academic rights and freedoms and therefore is ready for this kind of cooperation, not only with Pristina but with any other institution of this type in the world."

Kosovan Deputy Minister of Education, Science and Technology Usmen Baldzi agreed, stressing that knowledge has no boundaries and that is pointless to create obstacles to education.

"This agreement will stop the 'brain drain' and keep the young, educated people at home."

After Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008, universities and colleges in areas controlled by the Kosovo government started to issue degrees to their students with a Republic of Kosovo seal. Serbia's unwillingness to recognise Kosovo's independence was reflected in a refusal to recognise the degrees. Kosovo then refused to recognise degrees in Serbian government-controlled territory.

Baroness Ashton, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, said the agreement did "not require either to give away anything, rather both sides gain a lot. I am looking forward to the swift implementation of these agreements".

The agreement marks progress in relations between Serbia and Kosovo since the recent phase of their conflict erupted in 1998 with fighting between Serbian forces and Kosovo Albanian rebels.

Renewed Serbian military action in 1999 forced 800,000 Kosovo Albanians to flee to neighbouring countries before controversial NATO air strikes pressured Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his forces.

Tens of thousands of Serbs later fled Kosovo fearing reprisals.