Extension of accreditations to colleges annulled by top court

Ljubljana – The Constitutional Court has annulled in an unanimous decision the implementation of a provision from one of the legislative packages for mitigating the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic that extends accreditations to higher education institutions.

The provision was stayed in late January, and the country’s top court announced the final ruling on Tuesday.

It relates to the 2016 changes to the higher education act that introduced stricter conditions to establish a higher education institution, and stipulated that it is examined whether the existing institutions meet these conditions when their accreditations are due to be extended.

Under the changes, a higher education institution needs to get its accreditation extended by the National Agency for Quality in Higher Education (NAKVIS) at least every five years.

The sixth legislative stimulus package, passed last November, extended this deadline and stipulated that higher education institutions need to meet these conditions only when their accreditation is due to be extended for a second time.

The constitutional review of the provision had been requested by former Maribor University chancellor Danijel Rebolj, a member of the opposition Left, who said the change has been made without proper justification and for reasons not connected with mitigation of the consequences of the epidemic.

Rebolj argued that this is an inadmissible encroachment upon the ongoing re-accreditation procedures. Responding to the ruling, he said today the court had squashed an attempt to grant certain higher education institutions privileges that would lower education standards.

In the decision that stayed the provision, the court said that possible decisions to extend for the first time an accreditation to a higher education institution under the provision would mean that the institution’s accreditation would be extended under unequal, less strict conditions.

In the decision announced today, the Constitutional Court said that the government and National Assembly had not sufficiently argued the connection between the elimination of the consequences of the epidemic with the extension of accreditations.

It ruled that the NAKVIS should examine whether the existing institutions meet these conditions when their accreditations are due to be extended under the 2016 changes to the relevant act.

While the provision has been declared unconstitutional, this nevertheless has no effect on the extension of accreditations to higher education institutions on which a final decision has already been made, the court said in January.

The NAKVIS told the STA it welcomed the court’s decision because it was final and as such meant an end to a suspension of accreditation procedures.

This temporary regulation has caused “a number of organisational issues”, it said, noting that a total of 15 institutions of higher education were currently in process of extending their accreditations, including the University of Ljubljana, University of Maribor, University of Primorska, University of Nova Gorica and New University.

The agency did not comment on the ruling content-wise, merely saying it would continue to observe the current law.

It also pointed out that when the sixth stimulus package was discussed in parliament, the NAKVIS warned that the higher education act did not regulate the status of students in the event of a higher education institution losing its accreditation.

The agency has prepared a proposal that would remedy the situation. The draft bill was presented at the Education Ministry last month and is currently hashed out by stakeholders, the NAKVIS said.

Also welcoming the ruling, the opposition Marjan Šarec Party (LMŠ), Social Democrats (SD), Left and Alenka Bratušek Party (SAB) said they had opposed the provision in question when the sixth coronavirus relief law was discussed in parliament.

The LMŠ and SD called on Education Minister Simona Kustec to accept responsibility and resign in the wake of the developments.

The LMŠ said the court annulled the implementation of the provision because it deemed the measure was not critical to tackle the impact of a natural disaster. Many such “cuckoo eggs” remain in stimulus legislative packages, the party noted.

Deputy head of the SD and former Education Minister Jernej Pikalo said the court had unanimously agreed with the party’s views on the matter that the epidemic should not be exploited for realising private interests of individuals that are close to the ruling SDS.

“The Constitutional Court established what we all knew in general,” Miha Kordiš of the Left told reporters. Accreditation line-jumping in the stimulus package was tailored to meet the wishes of the private New University, he said, describing the measure as “a form of legalised corruption”.

The SAB also believes that the provision was a favour for “a friend of the largest coalition party whose university did not meet criteria for extending accreditations”. The party said the court thus ruled against systemic corruption.

New University meanwhile said it lost nothing due to the court’s decision just as it gained nothing as a result of the sixth stimulus package as it met all the re-accreditation criteria under the higher education act.

The university’s chancellor Matej Avbelj considers the ruling another proof that all means, including at the level of the Constitutional Court, could be used in Slovenia to stand in the way of a private university.

The ruling will lead to the resumption of re-accreditation procedures at University of Ljubljana, University of Maribor and University of Primorska, other than that it has no effect on them, the three public universities told the STA.

The Education Ministry told the STA that the ruling would have to be observed by relevant stakeholders despite the current circumstances that made smooth functioning of higher education institutions more difficult and could thus potentially lead to difficulties in fulfilling accreditation criteria.