State education in Yugoslavia - Achievements and Problems

A Yugoslav Marxist student looks at the achievements of state education under the old Titoist regime and compares it to today’s level of education as the whole system is being gradually privatised. Although marred by the bureaucratic deformations of the old Titoist regime, it did show the potential that exists from having a fully state run system. What would have been possible if there had been genuine socialism and workers’ democracy in Yugoslavia? And what does the future hold for the present and future generations of students in the former Yugoslav republics as the greedy hand of capitalism slowly but surely begins to strangle what was good in the old system?

A Yugoslav Marxist student looks at the achievements of state education under the old Titoist regime and compares it to today’s level of education as the whole system is being gradually privatised. This article was written some time ago, and originally appeared on the pobunjeni um web site. We believe there are some important lessons to be learnt from the experience of the Yugoslav education system. Although marred by the bureaucratic deformations of the old Titoist regime, it did show the potential that exists from having a fully state run system. What would have been possible if there had been genuine socialism and workers’ democracy in Yugoslavia? And what does the future hold for the present and future generations of students in the former Yugoslav republics as the greedy hand of capitalism slowly but surely begins to strangle what was good in the old system?

State education, just as public forms of property, has, in the last decades, here, attained very negative connotations. And, indeed, the first associations of younger generations with the school system justifiably include broken chairs, uninterested teachers, and a highly sterile atmosphere that destroys any attempt at creativity. In such a social climate, it has been easy for various Karic's, Zecevic's and similar 'gentlemen' businessmen, to found private creches, kindergartens, schools, gymnasia and universities. And so it is that today, in the capital city alone, we have over thirty registered universities, and, across the country, more than 100 of them, and around 1000 registered private firms in the field of education. Since you have always dreamt of becoming an actor or actress, or a stockbroker, you can now realise your dreams overnight for just a few trivial thousand euros.

The ideological offensive from the right has facilitated the endorsement of the idea that the responsibility for all the omissions of the local schooling system lies in the very concept of state control over all levels of education. And not just the social forms of property. The current political establishment, using the dirty game of turning the victim into the guilty party, asserts that the 'lazy' and 'avaricious' students themselves are to blame. The system of free, universal education in the last fifty years has, they claim, 'corrupted' them. As a remedy to the current, sickly state of our education system, and to the absolute delight of the same Karic's and Zecevic's, they propose the slashing of budgets and admission places, the introduction of school fees, and the establishment of supplementary private schools. And, of course, is it not better to have, in the place of one university, dozens of them, and let everyone fend for himself? Eventually, the 'omnipotent' market will, with time, carry out its own selection, and only the best, the most qualified, shall remain. Various scholarships will take care of those who have little money. All will be well. But, are things really like that?

Almost all the developed countries have free, universal education. Even the most fervent supporters of private property and the market, such as the U.S., were, with time, forced to realise the advantages of such a system, and to guarantee the free education of their citizens up to, at least, the end of their secondary education.

The rapid technological and scientific progress of the last two hundred years, but especially that of the last few decades, is definitely the increasing role of the state in the realms of science and education. This process of the automation of production, and the numerous technical innovations of the period, are the result of the great increase in the availability of scientific discoveries and the revolutionary breakthroughs in science, just as of the huge enhancement of the expertise and level of competence of the workforce. The formation of big state institutions through the concentration of financial resources, material resources, and the formation of mass educational systems are the fundamental elements which stand behind this process. Less developed nations in the world, like our own country, which were successful, at a certain point in history, in seizing control of education from private institutions, provide even more convincing examples. Let us, for a moment, point to the achievements of the state education system of our country.

Before the Second World War, coverage of the relevant age group of the population with basic education was under forty-five percent in our country. This means that not even every second child between seven and fourteen years of age was included in primary schooling. In this/Due to this, we were lagging behind the more developed nations of Europe. In addition to the mentioned evaluation, one can also cite the fact that the proportion of illiterate people in the population was over thirty-five per cent. Let us not even consider higher education. That was the privilege of a very small number of people: the aristocratic elite and the rich families.

After World War Two, with the placement of schooling in the hands of the state, things began to change rapidly. For the first time in the history of this area, education was accessible to all. Millions of people who had been unable even to sign their names were now provided with free schooling. Primary education became compulsory by law. A campaign to make literate many layers of society and the rural areas was undertaken, and the necessary infrastructure for schools began to be constructed: primary schools, faculties, workers' universities, libraries, etc. Besides on children, a special emphasis was placed on the additional education and expert training of older members of the population. In this way, a wide segment of people was included in the system of evening schools, where it was made possible for them to gain professional knowledge that there had previously been no opportunity for them to learn. This kind of politics had its roots in the Yugoslav revolution itself [at the end of the Second World War]; for, during the NOB (national liberation struggle), partisan units organised literacy and political lessons, while in the liberated territories, the first schools were organised. A secularised form of education was organised, liberating education, for the first time, from the grip of the Church. Various ethnic groups received the right to be educated in their own tongue and to learn about their own cultural heritage. The results of such an undertaking are remarkably impressive.

Up to 1991, of over two and a half million citizens from the 1950s without school education, there remained just over 660,000. The portion of the population with secondary education was more than quadrupled during the same period, and the greatest increase was realised in higher and tertiary education, with a nine-fold rise. From just under 41,000 people with higher education in 1953, that number soared to 622,000 by the end of the 1980s. This impressive growth could never have been achieved without the politics of planning by the state, which was not reluctant to seize and repossess education from the hands of a narrow privileged layer which held a monopoly on schooling, and place it at the disposal of the masses as their inalienable right.

This trend did not, however, have the same positive inclination during the entire period. Logically, the economic and political development of our nation was reflected in our education system. We see, then, the growth of the number of students right up to the end of the seventies, where it reaches its peak, and then we see a noticeable fall in the number of university students in the 1980s. This tendency is evident also in the student population of the primary and secondary institutions of the nation.

Even during the 1960s, the bureaucratisation of the League of Communists together with the introduction of market elements into the domestic economy and the establishment of links with international financial institutions began to be mirrored in the whole of society and, therefore, in education. Social differences began slowly, but definitely, to widen. It is during this time that we can perceive the embryonic signs of the problems that a few decades later were to explode in the face of the present generation. Even then, party functionaries, like the old bourgeois families, got the privilege of sending their children to foreign institutions of higher education. The lack of democratic principle within the party was reflected also in other institutions of society. All critical thinking was discouraged, and schools were turned into dogmatic establishments whose task it was to standardise the ways in which people thought, and to justify the newly-created stratum in society, the bureaucracy, which had grown out of the revolution.

The dogmatic character of the schools was clearly illustrated in the presence of Tito's portrait on each classroom wall above the board, while the pioneer folklore hid the absence of any kind of democratic institution of the students themselves. This process, of course, ran into the resistance of the youth themselves. The famous student protest of 1968 was an unambiguous stand against this kind of phenomenon in society. The slogan, 'Down with the Red Bourgeoisie', the proclamation of the free, red Karl Marx university, and the politics of links with the workers were the most significant and enlightened aspects of post-war student organisation in Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, this movement was broken, and with it was lost perhaps the last opportunity for these negative trends to be reversed.

After this victory, the bureaucracy strengthened its grip on society and began to extend its hold over the education system, completely subordinating it to its own narrow interests. The final results of this process are the well-known schools we all grew up in. The bureaucracy began to take up a completely wrong attitude to education, completely identical to the one of the ruling class of the leading western states. The educational system was not viewed as a productive branch of society, from which, on a planned basis and in the long term, great benefits could be reaped by and for the whole of society, but as just another expense. In accordance with this, investments in education were tapped from the residue of the budget remaining after the priorities - the police and the army - had been financed.

During this period, our education system was characterised by an extraordinary all-sidedness. Thus, the average Yugoslav in school could have some kind of experience with a wide range of sciences and knowledge from all fields. In contrast with his peers in America, for example, our average pupil knew what the capital city of Mongolia was, as well as the chemical process of osmosis. The problem, though, was not in the scope of knowledge offered, but in the way in which it was presented. In a highly rigid atmosphere, teachers filled our heads with numbers and facts.

In this one-way process, there was no room for the involvement and activity of the students themselves. The 'peak' form of student involvement in the subject matter itself still is the test at primary and secondary levels, and the seminar examinations at university level, which is dashed out by will and assessed by the supreme authority - the teacher or professor. In such an atmosphere, highly negative phenomena (we all remember the infamous “sucking-up”) arise, such as submission to authority, the loss of imagination and creativity, the disappearance of self-initiative. As with the illness called bulemia, when the patient uncontrollably stuffs his/her stomach with food in a very short time, and then, with a feeling of guilt, vomits all the food out - so with our average pupil, machines were created out of them, which were programmed to soak up and memorise as many facts as possible, within a limited time-frame, remember them until the first test or exam, and then do with the information whatever he/she desired...

The social differentiation/disintegration of Yugoslav society unconsciously left its mark on our school system. The division into specialised secondary schools and gymnasia was supposed, in theory, to give the youth a greater range of choice, but, in reality, children of the urban middle class were generally encouraged to apply to gymnasia, while the children of the working class generally "chose" the specialised, vocational schools. This choice was obviously not entirely free and individual, for it was conditioned by the material position of the family of the student. Children from the middle class had the financial and moral support of their parents, who could afford the luxury of supporting their children for a further period of four to eight years until they had acquired a 'broad education', while the families of lower social strata were forced to get their children employed as soon as possible, thus getting an extra source of much-needed income.

Due to the worsening economic crisis which had gripped our country by the end of the 1970s, our universities, above all, began to assume a completely new social function. We are all aware of the stories of 'eternal students, for whom the system made possible their enjoyment in their own laziness', for they, in other words, 'take advantage of free education', and stay at university for ten years or more, 'studying'. It is true that such "lazy-bugs" do make up a very small minority of the student population who stay at university for a longer period of time than is anticipated. With the growing levels of unemployment, a whole new layer of people was created of qualified youth who saw no motivation for bringing their studies to an end. As students, they had many benefits (accommodation, food, discounts) that would be terminated the moment they graduated. In this way, instead of finishing up on the street, many young people began to lengthen their university life until they could find or arrange some sort of future for themselves.

So, universities began to assume the form of social institutions, in the absence of real ones, which have a wider social role than they were originally supposed to have. The state, of course, tolerated this in the hope of dampening the results of the newly created social tensions - this, however, did not solve the social problems facing our society. But this was not due to the "lazy" students, or the free state education system. It was due to the bureaucracy at the top, which was guided by its own interests, and which was unable to face the political and economic problems (for the very reason that it was following its own interests, and that it was not democratic in form) of its own making that were facing our society.

If the current course is pursued, and no organized resistance is posed to the politics of the current government, it may very well occur that our children grow up in a society very similar to the prewar one - where education used to be the privilege of the rich families of society and not a universal right. The students must, decisively and militantly, oppose all attempts to introduce school fees, cuts in the education budget, decreases in the number of places for first-year students, and obliterate the other rights gained over decades of struggle. The intended reform of the educational system is definitely overdue, but students must not allow themselves to be drawn into unconditional support for this bill and all the acts of the new government as its representative organizations have done. The reform of the education system, isolated from the rest of society, is inadequate and impossible; the material conditions of society must change - and that is possible only through their socialization and placement under the democratic control of all the members of society.