Another “Optimization” of Educational System in Moldova

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Alexei BARBA
The situation in the education system is steadily deteriorating: the number of secondary and higher educational institutions is decreasing, school buildings are privatized, and the shortage of personnel is on the rise. The growing crisis may be used to justify radical measures of the authorities
In addition to “solving” problems in the economy, social and security spheres, the current government does not forget about its leader’s favorite activity – “optimization” of the education system. Quite recently it became known about a new creative idea of officials: namely, the sale of several premises previously used for the educational purpose. This is a good marker of the sad situation that has developed in this vital area. Let us delve a little deeper into history. As we know, we were particularly fond of “optimizing” - or, in fact, closing - schools after 2009, when the country clearly embarked on the path of European integration.  This was done under the pretext of non-compliance with the criteria of economic expediency. The thing is that the level of school funding, which is calculated according to the number of pupils, does not allow spending state money on small institutions. It is absurd to hear about economic benefits in relation to schools that educate the younger generation and are of great socio-cultural and even existential importance, especially for villages. However, the rhetoric of the authorities was and remains the same. Our Madam President distinguished herself in this field: it was during her time as minister of education in Filat’s government (from 2012 to 2015) that the flywheel of the “optimization” program gained the greatest momentum. For instance, between 2000 and 2015 a total of 245 schools were closed in Moldova, while between 2012 and 2015, 71 schools were closed and 103 reorganized (i.e. approximately 30% of the closures occurred during three years of Sandu’s government). The trend is quite noticeable if we take into account previous periods. For example, in 2008, the last pro-European year, only four educational institutions were closed. Feel the difference, as they say. In the last two years, when everything and everywhere in the country is collapsing, situation in education, as it is easy to understand, is also bad. The process of reduction of secondary educational institutions is still going quite fast: 13 schools were closed this academic year. According to the Ministry of Education and Science, there are currently 1,218 educational institutions in the republic, i.e. we have lost 226 schools (or about 16 %) in just 15 years. Of course, we should also admit objective facts – for more than 30 years of independence, the country’s population has thinned significantly. According to statistics, since the early 1990s the number of people living in the country has decreased by about one million, and the number of children has decreased by about 300 thousand. It is especially noticeable in rural areas: the elderly population is just dying out, and young employable citizens of fertile age are moving in search of work, at best to big cities, at worst - abroad. As usual, all problems are interconnected, and the constant crisis in agriculture (the main occupation of the non-urban population), which this year turns into a catastrophe, also crucially affects the well-being of villages. At the same time, the opposite is also true: with the closure of schools, the situation in villages will deteriorate, as the inhabitants have even fewer reasons to stay there. I reiterate, schools cannot be approached only by economic criteria - spending on education is an investment in the future of the country and a guarantee of its economic growth. It seems that the authorities take up the issue of schools with a certain degree of hypocrisy. Just at the end of June, the government approved the signing of a loan agreement with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, under which $40 million will be allocated to “improve the quality of education in Moldova”. We will receive another $20 million from partners. The authorities want to spend this money on the construction of new lyceums, “digital reorganization” of schools, and renovation of kindergartens. I would like to recall that, for example, in 2013, Sandu signed an agreement with the World Bank for a 30 million euros loan for the project “Reform of Education in Moldova” (PRIM). How many schools were closed under this “reform” I mentioned above. And while the Ministry of Education thinks about some kind of digitalization, let us explain that every seventh school in the country (175 institutions) has no indoor toilet, and 24 schools do not even have drinking water. Surely, to study the multiplication table in such conditions is quite difficult. Another example of the failure of the “optimization” practice is the negative consequences for children in terms of logistics. According to the calculations of the relevant department, the funds “saved” by closing small schools should have been used to purchase buses that would transport children to their new place of study. However, it turned out as usual: children have to get up earlier, go to the bus stop, wait for the bus, which may be late or not arrive at all. And all this can happen in very bad weather conditions. Moreover, buses tend to break down and fuel runs out. Therefore, from time to time there are reports that children have to get to school on foot or by cart, and parents have to pay for taxi. The crisis in secondary education naturally spills over into the system of higher education. Thus, domestic universities in recent years have begun to face a shortage of students. In 2008-2009 there were 426-427 thousand young people aged 19-24 in the country. Now this number has decreased to 234 thousand, almost by half. Last year, universities recorded a 2,900 decrease in the number of students despite the fact that this number had been increasing for the last two years (because of the pandemic and the inability of travelling abroad). A total of 56,800 students are now studying in the country’s universities. It is the lowest figure recorded since 1997-1998. With all of this in mind, the government once again resorts to its beloved method of optimization. For instance, the Institute of International Relations and the State University “Dimitrie Cantemir” (former University of the Academy of Sciences) were merged with the State University of Moldova (USM). A similar fate has befallen or will befall several other universities in the coming years. The authorities’ lust for reduction reached such level that it overpowered even reputation-political reasons, since the Tiraspol State University in Chisinau (which the authorities considered to be the successor of the left bank Shevchenko University), which for a long time had been a symbol of the common education system on both banks of the Dniester, was also merged and eliminated. Another important reason for the deplorable situation is the subservient attitude of the current government to everything Romanian. Every year thousands of our best students go to Romania to study. And now, from 2023, Moldovan students studying at public universities in the neighboring state will receive scholarships under the same conditions as students with Romanian citizenship and residence in Romania. According to the project, the scholarships will increase from about 320 to 700 Romanian lei per month. And the relevant Moldovan ministry willingly supports this issue. There is no need to explain, what consequences can await us. In turn, the higher education crisis again affects the secondary education system: there is an acute shortage of teachers in the country. Today the system needs 2,300 personnel. Moreover, more than 50 % of education staff are over 50 years old. It is doubtful that experienced but aged teachers in the current digital age will be able to provide children with quality and modern education. Meanwhile, the government, actively brushing aside criticism of its own draconian measures, unwillingly proposes some abstract plans to support young specialists and raise the prestige of the teaching profession. For some reason, the success of these measures is quite dubious. Let us return to the case mentioned at the beginning of the article. We are talking about the initiative of the Ministry of Education to put up for sale several buildings from which pupils were expelled earlier. So far, only the buildings in separate districts of the republic are in question. However, we think that if the practice proves effective, the scale will expand. We can only guess whose hands the former schools will fall into, for what purposes they will be exploited, and, most importantly, for what needs the money for their sale will be used. In general, we have to admit that the “black hole” in the education system is growing every year, and we are inexorably approaching its horizon, after which shock measures will be inevitable. But maybe the current government keeps them in mind. After all, neighboring Ukraine is already preparing an “advanced” education reform, which, according to rumors, stipulates a radical reduction of school subjects, transfer of the educational process to digital and remote format, with mass dismissals of teachers in parallel. Given how often we copy Ukrainian examples in domestic and foreign policy, it seems that we will be eager to carry out a similar reform. Perhaps, that’s the plan?