ELECTIONS. Parties programmes on education

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Every four years parties spin a thread of promises, alike Ariadne, in an attempt to exit a labyrinth of trouble they brought everyone into themselves. Promises are echoing once more, some of them heard four, eight or even more years ago. This article seeks to find similarities and differences in the Lithuanian electoral programmes in regard to education and science, writes Juozas Augutis, Rector of the Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas.

The 2016 elections are marked with a lack of ideas and activism, but party programmes have been made in a way that will make for broad appeal, albeit not convincing experts, businessmen or journalists. The party programmes seemingly seek to please voters who, parties believe, do not read the long programmes, meanwhile the pledges made exceed the achievable.

The Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union (LVŽS) programme sound righteous and modern, with a focus on inclusivity, but the long version falls short, lacking specific means to achieve the goals they set. The Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) have a full 30 page education plan, but it plays with numbers in an effort to look reliable, while it fails to implement crucial evaluation criteria, moral, intellectual standards and capacities an educated individual is expected to have.

The Lithuanian Social Democrat Party (LSDP) programme sounds confident, albeit lacking priorities, while the Liberal Movement, one of the more intellectual parties seems to be liberal in name only, with a very faceless bureaucratic document which any party could release.

General education: superstudents and superteachers

General school education has received the most attention from parties. In 2016 not a single first year entered the specialties of physics or chemistry teacher, meanwhile according to OECD PISA data, Lithuanian students fail to reach the EU average in reading, mathematics and natural sciences achievements. The country is also among the worst in the world in bullying and youth suicide numbers.

The latter factor looks to be of little interest to parties, meanwhile nearly all programmes touch upon student achievement and teacher’s wages. Only the LVŽS and TS-LKD provide a more in-depth analysis of the education system, Lithuanian and European law, documents and statistical analysis, the other limit themselves to discussing familiar, but not always correct problems and consequences.

The LVŽS programme focuses on improving conditions for Lithuanian schoolchildren by adapting a “good school” concept, changing funding per student to a methodology based on class composition, strengthening the role of teachers, adjusting payment regulations and implementing teacher and administrative rotation, as well as creating a unified pedagogical preparation and qualification improvement system.

The TS-LKD focuses on professional educators as leaders in schools, the effectiveness of school functions and a continued reform of the school network. Liberals would like to see superstudents and superteachers as well, while also promising less intimidating exams that have a lesser impact on entry to higher education.

LSDP takes a cautious and laconic approach, perhaps too much of one for the leader of a coalition government. The party programme promises to raise the prestige of teachers as a profession by raising teacher wages to €1200. Meanwhile the Order and Justice Party (TT) also suggests pay raises for teachers and wants to return to a concept of the national school, with the day starting with singing the national anthem. The Labour Party assures it will resolve school related issues, but only promises one thing, to increase teacher wages by 7-10% annually.

Little attention to vocational education

The LVŽS recommends a flexible teaching approach with increased practical teaching time and expanded apprenticeship system. The Conservatives are convinced that the German vocational education model should be adopted, with part of the education being done in the educational institution, while the other – at a company. Of course we shouldn’t forget that the German industry and businesses (particularly the large companies) have well developed teaching bases, something that Lithuanian counterparts cannot boast of. That said, why fixate on the German model and not, say, the Finnish one?

Parties should analyse models in countries similar to Lithuania, for now it looks like a mistake of exclusivity is being made, where the first available option is focused on even if it is not necessarily the best. That’s already been done, the unpopular funding based on student count model implemented in 2009 is a poorly made copy of the UK model.
Vocational educations receive little attention elsewhere with the LSDP pledging to raise vocational school graduate employment by a third, the Labour Party promising an active campaign of providing information and consulting on profession, while the TT forget about the topic altogether.

Higher education – starvation diet

The discussion on higher education in Lithuania usually revolves around complaints on the low study quality, lagging behind in innovation and being first in the number of citizens with higher education degrees. While the number of universities and colleges in Lithuania is around the EU average of 4.6 universities to 1 million inhabitants, the “root of all evil” is seen as an excessive number of universities.

The TS-LKD suggests reducing the number of universities to 2-3 and colleges to around 10, which should cover the entire country. Considering the preliminary bill for unifying two Kaunas universities, €127 million, we can be left wondering what funds would be left for increasing higher education competitiveness, attracting scientists of the highest qualification, raising lecturer’s wages by a third and other proposals of the TS-LKD programme. To note, in 2016 the state budget allocated €177 million to the 13 state universities and academies; €127 million would be 72% of such an annual budget.

Beyond that the TS-LKD is careful in its promises, only pledging to “not decrease funding for higher education in the short term”. But that’s only in the short term. Both the TS-LKD and Liberals recommend keeping the current system of funding, based on the number of students. Meanwhile the LVŽS and LSDP speak for free education for the dwindling number of students left (a decrease of 10% annually). This is partly supported by the Labour Party and TT as well. The LVŽS also proposes replacing the current funding model to one of state procurement, requesting specific specialists, also reforming the university network into universities, profile universities and applied science universities – colleges.

The spectrum for choice is wide enough, but many significant issues of higher education failed to even enter the margins of party programmes. This ranges from the diminishing of study programmes and their fragmentation decreasing study quality, sizeable lagging behind in spending on each student and the students lagging behind in performance at all levels, from primary to higher education, as well as the democratization of higher education institutions and the future of regional universities.

Finally parties have forgotten that successful political decisions require them to listen to the voice of the education and science community. Without support from the community, experience shows that the way to hell is paved with good intentions.

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