Education – foundation for progressive Montenegro

Nowadays, education represents a key area for the advancement of democratic states. The extent of responsibility of decision-makers towards the state and the public interest is also the position towards education. The fact that it is now one of the four departments in the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports, with accompanying personnel controversies and the absence of any initiative by the new government to improve the education system at all levels, does not imply that the new Government understands the importance of education.

And where does Montenegro rank in education?

According to the 2011 Census, Montenegro has almost one-third of the population with or without completed elementary school (28%), slightly more than half (52%) have finished secondary school, and less than one-fifth have higher education (17 %), while 2% have not finished any school and 1% refuse to answer.

At the end of 2019, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published the results of the international PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) assessment, which was conducted in 2018. Montenegro ranked 52nd, and in all categories (reading, mathematics, science) scored lower than the OECD average. Additionally, as many as 42% of assessed 15-year-old students from Montenegro have not acquired the minimum level of proficiency in reading (OECD average is 23%), i.e. almost every second student in Montenegro is functionally illiterate, and as expected, the results in mathematics and science are discouraging.

Also, our talented students, in certain areas, scored up to 23 times lower results than the OECD average. In the context of the region, ahead of Montenegro are Serbia (45), Croatia (29) and Slovenia (21) and below is B&H (62), North Macedonia (67) and Kosovo (75). The then Ministry of Education and the Examination Centre ignored the problems or gave unconvincing justifications for them, highlighting a couple of symbolic improvements. No serious analytical effort by the authorities or a desire to learn from this and open the process of changing this evidently dysfunctional practices has been noted, while relevant independent reviews note that our children are practically wasting time learning by memorising, which is later useless to them – instead of developing critical thinking.

On the other hand, we have a huge number of diploma “Luca”, on average about 15% per year in the sample of Podgorica and Tuzi, which indicates the non-compliance of the method of knowledge assessment with international standards and practices, and thus calls into question the validity of these diplomas.

By analysing the election programmes of coalitions and parties that participated in the 2020 parliamentary elections, the Centre for Civic Education (CCE) determined that education and science, which are crucial in democracies, were not in the focus of our parties and coalitions, with the note that some members of the current governing structure did not address this issue at all. Apart from the fact that this issue is marginalized in terms of positioning and processing, it was not addressed analytically either, while concrete and constructive measures aimed at improving the formal education system were incidental. Quantitatively expressed, education covered about 5% of election programmes, and the CCE media monitoring recorded only 51 or 2.65% of pieces dedicated to education within the 7,143 analysed publications.

This is not something that young people do not detect, thus, according to public opinion researches, they are partially satisfied with the education system in Montenegro, while most of them perceive underlined corruption within the education system. The research also indicates that the vast majority of young people consider that the education system is not adequately correlated with the needs of the modern labour market (74.6%), and almost half of them state that they did not have the opportunity to have working practice or internship during schooling. Interestingly, the largest percentage of young people assess everyday life at school/college as difficult and stressful (76.9%).

Since 2016, researches and analysis of the CCE warn that half of the young people are thinking about leaving the country, with an upward trend amongst those in whom this desire strengthens and gets the outlines of concrete plans. The state of Montenegro has no data on the scale of the “brain drain” or a projection of how many students will not return from studying abroad, particularly considering that this dream of leaving to a country that provides employment opportunities on merit – not based on a party membership card or the blessing of the church is more pronounced amongst young people with a higher level of education. In brief, there is no elementary concern for the most valuable resource that leaves the state, and it is discouraging that no efforts are being made to get our best scientists and artists working at universities outside Montenegro back to Montenegro to contribute to the necessary development of teaching quality here.

It should be recalled that the ministers of education usually have the impression that everything starts with them and that nothing was good before. This has led to frequent and unfinished educational reforms that require more and more effort from pupils and students, as well as parents, resulting in these pupils and students graduating without the knowledge and skills that make them competitive and prepared for labour market demands.

It is not surprising, although there is no justification, that the Montenegrin authorities were not interested in shaping critically minded citizens nor strengthening human resources within the education system which has been treated (and seems to continue to be treated) as one of the important political party and individual resources. Outdated plans, programmes and textbooks created by a group of those linked and selected according to strange criteria remain the basis, while modern methodological norms have not flowed through our education system, nor is the support given to open-minded teaching stuff.

Thus, even after two decades of education reforms, supporting education programmes implemented predominantly by the civil sector, remain vital for providing knowledge in areas necessary for the progress of the society. After all, the skills of critical thinking, analysis, creativity, etc. also shape a citizen who questions the authorities, clearly expresses his/her position, does not fall for empty pre-election promises but holds politicians hostage to his own words.

If decision-makers truly want to change this society for the better through education, one of the first steps would be to establish a ministry that will deal with this great and important issue with dedication and in full capacity, and to have persons with respect of the profession at managerial positions. Education should not be perceived as a cost but as the best investment, and this is one of the last items on which financial cuts should be made. Inter alia, this means that conditions in schools, the manner of managing these institutions, the equipment they need, the competencies of teachers and their salaries should be continuously improved so that scientific achievements and advances in education do not remain at the level of individual achievements that have nothing to do with the strategic approach of the authorities in those areas.

By accepting unpleasant truths, we break down delusions that give us comfort, but also limit our reach. One of those unpleasant truths is that we are an educationally neglected society that as such cannot move forward.

Therefore, the common goal of the state and society, political parties and civil society organizations, the government and the opposition, should be Montenegro as a knowledge society. It is an approach that, respecting differences, creates conditions for a Montenegrin citizen to live a good life in his community, and places Montenegro amongst the educated and developed countries.

Daliborka Uljarević, Executive Director of the Centre for Civic Education (CCE)

Note: the article is publicised in Vijesti