The globalized labor market brings a lot of opportunities – but do all of us really have the same chances? What is the defining factor that decides whether or not we will succeed in such a highly competitive environment? To be fair, it can’t be boiled down to one single element, but it all starts with quality education.
Education, however, is a very sensitive and individualistic issue, meaning that each local school has different peculiarities in its student body or financial situation. Hence, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to provide quality education, and states should not attempt to impose centralized education policy on local districts. However, this is exactly what policy makers in Mexico and Hungary are trying to do at the moment, outraging teachers’ unions and their supporters.
Teachers’ protests in Oaxaca, Mexico last month left nine dead and over 100 injured after police forces opened fire on the demonstrators. The teachers were criticizing cuts in the education budget, standardized tests for the purpose of faculty evaluations, and the arrest of two teachers’ union leaders. While the government claims that these measures are supposed to fight corruption and ensure quality education, the teachers argue that the standardized tests will harm students and educators alike. If the results are not satisfying, the teacher is fired. What sounds like a great plan to ensure that teachers are doing their job, is claimed, especially by teachers from the poorer regions of Mexico, to be a way to fire them because they won’t be able to fulfill certain requirements due to a lack of financial resources. This inhibits them from structuring classes to satisfy the needs of their respective student bodies.
Since Victor Orbán’s government passed the new education laws in Hungary in 2012, voices have become louder criticizing the measures that nationalize the entire education system. Teachers are protesting, among other things, against the nationalization of schools, which leads to tougher curriculums that don’t take into account the special circumstances in each individual district. Additionally, mandatory classes have been increased to 40 hours per week, increasing students’ and teachers’ workloads. Materials such as textbooks are full of mistakes and typos and are based on pure rote knowledge of dates and facts, giving the students a major disadvantage in regards to other EU students, whose education focuses more on analysis and critical thinking. In their efforts to nationalize school administration, the government founded the Klebelsberg Institutional Maintenance Center (KLIK). This agency, however, only added another layer of bureaucracy since teachers would have to file official requests to receive basic materials such as chalk and toilet paper. While the KLIK was dissolved this summer and a new state secretary for education has been appointed, teachers are not yet satisfied and will continue their fight for a better education system.
Hungarian teachers are supported in this fight by the European Commission, which has launched an infringement procedure on the principle of equal treatment against Hungary. It is argued that due to the nationalization of the education system, schools have less leeway to adjust to their students’ needs, which leads to already marginalized groups such as Roma children being denied equal access to education. However, the EU has just a supporting competence in the field of education, which means that it can’t, nor should, regulate national education policies. The only time it can act with concrete measures is when the issue can be linked to areas in which the EU has full competence, such as competition, hence also matters related to non-discrimination.
Both protests reflect a deeper issue: the inability to provide high quality primary and secondary education due to an over standardized system that leaves no room for schools to adapt towards their unique situations. This will leave the next generations of these countries uncompetitive in the global job market, leading more and more students to, if they can, seek education elsewhere. While both governments are denouncing the demonstrations as unjustified demands for higher salaries, they fail to understand that these movements are protesting for a better future and more opportunities for their children.
As mentioned before, quality education is dependent on local particularities. Hence, for education policies to be successful they have to be made on the lowest level possible. This also means that international or regional organizations don’t have the authority to influence national education reforms. The teachers’ protests deserve support nevertheless. Therefore, it is on the people of the European and international communities to raise awareness of the issue through media outlets, support movements, and open public debate in order to pressure policy makers to take the demands in their countries seriously.
There can’t and shouldn’t be an overarching education policy to regulate school systems around the world. Policy makers have to learn the lesson that nationalizing or standardizing education won’t increase its quality but will deprive the next generations of their chances to compete in the international labor market.