The first cases of COVID-19 were identified on our territory on March 13, 2020. This brought Uruguay into the global pandemic and led the executive branch to declare, by official decree, a "health emergency" in the country.
A few days earlier, on March 1, 2020, another virus had begun to ravage the country: the installation, at the head of the national government, of a neoliberal and conservative coalition made up of right-wing and far-right political parties, including some with fascist tendencies, whose social base includes sectors where there is a concentration of capital, in particular, linked to agribusiness and speculative financial capital, as well as owners of the mass media and evangelicals.
Their political program, which represents and expresses the interests of a single class, aims to make a structural adjustment of capital in relation to labour, taking advantage of the crisis caused by the pandemic to introduce a series of structural reforms. This action has been facilitated by parliamentary majorities and through an instrument that is far from democratic, the “emergency law”.
This emergency law, ley de urgente consideración (LUC), adopted in July 2020 in the context of strict health measures, limits popular mobilisation and in the absence of any public debate, constitutes the central instrument in this program of a "reactionary utopia”. It promotes the dismantling of the State and the supremacy of the market with the leading role of private capital. This combines the maximization of profit to the detriment of the great majority of our people with increasing the State’s repressive and punitive power by limiting or suppressing individual and collective freedoms.
Education is central to this law. Of its 476 articles, 78 articles are related to education. These include :
- Dismantling the national public education system in accordance with the "minimum state" principle.
- Creating new institutional engineering, where public education policy is subject to strict control by political parties and fosters the participation of the private sector in education.
- Promoting expanded definitions of privatization of / within education and its commercialization.
- Promoting curriculum reform, aligned with the guidelines established by the Global Movement for Education Reform, whose distinctive features are skills development, the devolution of responsibilities to institutions (euphemistically called the 'autonomy from the centre'), and a standardized assessment and control system.
- Undermining the professional development of teachers, which reduces their professional autonomy and subjects them to a sort of “pedagogical servitude” This process includes the imposition of a single working methodology and the creation of precarious working conditions as a control mechanism.
Underfunding of the public sector
It is important to stress the role played by those who, for several years, have encouraged the privatization and commercialization of education. In accordance with a rationale highlighted by research carried out in our country by EI, as part of its Global Response campaign, those who promote the “privatization of public education policy”, such as the Eduy21 think tank through its main representatives, occupy the most important positions within education authorities.
At the same time, the mass media seek to protect senior education officials through campaigns of political persecution aimed at criminalizing trade union organizations in the sector as well as their leaders and activists.
During August and November 2020, the general state budget was discussed and approved in Uruguay. Since budgets are ultimately the economic and financial manifestation of a government program, public spending underwent structural adjustment in accordance with the program promoted with the emergency law (LUC) in the form of budget cuts in different sectors. The sector that was most affected by these cuts was public education, covering 84% of students from primary to higher education.
A reduction of 0.6% of GDP, around 360 million dollars, will be applied to the budget of the three main public educational institutions at the end of the five-year period, those most affected being the National Administration of Public Education (ANEP) and the University of the Republic (UDELAR). The main components of these budget cuts include:
- Cutting wages and reduction of the number of teachers, administrative and services staff,
- Reduction of infrastructure investments (construction of buildings and upgrades, purchase of equipment),
- Reduction of school feeding programs, and
- Reduction in the number of students per class to improve working and learning conditions.
In 2021, in the same dramatic health situation, we are now starting to see the impact that budget cuts are having on education. They include an increase in the number of students per class, students being unable to enroll in schools in good time and in an appropriate manner, unemployment or underemployment in several educational sectors, salary loss and shortage of staff and equipment to ensure health security in schools - an essential factor in the framework of combatting the pandemic.
Prospects are not encouraging. On the contrary, the situation will tend to worsen, due to the recommendation of additional budget cuts by the national government and endorsed by the education authorities for the next few years.
Teaching above profit
This scenario in which the government is driving and integrating the "reactionary utopia" constitutes a step backwards for the whole population. For that reason, the trade union movement in general and education unions, in particular, have launched a series of actions to find forms of political organization to tackle this program of capital adjustment prevailing over work.
In terms of form, it is a question of creating a large politico-social bloc, centred around the trade union movement, the student community, housing cooperatives, the feminist movement, environmental and human rights organizations, collectives, and social organizations. The coalition would include organizations close to left-wing political parties and progressive groups but might also involve traditional right-wing parties.
The aim is to promote a referendum, a mechanism of direct democracy provided for in the Constitution of the Republic, which, on the condition that signatures of 25% of the population entitled to vote are collected (around 750,000 signatures). The referendum would make it compulsory for the whole population to be consulted. The purpose is to revoke 135 articles of the LUC, of which, 34 are related to education.
The health situation, as well as the legal restrictions applied by the government to fundamental rights such as the right of assembly, create unfavorable conditions for us to carry out our actions. We are convinced that achieving our goals is our main battle so far, as education unions, and as part of EI's campaign Global Response to the Privatization and Commercialization of Education. We will continue to defend quality public education, which is a fundamental human right, and to fight against the privatization and commercialization of / within education.
Our contribution to EI's campaign will be our organized and conscious struggle waged alongside our people.