Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Change the structure or die!

While thinking how to name this piece I was inspired by my colleague's article. Jānis Bērziņš reference about economic ills in Brazil in the late 1980's, and the famous phrase "export or die" actually was first used by Nazi Germany policy makers. Knowing the past of Latin American juntas it becomes understandable now through where did Brazilians learn the strategy first proposed by Friedrich List from. Brazilians were not the only ones actually, because Friedrich List inspired almost all countries in South East Asia, and his National System of Political Economy served literally as a bible for the architects of Asian economic boom from Japan in the 19th to Deng's China in the 20th century.

Japanese and the rest of Asia after the World War 2 totally changed structure of their economic system, thus affecting also subsequent political and social transformations. Results of "Asian Miracle" are widely known and the world's economic powerhouse has gradually moved in the late 20th century from the Transatlantic area to the Pacific.

It does not imply now that if Latvian or any other Central European policy makers would copy Japanese or Chinese model they would automatically start prospering, however. The point is somewhere else, and that is the compatibility of the foreign economic models with the existing social and material infrastructure. The key for the ability to make comprehensive and sustainable transition from one economic system into another is hidden in using the best brains in a given country possible. In order to nurture the best brains there is a need for cohesive tertiary education system which is based on principles of meritocracy. Meritocracy is the last thing cherished in Latvia however.

Just listen to PM Godmanis, Transport Supremo, Education Minister and other members of the present political "elite". All previously mentioned persons in their public utterances constantly ask the question - why does young generation not want to join party politics, become teachers or academics, and work in Latvia at all? The answer is simple ladies and gentlemen, that in order to work somewhere it isn't your merits what counts but your social networks, with all the consequences to bear! Such social networking system starts from high school where students with extremely bad grades are still promoted through the schooling system. Then they squeeze into university, and they continue their squeezing through the system in labour market in the manner of George W. Bush.

The difference between the US and Latvia is the sheer size of people and lack of totalitarian experience in the United States. The US system is far from perfect, and quality of its public schools directly depend on the ability to collect property tax from affluent folks (that explains bad schools in run down areas in Harlem, Bronx etc.), but at least the US has the best university system. It means that Universities can attract the best students from all over the world and thus balance off relative shortcomings of its public education system.

Latvian university lecturers and professors, instead of devoting their time for research and working with best students, most of their time must work with students of questionable quality. University attendance has exponentially increased, but it has happened due to the exponential decline of vocational and technical school attendance. With few exceptions there is no real campus traditions, that would make Latvian students socially active. Students attend not different lectures at universitas but are pushed through the system like in the vocational school. The bottom line is that students work in order to pay for their studies and in their free time they also study, and such "system" or vicious circle stands rock solid now.

If one looks on the OECD Pisa results then one may notice the trend in East Asian economies, their schoolchildren are getting better and better. Also the number of Asian students in the best US, European and Australian universities keeps increasing.

Results of Latvian schoolchildren, however, have declined in most areas of evaluation. As a university lecturer I see that preparedness of Latvian students is declining from year to year. And it is no surprise, because selfish and often poorly educated Latvian government administrators provide teachers only with promises and salaries that would not allow them to starve. Such issues as comprehensive evaluation system with courses for their professional upgrade or foreign visits are on paper only. In order to keep both ends meet in the situation where teachers hemorrhage out to the Western part of Europe those who stay at home work at least two shifts and they are simply overworked (in September 2007 there were 475 official teacher's posts in Latvia that were officially unfulfilled).

Such things as comprehensive and structural reform of the Latvian education system should go hand in hand with reforming the structure of the national budget priorities and the way taxes are determined and collected. Latvian politicians are afraid to reform, however, and there is up to now no one to reign in the ballooning red tape. Thus apathy prevails now also among the guild of dedicated enthusiasts - teachers, lecturers and professors.

I don't even want to speak about the language policy in universities. Latvian language should be promoted, aye. But there should be a balance found between preservation of the Latvian language culture and supplying the most essential spheres of Latvian economy and social infrastructure with best professionals possible, even if they are educated in English, German, French or Russian.

Constantly dragged and half-cooked reforms only increased prejudices among different groups in Latvian society. It means that it puts supporters of purity of Latvian language on defensive and only gives rise to intolerance in Latvia. Latvian society is literally caught today between financially not so promising West and the Eastern "candy man". Selfish benefits are at stake for the minigarchic families and their underlings. Long term goals of the state, which still is the primary agent in the international system, have been forgotten and it was very vividly exemplified by couple of high ranking civil servants in private conversation with me. I asked, "why Latvian political government dares to employ such reckless and outright corrupt policies"? An answer was - "because we are in the EU and they cannot afford to let us down". If such "slave" mentality prevails among political elite, then it only underlines my previous assumption, that the present elite is uneducated and foolishly naive.

Latvian present economic structure cannot sustain its exponential increase of burgeoning red tape without structural reforms in most of the interconnected sectors of its national economy. Thus, the slogan during this year of global economic downturn in Latvia should be simple - change the structure or die!

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