Europe is generally respected for its well-educated youth. The international community views many European education systems as an exemplar of educative best practice – indeed, Norway, Germany, Ireland and France frequently rank among the best education systems in the world. Over six years of economic and financial crisis, however, has resulted in considerable strain on the respective public budgets of European countries. Paths of reform across government spending saw drastic cuts across various sectors, but the education sector was hit particularly hard in certain countries. In a report by the European Trade Union Committee for Education, it was noted that the global financial crisis led to many European nations cutting costs in the education sector which in turn exacerbated a trend of privatised education, ‘mining the pillar of a democratic European society based on the access to public education free of charge for all’.
The consequences of the cuts in education budgets have been manyfold, including a reduced quality in teaching and lack of access to third level education among individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. This has resulted in a growing disparity between the rich and poor within European society which in turn lends itself to promoting an elitist education system. The worsening state of public education within these European countries is reflected in their respective climbing unemployment rates.
Between the period of 2008 – 2013, more than a half of European Union countries saw the closure of numerous schools and thousands of teachers have lost jobs while further thousands of recently qualified teachers fail to find employment in their skilled area. Additionally, worsening working conditions have seen huge numbers of teachers resign, preferring instead to deliver private tuition outside of the school setting. Universities have made admission to their institutions increasingly difficult, whether via hiking their tuition fees or cutting courses the government feels will not benefit the economy in the long term. The greatest cuts have occurred across the humanities.
Now, then, more than ever, it is vital that the following European countries realise the long-term transformative power of education and aim to distribute their resources in a more responsible way. It seems that short-term cuts for schools – a seemingly easy target – can have a devastating impact on a nation’s educational structure. The following list of European countries with the worst education systems is based on their overall world ranking on the UN Education Index. There are three parts to the test which defines this index, including Reading, Mathematics and Science. Students are tested on their ability to use what they learn in class to solve problems they might encounter in their day to day lives; lower scores indicate an inferior quality of education.
5. Slovakia – 35th
The persistent economic crisis in Slovakia has caused considerable strain on the public budget, resulting in continued cuts to the country’s education system. Education International has highlighted that the average pay slip for a member of staff in the education system amounts to a mere four hundred euros. This is well under the OECD average. Public expenditure on educational institutions as a percentage of GDP is comparatively low, amounting to about 4 percent. Additionally, the amount of time spent in education between the ages of ‘5 and 39 is one of the lowest among OECD and G20 countries.’ This has resulted in huge unemployment rates between 25 – 29 year olds in the country. With 21 percent of the population living below the poverty line, the correlation between a lack of educational opportunities and soaring unemployment becomes evident. The European Commission has called on Member States to tackle this growing issue and ensure equality in the education sector.
4. Hungary – 37th
The Hungarian government has been making it increasingly difficult for students to avail of funding to assist them with their studies. A new rule implemented in September 2013 sees those who qualify for state funded support required to work in Hungary for twice the amount of time they have spent studying there. The idea behind this scheme, of course, is to reduce the country’s brain drain. While it may be understandable that the government wishes to see those individuals who have benefited from the education system contribute to the Hungarian workforce, one must question just how ethical it is to shackle individuals to the region due to their desperation to adequately finance their tuition.
The long term goal of the Hungarian government is to establish a self-financing education system. There are myriad consequences that result from the failure of adequate public expenditure on education. Benjamin Novak of the OECD has noted how effects such as ‘reduced upwards mobility for children of low-income parents, will only materialize with time.’ The implications of this will be catastrophic and will undoubtedly cause a significant divide within Hungarian society.
3. Latvia – 44th
The cornerstone of any good education system is found in the quality of its teachers. An alarming report carried by Education International has revealed that Latvian teachers’ salaries are among the lowest across Europe, amounting to a mere €6,000 per annum. The failure of the Latvian government to recognise the value of its educators is having a substantial effect on the quality of the education being received by its citizens.
In November of 2013, Minister of Education and Science Vjaceslavs Dombrovskis confirmed that the number of budget-funded students would be ‘reduced by 20 percent in the economy, management and teacher training programs’ during the course of 2104. These cuts are in line with the country’s economic development and labor market trends, another consequence of which will also see an 18 percent decrease in the number of state-funded students.
Cuts in education have affected students on a large scale, having a negative impact on student loans and government grants as well as the public funding of educational courses. This has resulted in limited access to higher education, particularly affecting individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.
2. Romania – 56th
Education International has reported that Romania ranks as the country with the second highest budget cuts in the education sector since 2008, with a staggering 50 percent cut. Investment in teacher quality is of great importance in a successful education system, yet teacher salaries in Romania have been reduced by a significant 25 percent in recent years. This is second only to Greece where an embargo was placed on teacher salaries in 2010 following a 30 percent pay cut.
Consequently, teacher quality has reduced significantly as teachers have sought employment elsewhere or have resigned from their posts due to poor working conditions. Education International goes on to report that Romania has witnessed a huge number of dismissals of public educators, at ‘120,000, with 200 of those teachers voluntarily resigning.’ This has led to an increase in the privatisation of higher education. Additionally, many teachers have begun to supplement their income by delivering private lessons to students who can afford to pay. Thus, there is a growing disparity between the ‘haves and have nots’. This is undoubtedly reflected in the country’s 2013 youth unemployment rate of 24.1 percent as noted by Trading Economics.
1. Ukraine – 78th
Ukraine makes it to the top spot on the list of Europe’s worst education systems. Despite the country’s high adult literacy rate of 99.7 percent, the educational system has been criticised as being outdated and irrelevant to the needs of the changing labour market. The country seems to fall short primarily in the areas of Mathematics and Science. In a report carried out by Forbes Ukraine, it was noted that in the area of management training, ‘the World Economic Forum ranks Ukraine 116 out of 142 nations.’ An additional report carried out by UNICEF found that 296,000 children remained out of the schooling system at the start of the economic crisis in 2008. These figures are concerning, especially as entry into the third level sector in the Ukraine is based on the individuals ability to finance their education. This contributes to an already elitist education system, marginalising those unable to afford the costly tuition fees.