Social partners seek ways out of difficult situation in education sector
The economic crisis in Lithuania has brought long-standing problems in the education system to a head. This prompted the social partners to initiate social dialogue to try to resolve the sector’s most serious problems. After more than three years of efforts by trade unions, the Committee on Education was finally established at the Tripartite Council of the Republic of Lithuania on 14 June 2010.
Overview of economic situation
The continuing economic crisis in Lithuania and the resulting problems in the public sector (including cutting of funding to the sector, wage cuts and job losses) have hit the country’s educational system hard. The education sector’s share in the overall public budget continues to decrease, along with the share of funds for education in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The situation in the sector has been made worse by an ongoing education reform programme that has lasted several years, and by demographic changes in the country.
The education sector is one of the most unionised in Lithuania: sectoral trade union organisations include the Lithuanian Teachers’ Trade Union (LMPS), the Lithuanian Education Employees Trade Union (LŠDPS), the Christian Trade Union of Education Workers (KŠDPS) and the Federation of Lithuanian Education and Science Trade Unions (LŠMPSF). The latter federation, in turn, unites two member trade unions – the Lithuanian Education Trade Union (LŠPS) and the Union of Trade Unions of Lithuanian High Schools (LAMPSS).
Increasing strain has recently been observed in the relationship between one of the largest sectoral trade union organisations, LŠPS, and the Ministry of Education and Science (ŠMM). In 2009, LŠPS, which unites some 9,000 employees from Lithuanian higher (secondary) schools and universities, and LAMPSS established LŠMPSF. It is now a member of the Lithuanian Trade Union Confederation (LPSK), the global union for education workers Education International (EI) and the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE).
Education sector problems identified by LŠPS
According to LŠPS, fundamental problems have been encountered in the education sector for a number of years and are still not being properly addressed by ŠMM. On the basis of the conclusions of the 2008 audit report by the National Audit Office of Lithuania, LŠPS submits that:
- the system of pre-school and pre-primary education is ineffective and does not provide an opportunity for all children to attend educational establishments;
- municipal reform of the schools network has been causing social strain for nearly a decade; ŠMM, which is supposed to be guiding the process, has insufficient power to create a municipal network of schools capable of providing high-quality education;
- with regard to the allocation of money from EU structural funds, there are concerns about ineffective use of the funds by ŠMM. The ministry does not get the special partners involved in this process and, as a result, no analyses are conducted on the educational, social or economic effects of the implemented measures;
- ŠMM does not take effective measures to ensure the quality of general education: it has neglected fundamental requirements such as matching the curricula of general education with examination programmes, balancing workload and study load between teachers and students, and consistently improving teachers’ competences;
- imperfect and chaotic funding of comprehensive schools (ŠMM does not have a long-term strategy for education funding) means that present problems in education funding cannot be resolved. In addition, it is failing to ensure future funding for the municipal network of education establishments;
- Lithuanian teachers and lecturers are in a state of complete uncertainty about the wage-setting policy for teachers chosen by the current management of ŠMM;
- ŠMM, which is obliged by law not only to implement national education policy but also to devise it, in fact has no power to make the operators of many educational establishments (the municipalities) adhere to the legislation governing education.
According to LŠPS, the reason many of the abovementioned problems have not been resolved is the lack of cooperation between ŠMM, as the national education policymaker, and other players in the education system, such as municipalities, associations of school employers, teachers’ trade unions and other teachers’ associations.
No confidence in education minister
Taking into consideration the prevailing situation in the education sector and the fact that no social dialogue instruments are used to tackle the existing problems, in May 2010 LŠPS stated that it had lost confidence in the Minister of Education and Science, Gintaras Steponavičius.
Since 2008, LŠPS has repeatedly asked the minister to set up a democratic information and consultation mechanism based on the principles of tripartite representation; namely, a sectoral committee on education at the Tripartite Council of the Republic of Lithuania (LRTT). However, there has been no support from the current ministry.
LŠPS has also complained that the ministry has ignored resolutions of the Government of the Republic of Lithuania (LRV) concerning the implementation of the Long-Term Programme on Wage Increases for Teachers, approved as long ago as March 2008. In August 2009, LRV approved amendments to the wage increase programme stipulating that, as a result of the downturn, teachers’ wages would be increased with effect from 1 January 2011, taking into account the financial capacity of the state and changes in average monthly wages. The ministry was obliged to submit proposals on the implementation of the programme by 1 June 2010 ‘having discussed it with the social partners and subject to the financial possibilities of the state’. However, LŠPS alleges that the ministry failed to fulfil its obligations and the prospects of wage rises for teachers remain remote.
In response to the situation, LŠPS expressed a lack of confidence in Minister Steponavičius at a press conference on 12 May. LŠPS cited the above problems and other problems faced by the education sector in its press release.
Minister Steponavičius dismissed the mistrust expressed by the trade unions as ‘politicking’, but the official stance of his ministry on this issue has not yet been published.
Preconditions for developing social dialogue in education sector
Initiatives by LŠPS to tackle problems in the education sector through social dialogue are supported by many Lithuanian social partners, authorities and international organisations.
On 3 May 2010, three major trade union confederations – LPSK, Lithuanian Trade Union ‘Solidarumas’ (LPS ‘Solidarumas’) and the Lithuanian Labour Federation (LDF), which combine 140,000 Lithuanian employees, and represent them at the LRTT and other bodies, expressed their concern about the situation in the education sector.
LPSK, which is the largest trade union confederation in Lithuania with more than 70,000 members from 26 organisations, adopted a special resolution ‘On social dialogue in education’ at its fourth assembly on 7 May. The resolution expressed concern about social dialogue in the education sector and insisted that the ŠMM leadership make real efforts to set up a sectoral social dialogue institution in the education sector.
On 11 May, the EI, which includes ETUCE, expressed ‘its concern about the current situation in Lithuania’. The Public Employment Service (PES) reiterated its full support for Lithuanian teachers and their trade unions and invited the government and other employer organisations in education in Lithuania to engage in a comprehensive and sustainable dialogue with the teachers’ organisations.
The necessity for social dialogue was also emphasised by Valentinas Stundys, Chair of the Committee on Education, Science and Culture of the Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania (LRS), and the Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė.
Finally, on 14 June, the LRTT secretariat held the first sitting of the Committee on Education at LRTT. The sitting passed resolutions on the drafting of regulations by the committee and agreed on other organisational issues. The social partners believe this tripartite mechanism ‘will assist in creating a civilised dialogue and reduce tension between various social partner organisations and ŠMM. In addition, LRV and its institutions will be obligated to listen to the opinions of all concerned labour market players prior to decision-making and to find solutions acceptable for all parties so that implementation of such decisions would bring the least negative effects.’
Inga Blažienė, Institute of Labour and Social Research