Paying the Right Sort of Attention

Views on BG | July 21, 2011, Thursday // 19:38|  views

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The Economist

Today euro-zone leaders are in Brussels to work out a way of dealing with Europe's fiscally feckless. Yesterday—with, admittedly, slightly less fanfare—the spotlight was on the European Union's legal laggards: Romania and Bulgaria. The European Commission has been monitoring corruption in the two countries since they joined the EU in 2007 (too early, say many). Concerns at the slow pace of progress have seen aid to governments withheld and delays to the pair's accession to the EU's visa-free Schengen area.

Yesterday's reports did little to lift the gloom. Legal procedure in Bulgaria continues to suffer from "extreme deficiencies", says the commission, citing acquittals in high-level fraud and corruption trials. As for Romania, the commission returned to a theme it has been whistling for four years: more judicial reform is needed to stem corruption.

Corruption in Romanian schools is not covered by the commission's monitoring scheme. But it provides a nice illustration of the difficulties of cleaning things up. Two weeks ago, the results of the Romanian school-leaving baccalaureate exam were released. They did not make for pretty reading. Following an anti-cheating initiative that saw CCTV cameras installed in schools, pass rates plummeted. Over half the students taking the exam failed; just two years ago, the pass rate was over 80%. In some schools, not a single student passed.

In the communist days Romania prided itself on the quality of its education. It is clearly no longer in a position to do so. This is not necessarily bad news: although everyone knew that the high pass rates of previous years were dodgy, they provided the government with an excuse for inaction. The test now will be whether there is a determination to follow through. Some parents simply argued that the pressure of being under surveillance had led students to underperform.

Installing cameras tackles a single symptom, not a cause. Everyone knew cheating was endemic. But they also know that some teachers distribute answers before tests if parents pay "a little attention" (a fee), or give private lessons outside of school hours (although this has been made illegal). In 2010 26 teachers were accused by Romania's National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) of having accepted bribes from parents worth ?150,000. The popular view, says Jonathan Scheele, a former head of the European Commission delegation in Bucharest, is: "they [politicians] get away with it, so why shouldn't we?"

Few talented Romanians want to enter teaching, seen as a badly paid, low-prestige profession. Low salaries demotivate teachers and make backhanders look more attractive. As education earns itself a reputation as a grubby business, taxpayers and external donors become reluctant to increase education budgets. It is difficult to see a way out of this cycle.

Last year, Daniel Funeriu, the education minister, changed the baccalaureate's format, prompting teachers to boycott the exam. An OECD consultant says, "This wake-up call about the state of the education system was very loud and messy, but people still refuse to take it seriously." The same could be said for Romania's commitment to reducing corruption and implementing EU law.

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Tags: assets, CVM, cooperation and verification mechanism, monitoring report, EC, EU, European Commission, Boris Velchev, Chief Prosecutor, corruption, magistrates, judges, Prosecutor's Office, prosecution, police, interior ministry, organized crime, mafia, corruption, Conflict of Interest Act, conflict of interests, conflict of interest, Conflict of Interests Act, Brussels, Bulgaria, Romania, European Commission


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