Tetovo is the unofficial capital of the Albanian community. The city is located in the northwest of Macedonia, close to the border with Kosovo. The region was a flashpoint during the 2001 conflict. Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the guerrilla forces, had his headquarters in Sipkovica, a mountain village only 10 km from Tetovo.
By now the town has become a centre for higher education in Macedonia, especially for the Albanian community. The State University of Tetovo and the newly formed South East European University (SEEU), where courses are held in English, Albanian and Macedonian, have sought to resolve the inequality of access to higher education – an enduring source of ethnic tensions.
Like all of Macedonia, Tetovo was part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Previously an Orthodox village built around an Orthodox Church, it came under Islamic influence from the late 14th century and came to be known by the Turkish name Kalkandelen. The mosque of Sarena Dzamija (coloured or decorated mosque), built in 1459 with funds donated by two women, is one of the most famous examples of Islamic architecture in the region. Tetovo is also the site of Baba Arabati Tekke, a lodge for dervishes of the Bektashi sect. Sufism and dervish orders once played an important role in the Albanians' practice of Islam. Herbert Vivian, an English traveller who wrote about the region at the beginning of the 20th century described the Ottoman town:
"Kalkandele is even more beautiful than most Turkish towns. Every house has its garden and a rippling rivulet, tall poplars and cypresses rise up beside the glistening minarets, storks' nests are poised upon the chimneys, weather-beaten wooden dwellings of fantastic shape are relieved by the gay arrangement, always artistic, of Turkish shops, and the women are among the most gorgeously attired in all Macedonia."
(Herbert Vivian "The Servian Tragedy", 1904 pg 294)
Today, Tetovo is a multiethnic city with a clear Albanian majority. In 2002 Tetovo municipality had a population of 86,580 including 60,886 Albanians and 20,053 Macedonians. Small communities of Roma, Turks, Serbs, Bosniaks and Vlachs make up the rest (2002 Census).
For years prior to the conflict of 2001, the Albanian minority in Macedonia had protested that they were discriminated against and underrepresented in higher education. The constitution prescribed that higher education should only be provided in the state language – Macedonian. In 2001 Albanian students accounted for only 4.9 percent of enrolments in higher education (OECD). Until the early 1990s many of Macedonia's Albanians had attended the bilingual University of Pristina in Kosovo. After the Milosevic regime effectively closed the Albanian-language sections of the university, former Albanian staff of the University of Pristina helped set up the University of Tetovo, intended as Macedonia's third state university and the first to teach in Albanian. The state declared the university illegal and attempted – unsuccessfully – to close it down by force. This sparked violent protests by the Albanian minority.
The South East European University (SEEU) was conceived as a solution to the stalemate: a private multilingual and multiethnic institution in Tetovo. With support from the OSCE, the Council of Europe, USAID and international donors it opened in October 2001, shortly after the end of the insurgency. In seven years it has grown continuously, establishing links with a number of universities around the world, and seeking to meet European standards. Its academic focus is on law, business, social sciences, computer sciences, and teacher training programs. While initially aimed primarily at Albanian students, already by the academic year 2003/04 more than a quarter of newly enrolled students were ethnic Macedonians (OECD, Improving access and opportunity: Higher education in transition in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Today, the university has over 7,000 students.
In addition, the Macedonian government recognized the University of Tetovo as a state university in 2004. As a symbol of the Albanian struggle for equal rights, its status had been a contentious issue in Macedonian politics for years. While the DUI, the largest Albanian party had pushed for its legalisation, others had questioned the standard of education and suggested it contributed to ethnic segregation. The university's current enrolment is 12,036 including 1,100 foreign students (SUT). The language of instruction is predominantly Albanian. It has faculties for Natural Sciences, Economics, Polytechnics, the Arts and Law.
Tetovo's universities have made a significant contribution to the number of Albanians in higher education. From 4.9 percent in 2001 the number of Albanians among total enrolment at Macedonian universities had reached 14.9 percent by 2004 (SEEU).