Education International
Education International

Democracy and solidarity at the heart of education

published 25 October 2012 updated 30 November 2012

“Think globally, act locally.” This was one of the calls to action heard at the closing of the EI Education in Crisis seminar, held on 18-19 October in Brussels. Building global support for investment in quality public services, including education and training, is vital, stated EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen.

“We need to turn ideas around, not defensively, but proactively,” he said. “The EI Education Policy Paper, passed at last EI World Congress in South Africa, is a crucial example of what education trade unions are concretely proposing to shape a post-crisis world that is fair and sustainable.“

Participants to the Seminar stressed the importance of entire communities of students, parents and civil society joining the trade union struggle and together seeking a global response to current attacks on public education across the globe.

Additionally, propelling the trade union struggle to the international level and working together towards a new social pact were also identified as key approaches.

The heart of the crisis “There is a crisis of democracy as an idea in itself,” said keynote  speaker Professor Deborah Meier, from the New York Steinhardt School of Education in the U.S. “What is fundamentally at risk is education as a democratic space, and classrooms as places to promote democratic values.”

Professor Meier also explained how teachers in the US do not have a voice in the most important decisions made in schools. “We now have states in the US that no longer have democratic control of their schools and communities. Learning is becoming a private matter, and a private benefit.”

Simultaneously, trade union influence is being rapidly eroded, jeopardising the future of public education. “We need a toughening in the spirit of teachers, and we need leadership for that. This leadership has to come from our education trade unions,” Meier added.

Moving forward by looking backwards  Against this background, participants emphasised the need for ‘going back to basics’ and learning from trade unions’ core values and principles. “Education unions, as democratic institutions, are the best placed to promote and restore democratic values within society,” stated van Leeuwen.

Long-term strategies were also identified, such as educating children politically and building durable alliances with the broader community.

“Education has a key role in developing critical citizens, not just consumers. We need to unify the efforts of students and families together with those of teachers within schools and universities,” stated Daniel Dimitri, from the Bureau of European School Student Unions.

Public education is key to poverty reduction “Investing in education is the single most effective means of reducing poverty,” said Carol Bellamy, Chair of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). The GPE brings together developing country partners, donors, multilateral agencies, civil society organisations and the private sector to achieve Education for All (EFA).

EI is also part of this global partnership and a strong ally in achieving the EFA goal for 2015, as pointed out by van Leeuwen.

“The teaching profession is not just sitting at the table, but is also strongly advocating national governments to do what they promised us they would do many years ago,” he said. “We are your strongest ally, and the GPE can continue to count on our support.”

Participants also queried the role of the business community within the EFA movement: Could private sector input decrease governments’ influence in education?

“It is not a question of who is supplying funding,” said Professor Meier. “The private sector has an increasing influence on education policy in the public school system. It is not that the private sector wants to take over funding of public education; it’s that they want to be ‘the experts’ on education policies.”

Campaigning for tax justice Participants also reflected on the current challenges faced by trade unions in a world ruled by market forces, where financial market confidence is beyond public will. “Public decisions are constrained and limited by the market: it doesn’t have a face or name,” said the coordinator of the Council of Global Unions, Jim Baker.

Government influence on education can also be diluted by a lack of funds. “The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, said the national credit was maxed out and the country broke, so even if they wanted to invest in public services, there was no money”, said EI external consultant David Robinson. “

This is a false argument.  It’s not a question of being broke, but how you pay for public services. For example, through taxes or by other means.”

One of the key ways of addressing inequalities and moving towards exiting the crisis is to reform tax systems. Tackling tax evasion is essential, participants agreed, because it represents a huge proportion of funds that could be invested in, for instance, Official Development Assistance to developing countries.

Protecting labour rights Social dialogue has also been weakened up in Europe as a result of the crisis. “The Troika, composed of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, is acting and imposing conditions on behalf of international lenders,” declared Martin Rømer, Director of EI European Region, ETUCE.

“This authoritarian unilateralism renders national social partners redundant. As a result, in half of the European countries, the social dialogue is non-existent.”

Restricted collective bargaining and limited social dialogue result in a loss of leadership, the General Secretary of Public Services International, Peter Waldorff, pointed out. “The International Labour Organisation has said that this will also lead to more wage inequality and social instability,” he added.

In this respect, it was said that a new global social pact was necessary. This should include financial regulation, a social protection floor, as well as both the reform of tax systems and labour laws.

To access presentations and other key documents from the Seminar, please go to our Education in Crisis website

To access the Photo Gallery of the EI Education in Crisis Seminar, please click here