Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Romanian education


I wrote this in 2005. Much has changed since then.

Romania’s greatest resources are not her mineral or agricultural resources but her human resources. But like her physical resources her human resources are poorly developed

Before Communism, Romania was what would today be described as a Third World country, with a tiny rich elite, a small educated middle-class (many of whom were Jewish or belonged to other ethnic minorities) and a mass of impoverished and mostly illiterate peasants. Industrialisation was imposed from above, as a result of the application of Marxist-Leninist principles, rather than occurring organically and Romania today retains in many ways a pre-industrial culture yoked to an ill-conceived and chaotic industrial base. In common with most agrarian or industrialising countries with large peasant populations (Ireland springs to mind and many countries outside Europe) the key social division in Romanian society is between ‘intellectuals’ and the mass of the population. In the countryside, where life has not changed much over centuries, the status of the intellectual is particularly important. In the villages the priest, the schoolmaster and the doctor form the intellectual class, subscribe to magazines from Bucharest and are looked on by their neighbours as sources of guidance and illumination on most subjects.

The word ‘intellectuals’ was recently defined by the commentator, Mircea Toma, to mean ‘free-thinkers’ but it is usually used in Romania as a catch-all expression (Marxist in origin) meaning, essentially, graduates. Between graduates and those who did not attend university there yawns an abyss almost comparable with that between the races in apartheid South Africa.

Before the Revolution Communist doctrine emphasised the dignity of manual labour and the importance of vocational training in order to produce workers, technicians and managers as quickly as possible in order to build socialism. Romania therefore restricted the numbers receiving university education especially in arts subjects. It was difficult to be accepted to study the humanities at university without a satisfactory ‘file’. In other words in order to be politically correct university students were generally expected to be the children of Party members (usually both parents had to carry Party cards).

Partly for this reason, partly because investment in capital projects was at the cutting edge of the Communist economic policy and partly because the hard sciences were taught objectively without a Marxist slant, engineering was a highly popular subject, studied not at university but at the polytechnics. From this derives the old chestnut that Romanians fell into two categories: intellectuals and engineers. After December 1989 Romania lurched toward the modern world with great numbers of well-qualified and talented engineering graduates and little use to which to put them. Today engineering graduates dominate much of business and have amongst other things produced the ingenious IT professionals who are more plentiful here than in any other European country.

From 1990 the universities did an about-turn to serve the new Romania and lecturers who had taught Leninist economic theory had to reinvent themselves and their courses in a hurry. But the numbers of school-leavers who aspired to a university education or, at least, to a university degree, far outran the number of places available at the state universities. As a result, many people pay to study for degrees full-time or at night-school or by distance learning from the plethora of private universities that have been set up since the Revolution (with varying reputations, some cowboy outfits, others excellent, but all viewed as inferior by proud graduates of the state universities).  Some TV presenters and singers study at private universities, their fees sponsored by lovers of the arts, in something of the spirit in which they accept cars or diamond rings. In fairness, Romania is not the only country where students who are not naturally intended for academic education pursue degrees of questionable value. In Great Britain the trend has gone much further and graduates there emerge with far less general knowledge or high culture. And in Romania as elsewhere the wider availability of university education has made society less hierarchical than would otherwise be the case.

Partly because educational qualifications are seen as the key to a successful career as well as social status, partly because in the 1980s the country benefited from the inestimable boon of having only two hours television per day, Romanians are exceptionally erudite in contrast to their contemporaries in Western Europe and even more markedly in contrast with those in North America. They are highly cultured and excel at the art of conversation. They read a lot, know a lot of facts and absorb a great deal of technical detail. Unfortunately, the educational system can also tend to encourage rote learning and conformism at the expense of originality and independent thinking, rather as in Japan. This is reflected in marking students out of 10 in each exam. Exams are frequent from the age of seven until graduation at 23. Marks over 9 are a source of pride, 8s a cause for anguish, in contrast with the ubiquitous ‘2:1’s of British graduates. Although university teachers use seminars, the large classes and frequency of examinations put the emphasis on training at the expense of true education.

Very many young Romanian will have or intend to have two, three or more degrees, perhaps having studied for two simultaneously or taken further degrees while working. Students also frequently hold down demanding jobs while undergraduates. Very often they still manage to pass their exams with flying colours as a result of hard work and dedication. Where hard work and dedication are not enough sometimes a discreet present to an examiner can make up for deficiencies caused by lack of time for revision. But university in Western Europe is above all a time for personal growth, the only time in most people’s lives when one has (unless one is rich) freedom without responsibility. In the West that freedom is sometime abused and more often wasted but in Romania it does not exist. It is very difficult for overworked and hard-up students to pass the endless exams and gain a true education at the same time. Some female students even take the route of thinly-disguised prostitution to make ends meet. Many tens of thousands more simply do not take up courses in order to make a meagre living in jobs which do not utilise their potential.

Because the emphasis in Romanian universities is too often on training rather than education Romanian employers and employees alike expect the subject an employee studies at university to be directly related to the profession he chooses. But because in fact the teaching at university is theoretical rather than vocational, a graduate aspiring to enter his first job will be asked to show experience of the real world as well as high exam marks, a combination difficult to achieve. Romanian universities too often therefore fall between two stools. They are apt to fail both as genuine universities which exist to develop minds by the disinterested pursuit of truth and as effective vocational training institutes preparing their students for the challenges that will face them on leaving. However, cheating in exams and bribery of examiners, although the frequency of both can be exaggerated, will teach the graduate that there is more than one way to make ones career. In a job market dominated by personal connections and where in some sectors female graduates are routinely expected to have romantic liaisons with decision-makers  before they can be given an entry-level job, perhaps these lessons are a good preparation for the real world after all.

ASE, to  name the most distinguished teaching body in the sphere of business education, produces thousands of graduates with competent technical skills but the teachers often fail to teach students how to think for themselves, how to communicate ideas, how to solve problems and how to work as a team. Perhaps we should not judge the teachers too harshly as the older ones were teaching Marxist-Leninist theory until the Revolution and all the lecturers were themselves the products of Marxist education. Certainly things are beginning to change and educational ideas from abroad are beginning to oxidize the teaching system here at all levels. Nevertheless, the multinationals, for which the majority of good graduates aspire to work, can and do provide excellent vocational training on the job. What the Romanian economy urgently needs and lacks are creative and even iconoclastic minds.

Since 1990 marketing, economics and business administration are the most popular subjects at state and private universities alike for hard-headed economic reasons, along with law. MBAs abound nowadays but Romanian graduates are still often required to memorise what they are taught rather than question it. The result is that, as on previous occasions in her history, Romania tries to adopt the forms of Western behaviour without completely accepting or understanding the ethos behind them.   ©Paul Wood 2011

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