Failure of the reform of the Uruguayan education system

The victory of the centre-right National Party marks the end of 15 years of rule by the centre-left Broad Front coalition. But unlike other progressive governments of the pink tide era, the Broad Front leaves the government with poverty and inequality at historic lows, averting the wave of social unrest now sweeping the region. Unlike its neighbours, too, the coalition will not leave behind a legacy of systemic corruption or an economy doomed to endless crisis management – Uruguay has largely decoupled of its crisis-prone neighbour, Argentina.

The Broad Front’s defeat can be explained by the political exhaustion of “first generation” reforms, such as the reduction of poverty and inequality, having failed to convince voters that it could tackle complex “second generation” problems, 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 dismal school results.

In tackling first-generation issues, the Broad Front was one of the most successful governments in Latin American history. According to official statistics registered by the National Institute of Statistics of Uruguay, the country eradicated extreme poverty in the mid-2010s and overall poverty currently stands at 8%. Income inequality – measured by the GINI index – stood at 0.380 in 2017, closer to European levels than those reported for its regional neighbours. As of 2019, Uruguay also has the highest per capita income in the region at $17,000, thanks to the possibility of avoiding a recession since the early 2000s.

However, 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 Broad Front came to power in 2005, the number of cases of attacks increased by 227%, with 29,904 cases filed last year. Number of murders has also increased: in 2018, 414 people were murdered (countrywide), compared to 189 in 2005. Uruguay’s homicide rate now exceeds that of its peers Argentina and Chile.

Crime and unemployment weakened Broad Front support among low-income voters. Head of Uruguayan polling firm FACTUM and longtime political analyst Oscar Bottinelli argue, the poor “have difficulty accessing or keeping formal work, have no structural way out of poverty and are the most affected by crime. All this added up leads to a considerable part [of this class] become disenchanted with the Broad Front.

The Broad Front’s Shortcomings in Academic Achievement

Although Broad Front policies have ensured that basic needs are met, the structural causes of poverty largely remain in place.

One area where the Broad Front failed the poor was education. The education level is key for social mobility, economic development, gender equity and social cohesion. For this reason, it is worrying that Latin America Medium Educational level shifts behind East Asian countries, such as China and Taiwan, and almost all developed countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Uruguay is a remarkable example of declining excellence in education.

Since 2000, the OECD has organized standardized tests for students around the world (PISA) assess the effectiveness of their country’s education systems. the PISA score 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 lags behind. Although the country marks second in Latin America (behind Chile) in reading and science, and first in mathematics, it lags behind the OECD average and far behind behemoths like China and Singapore. Moreover, Uruguay’s scores have barely budged overtime. According to the report, “[Uruguay’s]… performance in all three subjects was close to the levels seen when it first participated in 2003 (or 2006 for science).

The results of the latest score can be interpreted as mixed or positive news. Although the gap in performance between the top and bottom performers has narrowed, this is the result of both improvement over the bottom performers and stagnation or even decline of the top performers.

Another measure that highlights the slowness of educational improvement 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% more productive when they grow up than they could be if they had a full education and full health.” The data shows that although Uruguayans are expected to complete 11.8 years of schooling, this actually translates to only 8.4 learning-adjusted years of schooling.

Uruguay is proud of the adoption of universal, free, compulsory and secular education, as evidenced by the 1877 decree on the common education law. The reform was spearheaded by the 19th century equivalent of an education minister, José Pedro Varela, WHO “considered education necessary for the formation of well-bred, hard-working, and loyal citizens, and for future national prosperity.” In 1900, Uruguay reached first place in the region highest literacy rate— its educational reforms can be partly attributed to the country’s inclusive liberal democratic political culture.

However, the effect did not last. Uruguay’s economy fell into a deep crisis in the mid-1950s, as falling commodity prices and an ineffective clientelist state drained its resources to maintain the country’s education system. Uruguay’s military dictatorship (1973-1985) led to a drastic decline in living standards and austerity that cemented structural poverty – in 1979 the country spent only two percent of GDP to education. After the return of democracy, governments struggled with 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 private supply of education, fueling a bifurcated education system in a country that once boasted of its commitment to egalitarianism – as of 2017, 18 percent of students received private education.

President Julio María Sanguinetti (1995-2000) sought to resolve the education crisis in Uruguay. His reforms created universal pre-kindergarten, extended class hours, and introduced performance-based pay structures. The reform was controversial, as the government “refused to bring unions into the policy-making process and relied on a small team of technical experts”. The powerful teachers’ unions and their partisan allies, the Broad Front, strongly resisted the reforms. The economic crisis of the early 2000s delayed their full implementation.

The Front large election in 2004 did not lead to significant reforms in the education system. Instead, the broad forehead increase education spending as a way to deal with the crisis. Public spending on education increased from 2.5% of GDP in 2004 to 4.9% in 2017. However, the increase in spending coincided with a phenomenon specific to Uruguay: the drop in schooling, which increased from approximately 350,000 students enrolled in 2007 to 296,000 in 2017.

The increase in spending per pupil has not led to a significant improvement in school results. Much of the money invested in education has gone to hiring more teachers and increasing their salaries.

Between 2007 and 2017, the salaries of those employed in the public education sector increase 57%, which represents nearly 60% of all new hires in the public sector. Analysis shows that 87% of total education expenditure 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% of teachers in disadvantaged schools are not “fully certified”.

A new course of action

National Party candidate and elected president Luis Lacalle Pou has made education a priority. In one document Written between the three center and right-wing parties which, after the election of Lacalle Pou, will form the government coalition, 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.

Teachers’ unions have already spoken out against the reforms. Trade unions to say that the reforms do not take into account their ideas and that they are based on an OECD model which resembles foreign imposition and goes against Uruguayan traditions.

Teachers’ unions have proven their firepower in the past. In 2015, they almost dragged the Front large into a governability crisis after the government tried to impose austerity measures on public spending.

The battle to reform Uruguay’s declining education system represents the mixed legacy of the Broad Front era in power. On the one hand, the empowerment of strong organizations, especially trade unions, has helped to raise the voice of workers who aim to improve the quality of democracy and increase meaningful pluralism. At the same time, it also represents an interest group with the ability to throw a democratically elected government into crisis and stem goodwill attempts to improve public provision of basic goods, such as education. The next four years will test Uruguay’s strong democratic institutions and reveal how enduring the legacy of the progressive era has truly been in Uruguay.

Nicolás Saldías, Principal Investigator in the Latin America Program and Argentina Project at the Wilson Center and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.

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