It’s the education, baby: A postcard for Ukraine & co.

While the war is still raging in the East and pundits are busy monitoring the next steps of Putin’s army, Ukrainians are already receiving all sorts of advice about how they should fix their country. The ‘economy’ is of course the magic word, and the top priority. Amidst the loud technical trade-speak, ‘soft’ issues like ‘education’ typically get drowned out. This happened in Slovakia – to its huge detriment.

Foto: CreativeCommons/zachyt.okamzik

When you see the daily newsfeed of tragedies taking place in Ukraine, calling attention to education might seem ill timed. But isn’t propaganda, and the ignorance and helplessness to fight it the fuel of the ongoing war? Unfortunately there never really seems to be a “good time” for an education overhaul – even in a country that is not at war.

Take Slovakia for instance – the country is frequently presented as a ‘champion’ of democracy, with lessons to share with its cousins further East. We like to talk about education in Slovakia. In fact, it is one of the most overused words in the public debate. If someone votes for the ‘wrong’ party, or supports the ‘wrong’ policy decision, then they must just be ‘uneducated’, so the argument goes. In these instances you would have a hard time finding someone who might argue against the importance of learning.

The frequent references to ‘education’ might easily lead one to believe that it is a valued public good. Unfortunately, the Slovak case cannot confirm this. Our elite talk about the importance of education, but they are reluctant to underwrite that talk with cash. One might believe that the budget-drafters do not believe that people can be educated – as if they were born either plain dumb or plain smart.

 Annually, all V4s spend less on education less than their Western counterparts. In expenditures as a percentage of GDP, the situation only looks optimistic for Poland, Slovakia is significantly tailing. In 1989 the Central Europeans wanted to catch up with the West, but it remains a mystery as to how they wanted to do it with less education spending.

 With the limited funding it is clear that the school reforms that have been announced have rarely made it down to classrooms. Teachers, without formal and paid retraining, were somehow expected to start teaching differently out of the blue – oh and, preferably tomorrow.

In 2014, a Slovak teacher takes home a few hundred euros – definitely not enough to compensate for the stress and the demands of the job. Becoming an elementary or high school teacher is far from a ‘dream job’. Occasionally you read about headmasters who, in order to save money, terminate teachers’ contracts for the summer, sending them to register at the Labor Office for two months, only readmitting them when the school year starts again in September. You also hear stories about teachers who, in order to stay in the profession they love, take second jobs to make ends meet.

 According to a recent OECD study, only 4% of Slovak teachers think that the teaching profession is valued in society yet 58% still believe that advantages of being a teacher clearly outweigh disadvantages.

Public policy-makers have been taking advantage of teachers’ passion for their work, continually testing their resilience. Even public mobilizations and strikes only produce a few newspaper articles expressing solidarity, a 5% increase of wages and numerous condemnations from policy-makers (and ‘experts’), who say that those teachers who demand more simply don’t understand public finances. Teachers then wonder: ‘how come those who dismiss us as unaware of ‘the big picture’ allow us to shape the opinions of the whole country?’

 A look at higher education is no more optimistic – education experts frequently complain that Slovak universities are almost untouched by cooperation with the world’s top research institutions and have a hard time entering the EU-funded research schemes. Yes of course, it is not just fault of ‘the state’ – it is also individuals who do not take personal responsibility, are not engaged enough in the new self-governing bodies, such as academic senates and do not work ‘hard enough’.

But, can it really be expected that a few concerned individuals working in educational institutions will be the ones who bring about the needed change? There are a number of optimistic stories, like the one of Katarina D., an elementary school teacher in her early 30s, who spent 150 EURO of her 550 salary to attend a summer seminar to improve her teaching skills. Transportation and accommodations were not included, so she scraped together the money for a train ticket and stayed with friends. She did not complain – she felt lucky that her headmaster gave her a one-week leave! Seriously, how many Katarina D.s are there? And how many should there be?

 Many Slovak experts – be they from NGO or government – are not fans of increased public expenditure. Increased spending invokes memories of the inefficient pre-1989 state, and rampant corruption in the current one. For Slovakia to be ‘competitive’, government simply has to be slim. Moreover, successive governments have justified their stinginess by the debt brake and the austerity measures adopted in the wake of the economic crisis.

 However the social consequences are clear. Without more investment into public education, the public becomes easy victim of simplified narratives. Politicians, Left and Right, have often used fear mongering as a substitute for a fact-based policy debate. The ‘Lazy Roma’ and the ‘separatist Hungarians’ have frequently been presented as the reasons why life in Slovakia is not ‘better’. Raising fear is also a common strategy when talking about our neighbors – instead of opening a serious debate about how we can help Ukraine transition, both the government and the leading opposition party warned of the threats to energy supplies, and the invasion of refugees. Even the Catholic Church – the most trusted public institution – has contributed to this, spending more energy campaigning against a fictitious ‘gender ideology’ in defense of the ‘traditional family’, than lobbying for policies that would make life for young families easier.

 There are plenty NGOs, writers and journalists who have been countering these campaigns of fear. Yet their resources and reach are limited, and quite often they only end up preaching to the converts.

 Obviously, Slovakia is not the only country in the world where lack of attention to comprehensive public education system resulted in a deformed public debate and pointless culture wars, but since many ask for our transition experience, here it is.

 Thousands of Ukrainians stood weeks at Maidan, to be more like ‘West Europe’, and to be closer to the EU. But as the Slovak case shows, even after 10 years of EU membership, education is still on the backburner. If there is one lesson to be taken by any country wishing to be inspired by Central Europe’s transition, it is this: a public education system stimulating critical thinking does not come automatically with ‘going West’, neither does it come via spontaneous and ad hoc efforts of NGO experts or volunteers. Non-governmental initiatives can never reach as many people as a comprehensive public education system. And to fix that, one has to plant the €€€ in the right place.

Lucia Najšlová

Lucia Najšlová

is the editor in chief of the V4 Revue. She is a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague and at UPCES CERGE-EI and associate fellow at the IIR in Prague.