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Economic crisis bites into education gains in eastern Europe
By Yojana Sharma,
Inter Press Service
 
  BERLIN/WARSAW, 10 March (IPS) - The great upheaval in the politics and the economy of Eastern Europe over the last 10 years -- since the end of the Cold War -- has had a major impact on education, which was one of the success stories of communism.
 
  The system of education in Eastern and Central Europe has been brutally shaken, notes UNESCO in its review of the last decade.
 
  It has had to be reorganised to provide citizens with the knowledge to make democratic choices, while in the coming decade they will need to learn the skills that will keep them competitive in a wider European Union common market.
 

  Overall, while basic education remains more or less accessible to all, its quality and functioning have been critically affected, says UNESCO in a review of the nineties.

 
  ''Under communism, quality free education was a major success throughout the region. That is why its decline is all the more difficult to accept today,'' said the report presented at a regional conference in Warsaw in early February in preparation for the World Education Forum to be held in Dakar.
 
   The transition has meant large falls in production over the 1990s. GDP rates fell sharply during the 1990s, especially in the countries of the former Soviet Union. By 1998 only Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia recorded higher levels of GDP than in 1990.
 
  ''Most countries in the region have less money now than in 1990,'' said Albert Motivans, an expert on Eastern Europe who drew up the synthesis report for UNESCO.
 
  Governments therefore confront the challenge of revamping their economies with diminished public resources. In addition, growing differences in household income and greater inequality in income distribution means families have less money for education.
 
  In Russia alone the jobless increased from two to eight million between 1994 and 1997 and almost everywhere else in the former Soviet bloc purchasing power has dropped drastically.
 
 Now only the children of the rich benefit from a system which was previously free and available to all, says UNESCO. Teachers are unpaid for several months. ''To continue teaching often resembles heroism,'' UNESCO notes.
 
  ''Because their salaries are among the lowest of any professional category, most teachers are obliged to have a second job to have a decent income. Consequently they no longer have enough time to guarantee quality education.''
 
  Yet the demands on the school system have grown, and will only continue as the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have applied to join the European Union.
 
  They have realised that to compete in a wider European economy they not only have to restructure their economies away from a concentration on heavy industry, they must revamp their education systems to ''provide the relevant skills needed to support national and European competitiveness in a period of rapid technological change and globalisation of markets.''
 
  In some cases ''this has meant practically rebuilding the education system, producing an entire set of textbooks for every student,'' Motivans said in a recent interview in Warsaw.
 
  ''Progressive curricula have the potential to strengthen democratic values, to foster social cohesion, and to promote participation in the construction of civil societies that are slowly being nurtured,'' the report for UNESCO points out.
 
  In addition young people have to be provided with the skills to find jobs in the changing labour market, and ''for self- development and civil participation -- the latter is particularly important in Eastern Europe.''
 
   These changes would present challenges to governments in any circumstances, but for the countries in transition from communism, the demands are huge, and in the case of the weakest economies, have little chance of being met even with increased resources for education.
 
  Moreover decentralisation of education, giving local authorities increasing responsibility, has meant that discrepancies between regions are beginning to emerge.
 
  Many local authorities, particularly in the rural areas, are not allocated the financial resources to meet their new responsibilities and have few means to raise additional funds.
 
  ''The near-universal provision of basic education seems to have been protected. However ... maintaining wide access to basic education has come at the expense of educational quality,'' UNESCO points out.
 
  For instance, the Romania country report notes the ''deterioration in education quality (has been) reflected by schools in poor condition, insufficient number of teaching staff and ... insufficient supply of learning materials.''
 
  At Dakar, governments in Central and Eastern Europe will have to commit themselves to rebuilding education.
 
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