by Julian Popov

The EU is unlikely to benefit from Bulgarian brainpower

Odiously for many Bulgarians, this country lags behind Turkey in terms of literacy, according to one of the most influential international surveys on the quality of education, the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. It was conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.When I told a group of experts about these embarrassing results, one of them stood up and said it wasn't true. He said he was in touch with schoolchildren and they could all read and write. Besides, the United States was full of illiterates, he said. Yes, we have heard these “old wives' tales” before. Another participant told me it was all because of the Gypsies. Still another claimed that sociologists should not be trusted. Good thing there are Gypsies, sociologists and Americans – they can easily be blamed for many things happening all around.

According to the latest PISA assessment of the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students, Bulgaria is at the bottom of the literacy list. The survey is quite extensive, but one figure stands out among the thousands of others: 28.8 percent of Bulgarian 15-year-olds are below Level One. Among boys, this percentage reaches 38.3. Level One marks the ability to grasp the meaning of a simple, straightforward text that has no implicit information, ambiguities or hidden meanings.

Failure to reach Level One means that you are functionally illiterate – no matter whether you know the alphabet and can read a sentence or two. For Turkey, the percentage is 10.8. Bulgarian mathematical literacy stands at 29.4 percent. Turkey is at 24. But Bulgarians can't gloat for long: Turkish scores are rising, while Bulgaria's are tumbling.Sadly, neither the Gypsies nor any other minority group can account for such a high illiteracy rate. Besides, the survey is carried out among enrolled pupils. If some Roma children have dropped out of school, they have actually done us a favour – at least as far as this assessment is concerned.

Modern economy is often described as “knowledge economy.” In 2000, the EU created a star-crossed document called the Lisbon Strategy, which aimed at developing the most competitive economy in the world, deadline 2010. The plan envisaged this happening on the basis of knowledge. At present, there is no indication that it will meet its goal. The EU's chances are not likely to improve with Bulgaria as a member.

Bulgarians love making comparisons with neighbouring countries and pointing out those that are worse than they are. As far as education is concerned, however, the Bulgarians have always fostered feelings of pride – partly due to tradition, partly due to the objective results of surveys such as PISA and TIMSS, and largely because of the accomplishments of a handful of clever and well-educated Bulgarian children who win international mathematics Olympiads. These wiz kids are a small and dwindling group, however. They are also precisely the four or five percent who are most likely to continue their studies abroad.

The next most talented 12 percent also intend to apply to both foreign and Bulgarian universities and to eventually leave the country. The illiterate third will remain without anyone to educate them or even hire them. The Bulgarian “army of labour” will start resembling King Samuel's soldiers, with a one-eyed man leading every 100 blind men. This time, they won't be able to blame the Greeks, though. Perhaps they will fault the Turks for surpassing them. As the schools in this country develop an extremely bad – but completely justified – reputation, educated parents will not want to stay, come or move back to Bulgaria simply because there will be no suitable schools for their children. Thus, low educational standards are an impediment not only to future development but also to the present functioning of the economy. Everybody knows parents who assert they would leave Bulgaria or send their children to study abroad if they could secure the funds. Today, an increasing number of parents can afford this “luxury”.

As EU citizens, Bulgarians now pay the same tuition as local students at European universities. Sometimes this means cheaper education than in Bulgaria.Illiteracy is a bigger threat to the country than crime or the demographic crisis, a largely unexplained phenomenon, and even corruption. Nevertheless, there is no sign at present that anybody is seriously worried about it. I can only hope that the comparison with Turkey will sound some alarm bells.


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