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Central Asia/East Europe: UNICEF Report Notes Serious Erosion Of Education

Prague, 27 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A report just issued by UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, has called for the governments of Central Asia and East Europe to realize that education is a vital part of the reform process.

The report notes the severe erosion in education in the transition countries since the fall of communism. That's been caused largely by the steep economic decline in most of the countries involved, but also because local educational systems have lost focus in the change from command systems to market systems.

The report's compiler, John Micklewright of UNICEF's office in Florence, says that conditions vary considerably across the transition counties. In Central Europe, for instance, where educational systems were in any case good, many schools have been able to continue their past achievements. But the picture for instance in Central Asia is often bleak:

Countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have suffered very badly. Kyrgyzstan's gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen by some 50 or 60 percent, and in these circumstances it is very difficult to move forward in educational reform in ways which inevitably require resources. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for instance there have been falls in enrollments in schools at every single level, from pre-school and kindergarten to compulsory school, and through all forms of secondary school -- vocational, technical and general.

In specific cases conflict is one of the causes in the deterioration or breakdown of education. In Tajikistan, for instance, more than 40,000 children have been orphaned by civil war. Children are also among the war casualties, with at least 16,000 estimated to have died in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

More generally, however, the prime problem is financial, in that many countries stretching from Romania and Bulgaria to Russia to Central Asia have been faced with contracting economies and a shrinking tax base, straining resources to the limit. And the difficulties have not only been at the official level, says Micklewright.

Families have less money to put into education, there has been a fall in household incomes, and a rise in inequality and therefore in poverty, and many households are now struggling to meet the extra costs they have in education. For example to go to school in Kyrgyzstan in winter, as elsewhere, requires a stout pair of shoes and a decent coat, and that is something many families now find difficult to buy for their children.

In Tajikistan, where GDP has also plummeted spectacularly, wages have fallen by more than 90 percent in recent years. There, as in other Central Asian countries, health care systems have come under stress, and mortality rates have increased.

Micklewright says that governments in the transition countries must come to realize that the education system is an absolutely vital part of the reform process, both economically -- in terms of producing future citizens who are productive and can contribute to the new forms of economic organization -- and also socially.

After all, he says, the group that used to comprise eight countries in the Soviet era has now broken up into 27 countries. Thus there is the issue of constructing nations, building cultural identity, creating social cohesion among these new countries, and education has a key part to play in that.

Micklewright says governments must begin to devote sufficient resources to education, and that may require more resolute collection of taxes. They also have to assess whether those resources are used wisely. For instance in many places more teachers are being employed than before, which would seem to be an advantage, but in fact may be the reverse, because pay for teachers is crumbling, with bad affects on morale.

One way the international community can help, he says, is to draw attention to the problems. There are often no easy answers, and the West should not act as though it has all the solutions, since education in the West has also been through some tough problems in the past 20 years.

One of the aims of UNICEF in the present report is to show there are a range of choices to be made in terms of the policies which are effective when applied to education. Not all innovations which have been used in the new era are necessarily the ones which bring the most benefit.

The UNICEF official says that partnership projects between international organizations and authorities in the transition countries can be useful. But at the end of the day, it is those countries themselves which must confront their own problems.