Failure of the reform of the Uruguayan education system
The victory of the center-right National Party marks the end of the 15-year reign of the center-left Broad Front coalition. But unlike other progressive governments in the Age of the Pink Tide, the Broad Front leaves the government with poverty and inequality at historically low levels, averting the wave of social unrest that is currently plaguing the region. Unlike its neighbors, too, the coalition will not leave behind a legacy of systemic corruption or an economy doomed to endless crisis management – Uruguay has largely decoupled from its crisis-prone neighbor, Argentina.
The defeat of the Broad Front can be explained by the political exhaustion of the “first generation” reforms, such as the reduction of poverty and inequalities, which failed to convince voters that they could tackle the problems. complex “second generation” issues, such as crime or education. Indeed, the statistics are as clear as they are paradoxical: Uruguayans live in a more egalitarian country with rising crime levels and deplorable school results.
By tackling the problems of the first generation, the Broad Front was one of the most successful governments in Latin American history. According to official statistics registered by the National Statistics Institute of Uruguay, the country eradicated extreme poverty in the mid-2010s and overall poverty currently stands at eight percent. Income inequality, measured by the GINI index, stood at 0.380 in 2017, closer to European levels than those reported for its regional neighbors. In 2019, Uruguay also has the highest per capita income in the region at $ 17,000, a result of avoiding a recession since the early 2000s.
Yet the last Broad Front administration (2015-2020) is responsible for a serious deterioration in other social indicators. First, high levels of unemployment and increase quickly underemployment. In September 2019, 9.5% of Uruguayans were considered unemployed. Second, crime in the country has clearly worsened. Since the Large Front came to power in 2005, the number of cases of assaults increased by 227 percent, with 29,904 cases filed last year. Number of homicides has also increased: in 2018, 414 people were murdered (nationwide), up from 189 in 2005. Uruguay’s homicide rate now exceeds that of its Argentinian and Chilean peers.
Crime and unemployment weakened support for the Broad Front among low-income voters. Head of Uruguayan polling firm FACTUM and longtime political analyst Oscar Bottinelli argues, the poor “have difficulties in accessing or keeping formal work, do not have a structural exit from poverty and are the most affected by crime. All of this added up leads to a considerable share [of this class] to become disenchanted with the broad forehead.
The Broad Front’s Gaps in Academic Achievement
Although the policies of the Large Front have ensured the satisfaction of basic needs, the structural causes of poverty remain largely present.
One area where the Broad Front let the poor down was education. The level of education is key for social mobility, economic development, gender equity and social cohesion. For this reason, it is worrying that Latin America medium educational level delays behind East Asian countries, such as China and Taiwan, and almost all of the developed countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Uruguay is a notable example of a decline in educational excellence.
Since 2000, the OECD has organized standardized tests for students all over the world (PISA) assess the effectiveness of their country’s education systems. the PISA Rating is an assessment that measures the ability of 15-year-olds to use their reading, math and science skills to meet real-life challenges.
In the recently released PISA 2018 results, Uruguay continues to lag behind. Although the country marks second in Latin America (behind Chile) in reading and science, and first in mathematics, it is behind the OECD average and far behind behemoths such as China and Singapore. Additionally, Uruguay’s scores barely budged overtime. According to the report, “[Uruguay’s]… The performances in the three subjects were close to the levels observed during his first participation in 2003 (or 2006 for science).
The results of the latest score can be interpreted as mixed or positive news. Although the gap in results between the best and the lowest has narrowed, this is the result of both an improvement over the best.
Another measure that highlights the slow improvement in educational attainment in Uruguay is the World Bank Human Capital Index. According to the World Bank To analyse, “A child born in Uruguay today will be 60% as productive when he grows up as he could be if he had a full education and full health. The data shows that even though Uruguayans are expected to complete 11.8 years of schooling, this effectively translates to only 8.4 years of schooling adjusted for learning.
Uruguay is proud of the adoption of universal, free, compulsory and secular education, as evidenced by the Decree Law on Common Education of 1877. The reform was carried out by the 19th century equivalent of a Minister of Education, José Pedro Varela, Who “Saw education as necessary for the formation of well-educated, hardworking and loyal citizens and for future national prosperity.” In 1900, Uruguay reached the highest literacy rate“Its educational reforms can in part be attributed to the country’s inclusive liberal democratic political culture.
However, the effect did not last. Uruguay’s economy fell into deep crisis in the mid-1950s, as falling commodity prices and an inefficient patronage-based state exhausted its resources to maintain the country’s education system. Uruguay’s military dictatorship (1973-1985) led to a drastic drop in living standards and austerity that cemented structural poverty – in 1979 the country spent only two percent of GDP on education. After the return of democracy, governments struggled against the heavy debt of the dictatorship unable to meet the needs of the education system. The pursuit of austerity and the “Washington consensus” have increased the supply of private education, boosting a bifurcated education system in a country that once prided itself on its commitment to egalitarianism, from 2017 onwards, 18 percent of students received private education.
President Julio María Sanguinetti (1995-2000) sought to resolve the education crisis in Uruguay. Its reforms created universal pre-kindergarten, extended school hours, and introduced performance-based pay structures. The reform was controversialbecause the government “refused to include unions in the policy-making process and relied on a small team of technical experts”. The powerful teachers’ unions and their partisan allies, the Large Front, strongly resisted the reforms. The economic crisis of the early 2000s delayed their full implementation.
The election of the Broad Front in 2004 did not lead to any significant reform of the education system. Instead, the Front Large increases education spending as a means of coping with the crisis. Public expenditure on education fell from 2.5% of GDP in 2004 to 4.9% in 2017. However, the increase in expenditure coincided with a phenomenon specific to Uruguay: the drop in school enrollment, passing from around 350,000 students enrolled in 2007 to 296,000 in 2017.
The increase in spending per student did not lead to a significant improvement in academic performance. Much of the money invested in education was used to hire more teachers and increase their salaries.
Between 2007 and 2017, the salaries of people employed in the public education sector increases by 57 percent, accounting for almost 60 percent of all new hires in the public sector. Analysis shows that 87% of total education spending goes to salaries. However, the school directors “Reported more staff shortages[s]… Compared to the OECD average. The PISA 2018 country analysis also indicates that between 66% of teachers in advantaged schools and 47% in disadvantaged schools are not “fully certified”.
A new line of conduct
National Party candidate and president-elect Luis Lacalle Pou has made education a priority. In one document drawn up between the three parties of the center and of the right which, after the election of Lacalle Pou, will constitute the coalition in power, the situation in Uruguay is described as an “educational emergency”. The controversial reforms proposed by the coalition, such as the abandonment of seniority as a justification for promotion and the creation of an independent evaluation office.
Teacher unions have already spoken out against the reforms. Unions to say that the reforms do not take their ideas into account and that they are based on an OECD model which is akin to foreign taxation and goes against Uruguayan traditions.
Teacher unions have proven their firepower in the past. In 2015, they almost led the Front Large in a governability crisis after the government tried to impose austerity measures on public spending.
The battle to reform Uruguay’s failing education system represents the mixed legacy of the Broad Front’s time in power. On the one hand, the empowerment of strong organizations, especially trade unions, has helped to make the voice of workers heard who aim to improve the quality of democracy and increase meaningful pluralism. At the same time, he also represents an interest group with the capacity to plunge a democratically elected government into crisis and stem goodwill attempts to improve the public provision of basic goods, such as education. The next four years will test Uruguay’s strong democratic institutions and reveal just how long-lasting the legacy of the progressive era has been in Uruguay.
Nicolás Saldías, Principal Investigator in the Latin America and Argentina Project program at the Wilson Center and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto.