The future is bleak

Finally, Romania has a new government. It’s actually the third one since the coalition between PSD (Social Democratic Party) and their junior partner ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats) came into power in December 2016, which is very telling as to the (in)stability of the country’s political system. I will just note that both governments so far, even though initially supported by the ruling coalition, were actually ousted when the leaders of the two parties realized that the prime minister’s actions had veered away from their own personal agenda. An agenda which prioritizes, for instance, a so-called “reform” of the justice system which would make it almost impossible for corruption cases to make it to court, as well as an increasingly anti-European discourse in which institutions like the European Parliament or the European Commission are depicted as useless fora that don’t know anything about the reality in Romania and should therefore keep their mouths shut. (For a brief analysis of the most recent developments in Romania, you can check this article from Bloomberg or this one from The New York Times.) A very saddening, infuriating and dangerous discourse.

So, the country has a new government, which means it also has a new Education Minister – of course, the third one within the space of one year. As a teacher and researcher, as somebody who worked for more than ten years in the higher education system in Romania, I must say I’m more pessimistic than ever that the system as a whole has the slightest chance of healing. To be honest, a new minister in charge of education is actually no news at all, as there have been more than 26 ministers in the 29 years since the revolution in 1989. You cannot have stability, continuity and thorough, deep-going reforms with so many ministers, especially when each and every one of them wants to leave a mark and comes up with a new set of changes bombastically named “reform”, stifling any progress that might have been made until then and leaving teachers, students and parents confused and sometimes desperate to see their efforts ruined in a blink of an eye. Whether it was social-democrats, liberals or liberal-democrats, the parties in power systematically refused to acknowledge the fact that education should be their top priority, and it seems like they actually worked to dismantle anything that was good in the system. The law stipulates that education should get at least 6% of the GDP – no government has ever respected this provision, the real figure being somewhere between 2.5 and 5% – at best. Prolonged, severe underfinancing has had disastrous consequences over the years, from an exodus of young teachers, to increasing dropout rates, to no investment in research facilities, equipment and projects etc..

To give just an example about how bad the situation can actually be, here is an anecdote from the time when I was enrolled as a PhD student in Romania. Two of my fellow researchers needed a certain book for their research. The book was about 50 euros, which is not very steep, but for them it represented a rather hefty amount of money – for comparison, I was working as a full-time teaching assistant in a state university at the time, and my salary was about 200 euros. So they thought it would be a good idea to ask the university library if they could buy the book – after all, it could be used by many generations of students to come. They contacted the library with their request, and the answer they got was, in retrospect, symptomatic for the disarray and confusion the whole system was in. The library informed them that yes, they can buy the book through the library and yes, it would be kept in the library, but they, the students, would have to pay for it, as the library had no funds for any acquisitions whatsoever. And I could go on and on, I have plenty of other examples like this.

The new minister is the rector of a small-town state university and he became instantly (in)famous because of his first public statement as a nominee for the position, as it was a wonderful collection of insipid platitudes assorted with horrendous grammar mistakes. He “massacred” the Romanian language, as some commentators put it. Some others said that the way he speaks Romanian is not relevant as long as he turns out to be a good manager, an efficient captain who can navigate a ship through difficult waters. Personally, I think the abject way in which he mistreats the language is an obvious sign of a lack of culture and vision; but I said fine by me, maybe he’s indeed a charismatic leader, so let’s give him a chance and wait and see what happens.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have to wait long. Just a couple of days after he was nominated (stirring a scandal within the PSD, as another prominent member who served twice as minister of education in the past was expecting to get nominated but didn’t because she lost the support of the party leader), 45 rectors from various universities across the country signed an open letter in which they stated they fully support the new minister. Leaving aside the fact that the letter was totally uncalled for and unprecedented – there have been no such letters until now, not even when important issues such as epidemic plagiarism or underfinancing were on the public agenda – it is in itself a thing of beauty… I don’t remember seeing so much public servility and obsequiousness since, in communist Romania, each and every public discourse was a horrible, tasteless ode to Ceaușescu. The text literally says that the nominee is a “fighter” – I kid you not!

And then, after the nomination came the confirmation hearings in Parliament. And the new minister-to-be said, nonchalantly, that “Our education system is very good and it is a shame to overshadow its values by emphasizing elements that are not so important, like plagiarism cases. We talk too much of the 0.1% PhD theses that were found to be plagiarized, especially when the law we should use to condemn them is far from perfect”. Yes, literally. His point was that plagiarism cases are not that important and that they shouldn’t overshadow the progress that has been made so far (more on that here), and he literally said this.

What future is there for a country’s education system if the minister himself considers plagiarism to be a minor issue? How can anybody ever hope for integrity and honesty in such conditions? Over the past few years there have been numerous investigations about cases of plagiarism, some of them concerning prominent politicians and lawmakers – a few years ago, then prime minister Ponta was actually forced to give up his doctorate after it was discovered he had plagiarized (more on that here). (And that, by the way, only after the Minister of Education at the time, in a pathetic attempt to wash his superior clean, beheaded, dismantled and left completely powerless the national academic council that was in charge of validating and investigating doctorates.) How can anybody ever hope that a profoundly flawed education system will ever heal?

In communist times, there was a joke circulating in certain circles in Romania, a very short and cynical one. Something very dark and small is knocking at the door – what is it? And the answer was: the future. This is how I feel right now – I’ve lost almost all hope and I believe the future of the whole education system in Romania is really dark. Bleak. Black.

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