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Opening Address by Fred van Leeuwen, EI General Secretary, at the High Level Seminar on the impact of the economic crisis on education in central and eastern Europe in Warsaw, 2-4 September 2009

published 2 September 2009 updated 2 September 2009

Below is the opening address by EI General Secretary, Fred van Leeuwen, at the High Level Seminar on the impact of the economic crisis on education in central and eastern Europe in Warsaw from 2-4 September 2009.

Colleagues, One year ago a financial hurricane swept the planet. And the countries of Central and Eastern Europe found themselves at the centre of the storm. The global hurricane has calmed over the recent summer, but it is only now that we are seeing the full extent of the damage. And nowhere at this time is the damage more apparent than in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. That is why EI has decided to convene this high level meeting of union leaders on the impact of the economic crisis on education in these countries. The first question we can ask is: Why these countries? Why were the countries of the former Soviet Union and the former Warsaw pact so badly affected? The answer to this question is closely linked with the origins of the crisis. For nearly 3 decades there had been a global consensus in favor of de-regulation of the private sector and downgrading of the public sector. The rise of this policy – or should I say this ideology – often described as “neo-liberal”, accelerated with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union and centrally planned economies across Eastern Europe. As you know, once freed from the heavy hand of central planning, the countries of this region moved swiftly to embrace the philosophy of the free-market. Regulation, any form of regulation, had a bad name. There was a strong urge to promote economic growth as quickly as possible, to catch up with the West.. The Role of International Financial Institutions Today, as our EI staff paper points out, 14 out of 28 countries in the region have turned to the global fire-brigade – the IMF – for help – to the tune of 57 billion Euros. The European Union is expanding its lending facilities for EU member states to 50 billion Euros. The World Bank is tripling its lending to the region. Global and European Institutions do recognize that this, the worst crisis to hit the region since the Second World War, contains the threat not only of financial chaos but also of social and political instability. But the support of these institutions comes at a price. You have seen that IMF conditionalities are being imposed on these 14 countries, just as they were imposed in the past on the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. As we have pointed out repeatedly, there is an enormous contradiction between the calls of the IMF leadership for stimulus through the public sector, and the budget ceilings, including public sector wage ceilings imposed on countries through IMF conditions. So today, our unions in the region face a two-pronged challenge. On the one hand we have to confront the impact on our schools and our teachers and our support staff of this bust in national economies. On the other hand, we have to confront the negative impact on public services, including education, of the conditions imposed by the institutions called in to rescue the economies. The issues underlying this double challenge are set out in some detail in the working paper prepared for this conference: Education: the cost of the crisis. I’d like to compliment our young researchers for their excellent work in putting this paper together. The concrete examples are alarming. Many of you are experiencing these events directly and can give first-hand accounts. A strategy – ideas and actions Colleagues, we are holding this crisis meeting of leaders here in Warsaw not only to share and record the impact of the crisis on our schools and our members, but also, to pursue a strategy of action. That action must combine all the forces we have at our disposal. We must link together our global strategy, our work across the European region, and your national action. Indeed, there must not be a single unbroken thread from the global to the local. To succeed, we must combine ideas with actions at each of these levels. For we do have the arguments, powerful arguments, for investment in education as the key to sustainable recovery. We must put these arguments across at all levels – as EI is doing with the global institutions, as ETUCE is doing at the EU, as each national union is doing with their political leaders and the public. Then we must combine this work of analysis, and research and arguments - the ideas – with actions, with mobilization. Trade union economists have shown that the imbalance between the bargaining power and incomes of employers and employees was partly a cause of the crisis. Wherever collective bargaining was weakened, purchasing power dropped, leading to employees being financed by debts. In general terms, the best hope for sustainable recovery is a restoration of purchasing power to working families. That requires real bargaining power for wage and salary earners. The application of ILO’s international labour standards – the right to collective bargaining and the right to form independent trade unions – is part of the solution. From the perspective of education, the reality is that many of our schools and universities have been hit, especially in this region. The EI Officers and Executive Board have monitored closely the evolution of the crisis, consulting widely with affiliates as we are doing at this seminar. At the full Board meeting in March we came to the conclusion we have to give a clear message that education is part of the solution, that education is not a consumption item but an investment, and that investment in education is the key to each nation’s future. This also means investing in teachers and support staff. We need to hire, not fire. Colleagues, we have a very strong case to put for investment in education and training. This is the time for our nations to build up their Vocational Education and Training. As our global union colleagues have put it: “In a downturn, it’s time to upskill”. We must re-assert that investment in the primary and secondary years of schooling is investment in the next generation – in every nations’ future. We can affirm with confidence that investment in Early Childhood Education will pay off by giving all children an equitable start and enabling women to return to the workforce. We must also emphasize the need for renewed public investment in our higher education institutions. There is also a more profound message to be conveyed, especially in the countries of this region. It is a message about VALUES. The values of public education are essentially the values that underpin democracy as well as our prosperity. They encompass the principles of equity and equal opportunities, of non-discrimination and social justice. They embrace collective responsibility as well as individual liberty, solidarity as well as opportunity. Their foundation is respect for fundamental human rights. This is the ethos that must drive our action forward. Mobilize So I turn to our action. Colleagues, we know how to mobilize. Education unions can be very effective. The challenge is for us to mobilize in such a way that we will maximize our impact on political decision. To achieve that in today’s global economy, we have to link our global action with our national and local action. We do that in many countries in Global Action Week for Education for All. We do it on World Teachers’ Day, the 5th of October. Now we have to ratchet up our level of mobilization, not on one day, but on every day. EI is playing its part at the IMF and the World Bank, at the ILO and UNESCO. ETUCE is playing its part at the European Union. Another sign of the times – national leaders are meeting together more than ever before in history. When the G8 leaders met in Italy in July, they were joined by 20 other Heads of Governments and 10 Heads of International Organizations. Their communiqué reiterated EI’s twin messages: “Investing in education and skills developments is crucial for sustainable recovery”, and “We affirm the right to education for all”. That did not happen by accident. It happened because of strong work together with our Global Union and Global Campaign for Education partners. These are important coalitions we need to get results. We have to get these commitments applied at the national level. That is where you – the national leaders – come in. The coherence between our global action and our national action is critical. And it must be a two-way process. EI’s action is your action. EI is you, the member organizations. Together we must march forward despite the difficulties and the problems that this crisis has brought about. We march with:

  • A clear vision for education and society
  • Powerful arguments for investing in people
  • A capacity to mobilize globally, regionally, nationally and locally, and
  • A strategy of proposition for the well-being of our communities and nations.

Who better to take up this challenge than educators? And who more able to exert leadership than trade unionists like you? Our challenge, brothers and sisters, is to exert that capacity to act, and to provide leadership, not just for ourselves, but for all of the communities in which we live and work. Thank you