A bright future for Kosovo through student representation
Project Siheksu aimed to create the first national Students’ Union for Kosovo. Three years on, Sarah Purves, Director of Membership Support and Development at Edinburgh University Students’ Association, spoke to us about the project. Spoiler alert: they did it.
It is truly inspiring to hear Sarah talk about Project Siheksu. From how much they achieved in such a short space of time, to how brilliant the students were, and how much she valued her time in the city of Pristina, Kosovo. It has been a positive experience for all involved.
Putting the project together
The project has been funded through Tempus, a strand of European Union funding for supporting educational development through EU countries working in partnership.
The work that the wider project team has carried out, alongside the work the students involved have taken forward, has had a fast trajectory.
Within the Students’ Association, Sarah Purves’ has oversight of four key areas; Student Activities, The Advice Place, Peer Learning and Support, and Representation and Democracy.
Projects in Tempus bring together a set of international partners - universities and in our case student unions - who work with people in the country, supporting the development of the project and delivering elements of it, in terms of training or workshops.
With Sarah’s experience and her highly pertinent role working with student leaders here at Edinburgh, she was a natural fit, alongside student officers from the Association, to join the team designed to support development of a national body for student representation for Kosovo.
Sarah explained that Professor Tina Harrison, Assistant Principal Academic Standards & Quality Assurance, is the Edinburgh lead on Project Siheksu, and the international project partners included: University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Students’ Association, NUS Scotland, Paris- Lodron University of Salzburg, Austrians Students’ Union at Paris-Lodron University of Salzburg, Vrije Universiteit Brussels and University of Alicante.
These partners joined with Kosovo based organisations and institutions: Ministry of Education, Science and Technology – Higher Education Department (HED), Kosova Center for Int. Cooperation in Higher Education, World University Service Kosova – WUS Kosova, University of Prishtina, University of Prizren, University “Haxhi Zeka” in Peja, Kosovo Accreditation Agency (KAA).
A good foundation
Sarah explained that a lot of groundwork had been done in country already, and so they weren’t starting from scratch as the universities have class reps and student reps, and each of the universities has a student president or chair of their own leading on student representation, much like our student sabbatical officers here at Edinburgh.
Having motivated student reps in the room from the partner countries, including one of our own sabbatical officers, really helped motivate the student leaders in Kosova too.
“The kick-off meeting was really an opportunity for us to explain how student representation and national student representation works in all of our countries. It enabled the Kosovan partners to support the students there to think about what might be effective for them."
"It operates quite differently in each of the partner countries - everyone’s got different structures, different mechanisms for electing people into those roles, different routes and opportunities for influencing government and other stakeholders. That was one of the most interesting things about the project – I learned a lot! Our role as a team was really to encourage local thinking, and to ensure there was good student involvement in the project."
A clear agenda
Over the three years, the people involved from Kosovo attended study visits at the other international partners, enabling them to see in practical terms how other systems operate elsewhere – it also enabled student leaders from Kosovo to share perspectives with student reps from the partner countries, seeing how the various student representative bodies involve their members and work successfully.
This was alongside meetings in Kosovo to work on various policy and regulation documents and make decisions about different activities. NUS Scotland also went out recently to deliver specific training and workshops for the student officers of the student union, to support their future planning and development.
I think all the people involved locally were very actively and happily engaged. There was possibly initially a level of apprehension about what would it mean to have a national student union, but everyone was coming at this project with a sense of shared purpose and a really clear agenda so I think that was really positive to start with.
Sarah also believes that it’s been an interesting opportunity to reflect on the structures in Edinburgh, as well as the ways in which other institutions work.
"One of the things I learned was you had to be really mindful of the context that people are already working in, so actually what works for us won’t necessarily work for them, and it’s more about presenting options. It's been very interesting, because we’re a very well-established students’ association, so you can take some things for granted. But we’ve been changing and adapting here too – we’ve gone through some significant development lately. The exciting thing in the creation of an entirely new body is thinking about these different structures, and what works, you really can’t take anything for granted.”
Sarah told me that once she saw the students actively involved in the project, she knew they would meet their goals.
“Once the students were involved, and they set up their initial structure for how they were going to operate as a group, and when they had started to operate as a union, which was actually really early on in the project, I didn’t have any doubts."
Of course, setting up a brand new organisational structure focussed on student representation comes with a lot of regulation and governance needs, which for such motivated students, who evidently wanted to get started on dealing with issues as soon as possible, would have been understandably a little frustrating.
“At the point that they’re really wanting to get involved and work to represent on issues, we were having to sit down with them and instead write regulations for elections, articulating the decision-making structures and committees for the organisation and so on. They’ve got to have the governance framework in place. It needs to belong to them, so a lot of the workshops were often around sitting with a draft of a document and really thrashing out the detail of what they wanted. There were a lot of decisions to make along the way, but they’ve handled all of that brilliantly.”
The students involved in the project are amazing. They’re very driven and committed, and they really want their union to be effective. They’re great ambassadors for their institutions and for their country.
To emphasise how quickly the union has been formed, Sarah highlighted that in the beginning they were a collection of students operating separately in their own institutions, and now they have a staff member and some physical space, and are operating as a union which will also be able to provide access to training and development for the student representatives of the individual universities.
They’ve also got some great ambitions for the future, with a desire to apply to become a member of the European Students Union, an umbrella body of national student unions in Europe.
“The project is formally finished but I am in contact with lots of the people involved, so I think this will not be the end of me hearing about the project or the future of the union, and I will always be interested in their progress.”
All the students that I’ve met are very passionate about wanting to stay and contribute to the development of their own country. Pristina is now really bright and thriving
"For such a bright future for student representation to come out of an area where some staff on the project had first-hand experience of the war in Kosovo, with higher education coming to a halt and lectures taking place in living rooms, alongside some truly traumatic events, this is truly a great sign of development and continued stability of the region.
"Infrastructure is developing significantly– for example, the US are building a new Embassy and various facilities, as well as various international corporations having offices there now too. It’s a real bright thriving place that feels like it’s going places, and all of the students that I met were keen to be part of developing Pristina and the country, with the education system being a core part of that.”