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September 27, 2022

Why do we study?

The autumn baccalaureate session did not bring a significant change to the general result. The results are deemed scandalous by some and salutary by other. Some praised the minister for his inspiration of introducing generalised video surveillance during the exam, while other denounce the social cost of the unusual measure. A measure seen as perverse by some and belated by other. Minister Funeriu is seen either as a Hercules cleaning up King Augeas’ stables or as the grave digger of Romanian education. The picture already gets apocalyptical shades to some: universities are losing their clientele, the unemployment benefit budget is facing an imminent implosion, adolescents are committing suicide these days not for the lost love but for a failed baccalaureate.

However, apart from this transient hysteria, the crisis does indicate a chronic disease of the public education in Romania.

Something of the mentality of the communist age has survived: the conviction that higher education makes the difference. The 1980s saw an extremely expanded culture of private tuition, like some sort of spontaneous response to a system of admission that was prohibitive to many candidates.

But once at university, any young person had a safe career ahead: job allocation, unquestionable right of labour (in the name of the system stability and security) and a retirement benefit. The consequence was that the baccalaureate was a mere formality, governed by a silent teacher-school master-pupils solidarity trying not to put an extra burden on candidates. Even if university education was liberalised in the 1990s, university entry exams lost their importance and the number of places was incomparably bigger (especially when places with a charge were introduced to public universities), the baccalaureate did not gain any more prestige or demanding character. All the more so with university requirements being on a de facto decline (new universities appeared even in towns without an academic tradition and potential, the need of money from tuition fees lowered the level of difficulty and some of the parents got more resources to keep their children in university), the baccalaureate could not have been against the tide refusing candidates’ access to increasingly affordable and available universities.

But the situation has changed in the last two decades in a different way. The old strict correlation between the education and labour market is long gone. Many now find jobs that have no connection with their education whatsoever and universities are looking like some autistic organisations that can only be bothered to consider the concrete future of their graduates when it comes to putting together an advertising offer designed to secure their funds. In addition, the old myth of general education (actually a compensating safety valve in communism) has lost its glamour, been quickly replaced by a new cult of efficient (and well paid) specialisation. The consequence was that high-school education does not benefit from a strategic perspective. A realistic and stimulating one, that should take into account vocational diversity, the adolescent’s psychological context and labour market versatility. The fact that the probably of baccalaureate fraud has dropped dramatically is a good thing. No matter its motivations, the measure seeds into pupils’ minds the potentiality of a social itinerary based on fraud of all kinds. It gives the impression of a false system legitimacy, a perverse initiation in social hypocrisy. Once firmness becomes a constant, the worth of studying for the baccalaureate is re-launched. But it is not enough that the exam is just a final assessment illustrating a few years’ efforts. The baccalaureate should remain a bridge to subsequent vocations, which calls for a more realistic differentiation of secondary education and, most of all, a courageous dispute with those treacherous claims of universities which seduce candidates and then abandon graduates to a world disinterested in its education. Students and parents may be thrilled by the prospect of a diplomatic career, for example, after completing the so-called ‘European Studies’, but the disappointment is big in the end. The first to blame is the university that makes promises knowing it cannot keep them. A vocational information campaign balancing the situation could become one of the ministry’s priorities and could be introduced to political parties’ electoral programmes in the name of a lost political responsibility. At the same time, the issue of unequal access to education should not be minimised.

This is a field where the Left and the Right can compete for the benefit of the whole society. But will we live to see those times when people vote with the efficiency of a certain party’s measures in mind, thinking about the future of its children? While in this country the debate on education revolves around social functionality issues, the Western example could widen our perspective. What is the purpose of high-school education: preparation for higher education, sufficient professional training, development of juvenile personality? Little of each, of course, however proportions and priorities are crucial. Education is not just a commodity with an investment cost, but also a melting pot of social dynamics, as well as a strong culture ferment. We should not omit these essential aspects when designing optimal strategies. Otherwise, everything falls into an anecdotic registry, a permanent lamentation about social hydras and a national self-flagellation.

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