Education International
Education International

Europe: Promoting Public Sector Education in an age of austerity

published 27 November 2012 updated 30 November 2012

Around 300 education union members assembled yesterday at the 2012 Conference of the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) in Budapest, to successfully confront the austerity frenzy driving Europe’s political agenda.

Pre-Conference events: Women and Higher Education caucus Prior to the Conference, participants gathered at the Women’s Caucus to reflect on strategies to strengthen the empowerment of women in the education sector and unions.

Key issues of the Equality Programme 2013-2016 include challenging stereotypes in education and society, tackling violence against women and workplace rights, promoting economic empowerment, and enhancing work-life balance for women.

Eliminating the gap in gender representation in decision-making bodies was also identified as a key priority for education unionists, as was the issue of pay equity.

Outgoing ETUCE President Ronnie Smith expressed his delight that ETUCE was about to have its first female President, Christine Blower, from the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in the UK.

Higher Education and Research: a public good The ETUCE Higher Education Caucus looked at higher education and research (HER) trends in key aspects such as financing and reform of the sector, both having a major impact on academic staff and universities’ curricula.

“We must set up a different narrative and repeat that HER needs key investment,” stated Paul Bennett, of the UK’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE). “We need to stress that all disciplines have values. Some countries are currently attacking humanities and arts subjects.”

The lack of professional development of HER teachers and the precariousness of short-term contracts for young academics were also identified as major issues pressing the sector.

Reflecting on how the economic crisis is used as an excuse to implement free-market policies, Bennett explained: “In the UK, for instance, the business world increasingly influences the management and curricula of the universities. This is what we call an ideological crisis.”

Opening ceremony: trade unions can make a difference The Conference was cheerfully opened with the Eva Túróczy choir of children from the St. Ladislas    School in K?bánya, Budapest.

EI President Susan Hopgood addressed the plenary with an inspiring speech emphasising education unions’ crucial role in helping to shape a new fair and sustainable global economy.

Towards this aim, trade unions will have to challenge recent education ‘reforms’ pushing for “a simplistic transfer of ideas from the corporate world to the teaching profession”.

She said: “The current debate on what teaching is about often narrows it to neat measurable outcomes that are generally limited to what's measurable through pencil and paper tests, and teachers are held accountable for the results. The idea that you can somehow improve quality by introducing standardised testing, league tables and performance pay, by ranking schools, by measurement, is wishful thinking. It does not work.”

Unity and fair taxation In his keynote adress, ETUCE Director Martin Rømer called on trade union’s unity  to counteract the impact of the crisis on education and the teaching profession in Europe.

Rømer noted that widespread cuts in teacher salaries have been implemented all around Europe, including cuts of more than 50 per cent in countries such as Latvia. Moreover, strikes in 18 European countries have taken place in since mid-2010.

Against this background, Rømer highlighted the major issues and challenges for the future of the teaching profession. These include: addressing the upcoming shortage of teachers, attracting and supporting young candidates, providing more and better access to continuing professional development as well as claiming professional autonomy.

Rømer also pointed out that implementing fair taxation is key to tackling the current crisis. "Combining the active work on the economic crisis with the work in promoting the teaching profession is the key strategy to successfully confront the current situation",  he said.

Bernadette Ségol, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), insisted on the necessity of spreading a clear joint message of solidarity from the trade union movement putting the social question at the heart of the debate in Europe. To succeed in this, she said, a new social contract must be implemented on the basis of International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.