Uruguay's recently instated centre-right government is seeking to expedite parliamentary consideration of a series of pro-market reforms. The public, democratising legacy of Uruguayan education is under threat. The following information describes proposed reforms and proposes an approach to addressing these developments.
On 1 March 2020, a five-party coalition assumed power in Uruguay, composed of members ranging from the centre to the extreme right-wing. This coalition committed to effecting rapid changes in various sectors of activity, including education, by submitting a bill for urgent consideration (Ley de Urgente Consideración, or LUC) to Parliament.
This measure is proposedbased on a constitutional provision that provides forlegislating on specific matters that require prompt action. That provision is being invoked in severalareas as diverse as public security, labour relations, education and the agricultural sector, among others. The bill is divided into eleven sections and consists of 476 articles.
The Uruguayan Parliament has 90 days to consider the Act in both chambers. The discussion takes place against a backdrop of limited public participation because of the ongoing pandemic. The mechanism lacks the necessary democratic safeguards for an in-depth debate on such sensitive and highly critical issues for the country's future.
A Bill that stimulates Privatisation
The most extensive section in the proposal is on “Security”, with 117 articles. The second largest is “Education”, with 78 articles.
The legislation has been criticised by many social and trade union organisations, as well as by the political opposition, as being anti-populist and promoting privatisation processes in different areas of public life.
Regarding education, it disregards the powerful legacy of public education that has characterised the country since its educational system was established at the end of the 19th century.
In addition to dismantling the National Public Education System, which is established as the core of the educational system under the provisions of the current General Education Act (No. 18437), there are a number of articles that restrict the participation of social actors and education workers when it comes to formulating educational policy.
Furthermore, the proposal promotes the privatisation,commercialisation, and market focusof Uruguayan education in several ways. Three key examples are:
1. Article 14 of the current law states: “No agreement or treaty, whether bilateral or multilateral, shall be entered into with governments or international organisations that directly or indirectly entails the consideration of education as a for-profit service or that encourages its commercialisation”. In the first draft of the bill submitted in January 2020, this article was deleted. As a result of pressure from the public, trade unions and politicians in response to this first draft, the ruling party has agreed to reinstate the first part of the article as part of the current debate taking place in the Senate of the Republic. Nevertheless, the phrase “encourages its commercialisation” is still left out.
2. The bill envisages the possible adoption of a new regulatory framework (statute) that would govern the work of teachers in public education. As set forth in Article 193 of the proposed law, this new regulation may grant powers to the administrators of educational institutions in order to ensure “the establishment of stable facilities, with permanent staff and a high concentration of working hours in the same educational institution”.
To this end, these administrators could “establish operational guidelines (such as commitment to a specific working methodology or curriculum) for access to permanence in a specific workplace”. This enables a managerial approach to the administration of school teaching staff, one of the key characteristics that various authors have defined as “endogenous privatization”.
Similarly, it is proposed that “compensation or salary bonuses and other benefits may be established, subject to criteria such as the geographical location of the workplace, the sociocultural context in which the establishment operates, or the fulfilment of public policy goals”. Making teacher salaries dependent on the achievement of education policy goals has been a major component of pro-market reforms, with notoriously negative results in terms of equity and teacher professional learning and development, which havebeen widely documented in education research.
3. Article 171 of the bill proposes a system of grants for students who are studying to become teachers, which would be available to those “who are enrolled in university programmes for training in education”. This may sound like good news were it not for the fact that public teacher training in Uruguay is of a tertiary education nature, not a university one. The only institutions that train teachers in university settings are private and account for slightly more than 1% of total enrolment.
The entire bill shows how the country is facing an onslaught of conservatism and privatisation in several aspects of Uruguayan society. In education, there is a move to break away from the public and democratic principles that have always defined the country.
Given this situation, difficult and challenging times are to be expected. Through these times, the defence of public education must combine opposition to the current initiative with proposals to promote public education that will lend hope for a better future to most of the population.