Bulgaria needs reform...

photo verybig 172901

Todor Tanev. February 2016

Todor Tanev is a short, stocky man, who speaks fast, in a low voice. He comes to my hotel in central Sofia, sits down in the lobby, and turns down my proposal for a coffee round the corner. "As soon as we get out into the street, people will come to greet me", he says. It will take too much time.

Clearly, he is a man with a message: Bulgaria needs reform, and reforms have to start with education. He is also a man with connections that may make his message come true: Until February this year he was minister of education. When he stepped down he immediately became education adviser to the prime minister - which may be one step up rather than one step down.

"We need one reform – to put it in one phrase: Bring education closer to life", he says. The
education system today is still based on a law from 1894, with only two levels of education: schools and higher education. You go from school to university, or you leave the education system all together. There is no adult education, no life-long education.

Instead of only two, there should be four different types of education and higher learning, according to Todor Tanev: School, post-secondary (vocational schools, community colleges, universities, and clusters, i.e. technology development units involving institutes of higher learning as well as business.

"To establish that we need partners – it could be villages, businesses – especially in vocational training", he says. "We need a radical new law, which allows local communities to take initiatives – together with the ministry".

Business and other non-educational institutions should be allowed to take part in developing educational plans – "They know better than statistics what we need in 5 or 10 years from now", says Tanev.  

The rural past
"After 50 years of communism we need a new generation who are urban-sense individualistic in the urban sense of the word", he says. To him, there are two ways of being individualistic – urban and rural. Urban means that you work to invest and get forward in society. "Peasants do not believe too much in private investments", he says. They believe in hard work, labour. "And if they want to reduce this labour, they switch to politics".

BUt he is quite positive that things are moving in the right direction: "The last decade has been quite different from before", he says.

Three fourth of the population – 73 per cent - live in urban areas. But people still have strong ties back to their rural past.

Bulgaria has fertile soil, and farmers have always been rich, he explains, even in the Osmannic period. Every Bulgarian family possessed as much land as they could cultivate. You never had feudal bond peasants like in most of Europe, because you had no nobility.

Today, after the communist period, people still own farm houses and land, but most people rent out their land, and many use the money for an apartment in town. 90 per cent of housing is still privately owned, he says. "That means that we have a very low mobility. People have a house and look for jobs close by... and prices are now sky-rocketing".

Rich peasants?
How could farmers be rich and independent even in the Osmannic period, I ask. Wasn't that a time of suppression? It is not as simple as that, he explains. During the Ottoman period, ownership was divided into three parts:
- nominally the Sultan possessed all land.
- but the Sultan rented it out to his military chieftains.
- and in fact the military chiefs gave the right of property to Bulgarian families, because they could make use of the land.

"In Turkey, all the men were in the army, they had to be fed, they needed food, wool for their dresses etc. This is why the Turks kept us as a working museum. Bulgaria remained in a 14th century museum for 500 years".

"All those big Eastern Empires were organised the same way – even the Bulgarian Empire of the 1100's. In the middle they had the army. In the peripheries were small nations they had conquered, but left more or less free, because they were productive. After they exhausted those peripheral countries, they assimilated them and went on to other countries, making the circle broader and broader. It's like a pyramid game - a system that needs to grow all the time. If you put limits to an Eastern Empire, it will suffocate.

Roma, Pomacs, Turks
There is a strong interest in education in Bulgaria, says the former minister of education, - "with one very important exception, and that is the growing number of ethnic minorities, especially the gypsies – or Roma – who are Bulgarian citizens, but have a different attitude towards education".

And what are you doing about that, I ask.

"The socialist system with its police and other instruments of enforcement could press minorities to spend time in school. We cannot do that".

He gets very angry as he talks: "Too many NGOs spend international money on Roma education, but most of them are inefficient. In fact, they are just hidden ways of making money. This rotten system of NGOs proclaimed themselves as instruments of democracy, but they were instruments of capitalism. And I'm very, very angry with this. Some of them were just money laundering scams".

"We have to open our eyes and not blame Bulgaria", he says, and he goes on to explain that the minority issue makes Bulgaria look bad in international educational score boards like the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA.

"We have supposedly 30 per cent or more of ethnic minorities in schools. They are Turkish, Pomacs [ethnic Bulgarians of Muslim denominatio, in Southern Bulgaria, ed.], or Romas, and they have their own cultures. At the same time we have schools specialised for example in maths. There are two of those in Sofia, each with over 1000 students, and also some in the provinces. We have language schools – many! And music schools, schools for arts and dance. Many of our schools are known for the gold medals they win at Olympiads [educational competitions, ed.] throughout the world".

"But PISA looks only at the average of a country – and therefore we tend to lie relatively low".

The way ahead?
"The private sector is not going to invest in something that does not give immediate returns.
So, the answer is the state. We have to combine free market with a strong state in the field of education".

Do you feel that the government today listens to your points?
"No, not much. Bulgaria has a single-chamber parliament, which means a democracy of the parties. A problem is that the parties buy votes. Gypsies – Roma – are the easiest and cheapest source of voters. They make up about 10 per cent or more of those who vote. Some of the parties make use of the Roma vote and of other sectors with a low literacy rate. They have an interest in keeping the illiterates the way they are. So, the political system of Bulgaria is not very hospitable for education".

Sounds like a catch-22, I think, as the former minister of education tells me good-bye and hurries out for his next meeting.

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