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East: Postcommunist Countries Struggle To Fund Education Reforms

The postcommunist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have had varying degrees of success in catching up with their neighbors in the West. But when it comes to education, they are equally mired in the problems of the past. Governments in the region have failed to meet the growing demand for better and more accessible education, especially at the university level. And continued economic difficulties have kept many ambitious reforms from getting the funding they need.

Prague, 27 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Education" has been a mantra in the reformist governments of postcommunist Europe.

To some degree, the focus has paid off. Many vestiges of the old regime have been thrown off, and a new generation of teachers is beginning to make its mark.

New schools have mushroomed, from private language institutes to expanded regional universities. Branches of many well-known Western universities have entered the educational arena as well.

But has it been enough? Zhelimir Popov, a deputy minister from Serbia and Montenegro, says many challenges to educational reform remain -- first among them, a chronic lack of funds: "These problems are not about the concept. Our concept of education reform that has been approved is a modern concept, and has the approval of the Council of Europe. Our problem is financial. The salaries of our ordinary teachers are just 200 euro [a month]. That is the problem."

Popov was among the participants at a recent international conference on education reform in Central and Eastern Europe. The conference, held in the Czech capital Prague, drew a variety of education experts and politicians from throughout the region, as well as Western Europe and the United States.

The participants were in agreement: An expanded and reformed education sector is "critical" to the region -- politically, socially, and economically.

As many countries look ahead to European Union membership, education must adapt to increasing competition, the loss of captive markets, and the threat of a so-called "brain drain" -- the departure of qualified teachers and specialists for more lucrative jobs further West.

Those hardest hit by the past decade are state schools. Once the region's sole educational option, they are now facing stiff competition from a fresh crop of private schools and institutes. Boris Pankin, the last foreign minister of the Soviet Union, said even Russia's most prestigious state universities are losing staff and students due to lack of resources.

"These [private] establishments are able to offer better pay to lecturers and professors," Pankin said. "So the instructors who earn practically nothing in the state schools, of course, leave [for these private establishments]. Free education is beginning to look like a failure."

How does a country provide high-quality education with fair access for poorer students -- and all on a limited budget? Such questions have dogged not only postcommunist countries in transition, but even wealthy nations further West.

Most of the delegates at the Prague conference agreed that state funding may have to be bolstered with student fees. Some countries, like Poland, already employ the combined system. Others, like the Czech Republic, resist such changes.

But Slovak parliamentarian Pavol Paska, noting the sluggish economic performance of many countries in the region, said state education budgets cannot be increased at the expense of the taxpayer and that student fees are inevitable.

"Our position is not really whether or not to charge fees. It is obvious that university education systems need much more money. But we also see the problem in terms of providing educational access to more levels of society. That means a really sophisticated system -- not only charging fees, but also giving grants, stipends, and other social provisions so that our nation of 5 million does not lose even a single great spirit who could go on to represent our country in the European Union."

Some Western education experts suggested involving the private sector in partnership schemes with secondary education facilities. This concept has met with success in places like New York City, where inner-city children from poor families are introduced to the world of banking and international business as a way of broadening their options for a future career.

Another possibility is the creation of so-called "science parks," in tandem with technical universities, to capitalize on academic research by using it to develop commercial products.

For now, education in postcommunist Europe is at a crossroads. Slovak Deputy Paska put it this way: "We, the countries in transition, stand at the threshold of entry into the European Union. Huge responsibility awaits us there. But we have the ability to win this duel with the developed countries. And education -- or the human qualities the education system produces -- is the single, or one of the very few assets that we, the small countries, have to help us succeed in that large, common, united Europe."

It looks as though "education" will remain a mantra of postcommunist Europe for some years to come.