Does a Trap Lurk Behind the Struggle for 6%?
Juan Bautista Arrien shared with envío, in a transcribed talk, his evaluation of the problems facing education in Nicaragua today. His words are a warning for the nation.
Juan Bautista Arríen
The struggle of Nicaragua’s universities to get the government to provide 6% of its ordinary and extraordinary income to the public universities, as the Constitution establishes, is a just struggle, but a trap might be lurking behind it. If so, it's a well-laid trap to focus all national attention, and certainly all attention of the university community, on a single educational problem: the survival of the public universities.
The aim of this trap is to keep us from developing a more profound vision of how the overall university problems fit within those of the national educational system. Student struggles very similar to Nicaragua's in defense of the university budget are occurring all over Latin America today. Might we not be facing a single world strategy with a single trap in which the system wants to snare us all?
The conflict over the 6% as it has been handled so far by both the government and a sector of universities has kept us all from any possibility of learning about, debating and trying to resolve other major problems that national education faces today. It has made us lose perspective. How many university students know what is currently going on in our educational system? How many university professors have in-depth knowledge of the educational situation in this country? We have been pushed to concentrate so much on survival that we are losing sight of the critical risk our educational system is facing.
If I ask university students how many primary students Nicaragua has today, the majority have no idea. Or how many teachers. They don't know. They do know how much teachers earn in Nicaragua (only $60 a month), but probably don't know that in Guatemala they earn $250, in El Salvador a bit over $200, in Honduras almost $200, in Costa Rica $385-400, and in Panama $400. These things must be known.
And if I ask about the illiteracy rate? In Nicaragua it's back up to almost 30%. Do our university students know what the rate is in the rest of Central America? In Costa Rica it's only 6% and in Panama 9%, while in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala it's also right around 30%.
There's a big discussion about curricular transformation, but who knows what lies behind this transformation? Do our university students know how many hours of study a Nicaraguan high school graduate has under his or her belt when entering the university? 13,000 hours. Does it seem like a lot? A Japanese or US student has 22,000.
Do our students even know how school texts are made in this country, and who makes them? Do they know why natural sciences was removed from one primary grade? Simply because the theme of reproductive health was addressed in the text. People in universities need to know all these things.
The struggle for 6% should not get in the way of our seeing and struggling over other problems. And it shouldn't make us forget that there are those who want this struggle to intensify, since they have a hidden strategy behind it. Fight over the 6%, kill each other over it, but only over the 6%; don't touch anything else.
Let's talk about this strategy. In today's world there is a huge and growing consensus about the importance of education. But this consensus is suspect. Everybody sees education today as the key factor for achieving development and overcoming poverty. In all forums it is stated that human capital is as important for the development of nations as financial capital or natural resources, if not more so. It is proclaimed at top volume that knowledge is the new power of our time. These are all undebatable truths. What is suspect is that, in this moment of international crisis, all ideologies and vastly different social and economic positions have been pushed into such a solid consensus about the importance of education.
What is the trap that could be lurking within this international consensus? Could it be to create a climate, accepted by and acceptable to all, that allows some of the mandates and guidelines of the powerful international financial organizations to be introduced into this consensus? Aren't these organizations seeking to take over the design of our countries' national educational projects the same way they are taking over the design of our national economies? Don't they also want to direct education on a global scale? It's not unreasonable to suspect that these undeclared goals exist.
Four Key Documents, Two Main ApproachesFour important documents are responsible for the current consensus created around education. One is the "World Declaration on Education for All." Another is a document published by ECLA and UNESCO that has had a strong impact; it is titled "Education and Development: Focal Point of Productive Transformation with Equity." The third is the World Bank document, "Strategies and Priorities of Education." And the fourth is the UNESCO report known as the "Delors Report," named for the head of the international commission that UNESCO charged with preparing the report.
Educational policy at a world level moves and is analyzed today in relation to these four documents, with some countries leaning toward the positions laid out in one document and others toward the positions of another. These four documents—all of which link education and development—can be summarized into two main approaches. The world conference on Education For All and the World Bank document establish priorities in educational policy and put the stress on this prioritizing. The other two documents, the one by ECLA-UNESCO and the Delors Report, analyze the contribution that the different educational levels make to the development of individuals and nations rather than orienting educational policy based on priorities.
When speaking of priorities in educational policy, all four documents logically put the priority on primary education, the basic educational level. But those who accent the need to establish priorities put almost absolute stress on basic primary education; as a consequence, they neglect the other educational levels, particularly higher education. Those who do not emphasize priorities do not pit primary education against higher education, or that of any other level.
Some defend above all the right of all people to education, at least primary education. Others point out that in addition to this personal right, all peoples have a right to their development, further noting that no nation ever develops with only primary education. Certainly the basis of national development is primary education, but without other levels including higher education, there is no true development.
The tendency being imposed on the countries of the South today, the one trying to impose itself on Nicaragua, is the one centered on priorities. The World Bank's educational strategy has not only distanced itself from higher education, but has entered into conflict with it. It is part of that institution's economic logic. The globalized world capital that dominates the world today is not interested in the countries of the South having a genuine higher education capacity. It does want them to have primary education, because that's what guarantees a cheap and minimally skilled labor force, but above all because it assures them our countries' permanent dependence. To maintain assembly plants (maquilas), there's no need for higher education; primary education is plenty. Higher education is risky for world capital, because it creates, or can create, independence. And the North has traditionally not been interested in letting the countries of the South have too much economic independence.
The World Bank, like UNESCO, is part of the United Nations system. Up until 1990 UNESCO was the UN agency that specialized in technically supporting education in all countries. But since then, as a consequence of the globalized economic policy, the World Bank sidelined UNESCO and took over not only education's financial aspects at a world level, but also its technical, conceptual and orientation aspects. Today the World Bank has 450 experts in education all over the world, many more than UNESCO has.
The current international consensus on education allows certain ideas to be introduced little by little. One is that of the absolute priority of primary education. Another is of the ever more active role that private initiative should play in education, to complete the school autonomy project that has been promoted for some years now in Nicaragua. A similar project is also underway in other countries, with the ideological and economic support of the World Bank.
Decision-making Autonomy Or Just School for the rich?Broad consensus exists in Nicaragua about the need for educational decentralization, about the urgent need to improve educational management and democratize education. There is consensus that parents should participate more in the education of their children, and there is consensus that we should rationalize the country's scarce resources. The school autonomy model is theoretically a way to act on this general consensus, but what is the thrust of this model so far? In the past four years, with the school autonomy project now consolidated, the parents' financial contribution in the autonomous centers has increased by no less than 60%. This is evidence that the project is aimed at increasing the charges to the families for a task that is a public responsibility. In reality, what is happening is that education is ceasing to be free and the state's responsibility is passing into private hands--in this case into parents' hands or, to be even more exact, into the hands of families that can pay.
School autonomy was imposed in Nicaragua virtually without consulting society. Only afterward was there an effort to explain its rationale. After only four years, 90% of the teachers in the country are within the school autonomy system. Where do they want to lead us? To the privatization of all education? It is a reality that private initiative is playing an ever more active role in education in all countries. And what might be the intention of this private initiative, of those who are playing this increasingly active role? Is it on behalf of the poor, in the poor neighborhoods? Why are there now so many new private universities in Nicaragua? Is it only because there is no capacity in the public universities to absorb the 25,000 new high school graduates each year? Or could there be other interests? All these private initiatives have to do later with employment possibilities. Who is going to employ whom? Will they employ those who come out of the public universities or those who come out of the private ones?
A Fractured Educational SystemNicaragua's future is being played out today on the field of education. The current moment is a transcendental one for laying the foundation and enforcing the power of education for our national development and for orienting our development in the direction we want it to go.
Regrettably, the moment is critical. There is a clear disarticulation between the different educational subsystems. This disarticulation is not only because the authorities do not converge around agreements or share common conceptions. And that in turn is not only because the institutions are moving away from each other. It is rather because there are no consistent and coherent pedagogical relations throughout the educational system as a whole, and this is even worse. Possibly never before has the educational system been as fractured as at this moment.
For the past six years, Minister of Education Humberto Belli has been the efficient, tenacious and active agent of the educational project sponsored by the World Bank in Nicaragua. He has the full support and technical power of this institution, which has helped define and launch the primary education policy in Nicaragua. The World Bank has united economic power with the power of education, which of course makes it an extremely powerful institution, and not only here, but in the entire world. Countries like ours have little capacity to oppose conceptions that theoretically sound very good, above all if they are accompanied by economic resources that we cannot do without.
The Chamorro government was the one that opened the doors to the World Bank's educational policy and the $38 million offered along with it. I believe that many in the Chamorro government and President Chamorro herself did not penetrate to the essence of what the World Bank's educational project meant. But Belli certainly did. It is not for nothing that he's the only member of Chamorro's Cabinet who was kept on by Arnoldo Alemán's Liberal government. The World Bank and the US administration—through USAID, which has the same educational priorities—were pleased that Belli stayed on to consolidate the new educational project that they have been promoting in Nicaragua along with the funds needed to establish it.
It's important to point out that the strategy being imposed on us coexists with a legal vacuum with respect to our own educational policy. At the moment, the only thing that exists in practice is a primary education policy. There's no secondary education policy; the minister has no idea what to do with secondary education. Nor is there a policy for university education. Each university has its own policy, its own identity, its own priorities and programs, but no national higher education policy is formulated anywhere. There's no policy to link any educational subsystem with any other. Such profound vacuums keep us from coping with a strategy of the magnitude of the World Bank's.
The Nonformal Programs Have Passed To Civil SocietyThe majority of Nicaraguans know nothing about this educational strategy taking over the Nicaraguan system. But they see it and suffer it. They see, for example, that the nonformal education programs are abandoned, that adult education is not getting the attention it needs from the ministry, that literacy is no longer a public responsibility. While the ministry is concentrating mainly on formal, particularly primary, education, the nonformal education programs, such as literacy and adult education, are today in the hands of civil society organizations.
The unquestionable vigor of the innumerable nonformal education projects that are still reaching so many grassroots sectors, even in today's Nicaragua, comes from the fact that they use well conceived programs, contribute very positive aspects from a methodological point of view, and prepare very appropriate pedagogical and educational materials. The main strength of all these programs is that they are directly linked into life's reality, which has insuperable advantages for people's education. People don't have to wait years to see that education connects them to their vital priorities, to comprehend that education provides a direct response to their needs. In educational terms, this is an extraordinary thing.
What, then, is the weakness of these nonformal programs? It's that, although they constitute a great force both separately and as a whole, they aren't yet an organized force. They aren't a force that could require the Ministry of Education to consider nonformal education—under the care of civil society and with its own characteristics—an integral part of the national education system. Until all these nonformal programs constitute that force, their achievements will be very important but incomplete. At issue here is the ability to have an effect nationally, because we're struggling for a national educational project, not for just bits of that project. Education is national patrimony, a national good. Unfortunately, it isn't considered as such by today's educational policy.
As long as civil society lacks the possibility not only of participating in the definition of education for our countries, but of doing so with criteria, with approaches, with technical and political capacity, it will have a hard time achieving any influence. We particularly want civil society to achieve that influence at a local level. Until civil society strengthens local institutions and is capacitated at a local level so that local civil society has the ability to participate in local investment decision-making, it will be supremely hard to surmount our problems of poverty and underdevelopment.
Nicaraguan civil society has matured enormously and has been acquiring a capacity that now allows it to analyze in depth the problems of school autonomy, for example, or the issue of the university 6%. People's opinions are thought through with much more mature criteria and approaches than those prevailing in the populist speeches, which are the loudest ones when the 6% issue comes up.
The Best Logic for Designing Reforms and LawsThe Minister of Education is well on the way to presenting a General Education Law, which has been drawn up with international advice. The bill, as was to be expected, stresses basic education and proposes to provide incentives to private investment in public education. It is the foundation for the educational scaffolding that has already begun to be erected.
Certain elements have a lot of weight in the international organizations when it comes to laying this foundation for an education policy: more investment, better professors, clear goals and evaluation of achievements, greater autonomy and responsibility for the results, etc. But, logically speaking, it is necessary to go into greater depth in interpreting these elements and their orientation. Nobody doubts, for example, the need to increase the professional requirements asked of teachers. But what kind of training is being used to professionalize them right now? There is an extensive training network, but it is being reduced to short educational workshops in which the teachers are being taught to use the methodological guides and texts prepared by others. The teacher who knows how to mechanically apply a given guide to a given text is the one considered to be a good teacher. Nothing more. Is that pedagogy? Is that how teachers are made? Another example: everybody today proposes incorporating the teachers into the debate about implementing the educational reforms. But, in practice, is this being done in Nicaragua?
We in the Latin American Educational Reform Program at the Central American University (PREAL-UCA) have been insisting that a national educational forum is necessary to discuss all the themes related to education. We believe that the logic that should be followed to develop a law requires stages. The first is to formulate a national educational policy. This requires the participation of all sectors of society, because education is national patrimony, not the property of the education minister or ministry of whatever government happens to be in office. Once consensus has been reached about the major goals, objectives and guidelines of national education, a national education project has to be built, and with an eye on the future since education is a long-term project.
Only then, once we have a policy and a project, a General Education Law must be passed that gives them far-reaching consistency, stability and spirit, so they don't depend on whoever is heading the Ministry of Education at the moment. And once that General Law is approved, a General Educational Development Plan must be drawn up. That's the correct and democratic logic, but it's not the one being followed.
Relegitimizing the Values of Sandinista Education PolicyThe previous government and the current one have sought to delegitimize the education of the Sandinista decade. And we have to relegitimize it. The main characteristic of education in those years was profoundly legitimate: attention and efforts were fundamentally centered on the grassroots sectors since it was assumed that all people had a right to education, particularly those who had historically been sidelined from it, access was the stamp of the revolutionary educational project.
And it wasn't just literacy. When we began to work in the Ministry of Education in 1979, 500,000 Nicaraguans were attended by the educational system. Already by 1983 that had climbed to almost a million people. We virtually doubled the number of children in primary education by that same year and 200,000 were already in adult education. In 1979, only 9,000 children were in preschool education; six years later there were 70,000. Special education had never existed in Nicaragua; the revolution initiated it. Nor had popular adult education existed; we created it. The policy of the Sandinista revolution was more education, better education and new education.
Today, to delegitimize and disqualify the educational efforts made by the revolution, they want us to believe that the quality of education dropped. Of course, by massifying education, the quality dropped in many aspects, for various reasons. Yes, it dropped in the sense of knowing math better or worse, or some other academic aspects. But education grew enormously in other aspects in those years, particularly in the commitment that we, both professors and students, took on to transform our country and benefit all our people—all of them. The growth of consciousness, of social commitment, of solidarity are also qualities.
The revolution's educational project has left a very deep mark. Many seeds were sown, many roots remain. Today, the capacity of the communities and the tenacious and creative spirit of popular education that exists in so many nonformal education programs can only be explained by the fact that there was a revolutionary project in Nicaragua. Education filled with people and the people filled with education in the Sandinista educational project. And right up to today that continues to be the revolution's main educational legacy.