Contesting Crisis and (Neo)Liberal Reforms in the Former Socialist Bloc

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the rhetoric of "crisis" has dominated education policy debates in the former socialist bloc countries. The titles of numerous education policy briefs, studies, and reports made this clearly visible—A Generation at Risk: Children in the Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (Asian Development Bank 1998), Youth in Central Asia: Losing the New Generation (International Crisis Group 2003), and Public Spending on Education in the CIS-7 Countries: The Hidden Crisis (World Bank, 2003), among many others. Concerns were raised over falling expenditures, declining literacy rates, decreasing enrollment, rising student dropout, deteriorating capital infrastructure, outdated textbooks, stagnated curricula, and a lack of qualified teachers. Some studies concluded that educational systems had become less equitable and more corrupt. Others warned about the looming risks to peace and social cohesion. Whether real or imagined, the rhetoric of "crisis" has permeated education policy discourse, stretching over two decades and becoming a chronic symptom of the post-socialist condition.

More concerning is that the rhetoric of "crisis" became key in defining the post-socialist future. Everything "socialist" was associated with the existing crisis, whereas the "West" was simplistically and uncritically presented as the embodiment of progress. Most post-socialist education reforms thus embraced the logic of Western neo-liberal reforms, including decentralization, de-concentration, and privatization. These reforms also entailed a total re-regulation of public education space, including the bureaucratization and de-professionalization of teachers' work. Not surprisingly, teacher authority and professionalism became undermined. More importantly, the value of public and free education—associated with socialist egalitarianism—became seriously questioned.

While these neo-liberal reforms have been openly critiqued elsewhere, they are not generally associated with the "crisis" situation in the former socialist bloc. We need to urgently reverse this logic in order to enable critical debate about the impact and implications of Western neo-liberal reforms in terms of education equity and quality in the post-socialist societies and beyond. The challenge is how to construct a publicly-funded and democratically accountable alternative to both the neo-liberal and old state socialist model of education. This requires, as a first step, that we contest the notion of "crisis" itself in order to challenge the hegemony of neo-liberal reforms and open the space for alternative visions of education reforms and post-socialist futures.


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Iveta Silova

Iveta Silova is Professor and Director of the Center for the Advanced Studies in Global Education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.  She holds a PhD in comparative education and political sociology from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Columbia University. Her research focuses on the study of globalization and post-socialist education transformations, including intersections between post-colonialism and post-socialism after the Cold War. Since 2008, Iveta has served as a co-editor of European Education: Issues and Studies.

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