Roma Social Inclusion and Higher Education: Lessons Learned and Future Priorities

On the occasion of a conference at the University of Sussex, REF Chair Andrzej Mirga shared his thoughts with experts from within the European education sector about how young people from Roma communities can be better included in higher education. The event, on May 19, 2016, brought together key policymakers and researchers to discuss the issues which prevent the inclusion of Roma students in secondary schools and universities across Europe.

On the occasion of a conference at the University of Sussex, REF Chair Andrzej Mirga shared his thoughts with experts from within the European education sector about how young people from Roma communities can be better included in higher education. The event, on May 19, 2016, brought together key policymakers and researchers to discuss the issues which prevent the inclusion of Roma students in secondary schools and universities across Europe. Concerns which will be discussed include how young people from Roma communities frequently experience racism from their peers, discrimination from within their families for pursuing education and having to work to support themselves whilst studying.

The event is part of the Higher Education Internationalisation and Mobilities (HEIM) Project, funded by the Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Programme. Located in the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research (CHEER), at the University of Sussex, the project is working with the Roma Education Fund, Budapest, and the Universities of Seville, Spain and Umea, Sweden to research how Roma communities are faring in relation to higher education opportunities in Europe.

What follows are Mr. Mirga’s remarks.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I’d first like to greet you all in the name of the Roma Education Fund’s Governing Board.

I decided to attend this meeting not only because of my role on the Board. In a month’s time the Board will meet in Serbia to discuss REF’s future long-term strategy. I am genuinely interested in the Higher Education Internationalisation and Mobility project and how it is unfolding. This is an opportunity for me to learn about even partial outcomes of your activities that can become food-for-thought in Belgrade.

Education determines social mobility and inclusion in society. It shapes the way elites, public officials and regular people think about and perceive the world. Academia therefore is a field where Roma need to enter in larger numbers. There are more Roma students who aspire to study at universities. But they also need to find a good reason to stay in Academia and seek a career there. You are also contributing to opening this prospect and that’s an important reason why I am here. That’s also important to the mission of REF – to support those from the Roma community who dream to study… I dreamed and that was a determining factor in my route to university in Krakow (by the way, during the communist period).

I am not going to comment on the HEIM project. Instead, I will turn to the subject of the Roma Education Fund and reflect on key question: How effective is REF in realizing this objective? How does the tools it uses help REF to progress with its mission?

By framing it in this way I intend to go beyond sheer numbers of Roma students enrolled in higher education or numbers of Roma alumni; here, REF demonstrates outcomes. I am interested to see whether REF’s interventions make a difference in progressing with Roma social inclusion. In short, what impact REF is bringing about in realizing its mission in the field.

According to the REF’s Statute: the Fund “contributes to closing the educational gap between Roma and majority… including through desegregation of educational systems….” In realizing this REF aims to:

  • Expand Romani children’s access to quality early childhood education and care;
  • Improve primary education outcomes for Romani children aged six to fourteen;
  • Boost academic performance and graduation rates from secondary education for Romani pupils;
  • Support access to tertiary education, improve graduation levels and strengthen identity of Romani university students;
  • Expand employment opportunities for young Romani adults.

REF already has operated for over a decade. Engagement in the education process is a long-term commitment and outcomes are better measured over a long-term horizon. REF should not be confused here with a ministry of education though. It works through targeted support and model interventions that aim to strengthen, compensate for or stop those elements that are weak, missing or discriminatory in formal education systems.  A decade seems a sufficient timeframe in which to look at the outcomes and lessons learned.

I am interested to see what has been achieved throughout this period, both in terms concrete outcomes (measured in numbers) but also in other areas central to the REF mission – research and advocacy for systemic change in education systems in countries REF is active. A key question therefore is whether the models that REF works with are used or adopted by governments and education ministries and introduced as part of systemic change in education? The rational here is clear: REF is not to substitute government and cannot carry out a task that can only be realized by the state towards its citizens; and in most of cases Roma are citizens of their respective countries.

We all are aware of the persistent gap between the majority and Roma in Europe. How we can narrow it? What’s needed to achieve here visible progress?

Introducing systemic change through legal challenge

Last year at a Roma teacher’s conference in Bratislava organized by REF (13-14 of November), Prof. Charles Payne from Chicago University, among other, shared with participants data from the US on percentages of various racial groups reaching higher education (bachelor and higher). He was also interested to learn how many Roma attain this level of education in Europe or in particular countries.

The data provided by Prof. Payne were indeed revealing: according to the latest research over 40% of American whites reached at least a BA. Surprising, at least to me, was the percentage of Black Americans who reached that level of education – around 23 %.  American Hispanics reached around 15%.

While comparable data might not be easy to find and apply due to different methodologies, according to the 2011 survey by the UNDP, less than 1% of Roma (aged 25-64) attained higher education in several countries with significant Roma populations. Among the majority, by comparison, this percentage can reach 30%.

Obviously, progress reached by Black Americans was not due to the advocacy and supportive efforts of even numerous civil society actors but due to federal affirmative action measures realized in a systemic way across the country. It did not fully eliminate discrimination and ghetto schooling, but it did create a significant black middle and upper class in US society.

How is this experience and knowledge important for Roma in Europe?

Part of the answer is by introducing systemic change in education that can only be sanctioned by the state and is affirmative. The other part relates to discriminatory practices in education.

In the US the Supreme Court ruled against school segregation already in 1954, in famous case Brown v. Board of Education. The Court concluded that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

In Europe we had to wait until 2007 when the European Court of Human Rights or ECtHR in Strasbourg ruled against Roma segregation in school in the case D.H. and others vs. Czech Republic.

On 19th of April 2016 the Open Society Foundations Justice Initiative launched its report, Strategic Litigation Impacts. Roma School Desegregation (New York 2016) at the European Parliament at a conference on Discrimination in Education: Efforts to Ensure Equal Opportunities for the Education of Roma Children. I took part in this event.  

One of the conclusions of this event was that the D.H. ruling was just the beginning and not the end of the process as this practice has continued despite the ruling, despite the recommendations of international community, and despite numerous efforts and rational arguments of civil society in this area. The other conclusion was that not only do stakeholders’ emotions and stereotypes but also their interests still play a decisive role when it comes to making a serious decisions about desegregation process.

Aside of the legal challenges to rule out segregation, desegregation is difficult to introduce because it is more about the mindset of the majority – imagining that a Roma child can learn in the same classroom or school and follow the same program and requirements as other children. This is rooted in a fear often expressed by non-Roma parents that having them together in integrated classroom brings down the standards and achievements of education. This is still a strong feeling despite numerous examples that prove otherwise.

For the Roma, however, segregation in education means substandard conditions and low quality of instruction. Both condemn Roma children to perpetual social marginalization and exclusion, trapping them in a vicious cycle of illiteracy and poverty so emblematic for many Roma parents and families from excluded communities. Continuation with this practice means the continuation of Roma marginalization.

We need also to realize that a whole infrastructure has been developed to serve this kind of education in a number of countries with significant Roma population: trained teachers, designed programs, prepared schools and ensured higher funding from the state budget, both for teachers and schools that take “care” of children requiring “special education” and for parents of these children who receive additional funding because of their children being enrolled in special care. It is not easy to give up these interests, including on the part of some Roma parents. Unsurprisingly, the most determined defenders of special schooling and Roma children are teachers of special education (for example, an influential association of such teachers in Czech Republic). 

At this event in European Parliament, for one Roma from Czech Republic who was subjected to segregated education, the issue is not so much physical segregation but what it brings to a Roma child – substandard education, low-quality learning processes and no hope for a future when to compete for jobs….

What does desegregation mean to American children according to Prof. Payne?

For minorities the desegregation can mean:

  • Better academic performance;
  • Better life-time earnings;
  • Being more comfortable with social diversity.

For majority students desegregation can mean:

  • No impact on education achievements;
  • Being more comfortable with social diversity.

The positive outcomes of the process are obvious but why is so difficult to make majority aware of that? I leave this question for you to reflect on.

Changing practices and educational policies that promote inclusive education

Lasting social change may require not only that a court judgment be fully executed but also that additional targeted actions accompany the judgment. Such efforts have been undertaken by European Commission recently when so-called infringement proceeding have been initiated against two it’s Member States – Czech Republic in 2014 and Slovakia in 2015. For the first time the Commission made use of EU legal and administrative instruments (Race Directive, Charter of Fundamental Rights but also specific decisions adopted by the European Council re: Roma community) to force Member States to stop discriminatory practices in the education of Roma children.

This is the area where the Roma Education Fund had been set up to make a difference: REF complements the judgment by providing services to end segregation through compensatory, innovative or advocacy efforts at all levels of education.  It is worth to underline here that REF was founded in 2005, two years before the D.H. ruling, and within the Decade of Roma Inclusion. However, the D.H. case was filed already in 1999. Since its first ruling in 2007 the ECtHR handed down already six judgments in cases of discrimination in education of Roma children against state actors, so the jurisprudence in this area is growing.

During REF’s decade long operation, the Fund supported hundred projects in order to test educational approaches that would promote inclusive quality education for Roma. REF piloted numerous interventions that targeted schools, communities, children and parents. Since 2007 REF started to implement scholarship schemes and approximately 5,600 Roma students have received scholarship until now. Here, it is sufficient to underline that REF’s tertiary scholarship program continues to support over 1,400 students a year under four schemes, with 331 students graduating from their degree programs in 2015.

About the numbers you can read in details in just released annual report for 2015.

REF developed four higher education scholarship programs. Roma Memorial University Scholarship Program (RMUSP) is the largest scheme, with 1,070 scholarship beneficiaries accepted for the 2015-16 academic year across 12 countries. The beneficiaries study a variety of specializations, in Bachelor, Master or Doctorate programs (or their equivalents). 

Roma International Scholarship Program (RISP) accepted 19 beneficiaries in the 2015–16. The beneficiaries come from various Decade countries and received financial support to study outside their home countries in Bachelor, Master or Doctorate programs. The scholarship awards ranged from EUR 1,300 to EUR 9,050, while the average amount was EUR 6,400.

Law and Humanities Program (LHP) accepted 202 beneficiaries in 2015. Each accepted beneficiary received 1,300 EUR financial support for living costs throughout the academic year, as well as additional support for a maximum amount of 1,000 EUR covering tuition fees (if applicable). In addition to the financial support, LHP scheme offers its beneficiaries academic and professional development support. 

Roma Health Scholarship Program (RHSP) accepted 135 beneficiaries in 2015 across the four program countries Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia. Beneficiaries received support to continue medical studies in their own countries at vocational or tertiary levels. The scholarships granted for the 2015–16 academic year varied between 675 and 3,335 EUR, depending on the country and the level of studies. In addition to the financial support, RHSP beneficiaries receive academic and professional development support through additional components.

Why I am mentioning all of these here? First, it is a significant contribution from the Fund to individuals who are Roma students; those who are selected are privileged in many ways. A natural question arises therefore here: how does this support help the community they are coming from? How this translates into narrowing the education gap between majority and Roma community?

These are important questions, and surprisingly, we do not have here clear answers. It is in this context that the REF Board but also REF donors raise a question: What’s the outcome for the community of funds invested by REF? That’s why some donors openly formulate requests to have result oriented strategy and result oriented reporting that would reflect the impact REF has had in reaching its statutory goals.

Independent impact assessment research – need for close cooperation with universities

What, therefore, about monitoring and an assessment of the results reached? What about the impact that REF attained with regard reaching its goals that is narrowing the gap in education, including through desegregation? In short, is the research supporting REF’s models and its outcomes?

On the 7th of September 2016 the REF held a conference at Corvinus University to mark its 10th anniversary.  

In my closing remarks I stressed the following:

  • First, there are few impact evaluations about our work and we need to be open to have more in order to refine our tools and goals.
  • Second, we need to learn from the lessons learned – especially in our advocacy at REF. Doing things is one thing, but knowing what we want or aim to is another. We give grants not just for the sake of spending money. We have to assess how we are doing with the mission’s goals. 
  • Third, we have to keep up with qualitative and quantitative research to identify and follow on trends in the real world.
  • Fourth, we need closer cooperation with [research] bodies. If we want to keep REF as a unique organization with unique experience in Roma education we need this kind of stronger and better partnership.
  • Last, we need to get as close as possible to those we research. They should be listened to. We need to engage Roma themselves in these activities.

This makes my interest to be here clear: learning more from you – teaching and research institution, and respected university in order to define better REF’s goals and tools that can serve REF’s mission the best. 

REF’s transition, prospects and future priorities

Over the last decade, REF has evolved into an organization with a unique experience and position within Roma civil society. By now REF’s network has grown to incorporate five offices staffed by a team of committed Roma and pro-Roma professionals.

No doubt, we are facing challenges and ambiguities in the process. We need renewing our long-term strategy, defining milestones and tools for reaching them and clarifying our roles and tasks. We have ambitious plans for growth of the organization and for its impact, whether in Roma communities or education authorities.

The overall objectives of REF mission in Europe remains relevant: the education gap between the majority and Roma communities at all education levels remains and this requires the continuation of efforts to narrow it.

A key challenge is how to mobilize the political will and commitment of state and educational authorities to scale up and integrate model interventions developed by REF into their education systems. Joining forces with those willing to exert pressure and advocate for inclusive and quality education for Roma children, whether it be large international organizations or local grass-roots Roma NGOs, is valid as ever.

REF supports annually a significant number of Roma students at universities; they in principle should be a resource both for the Roma community and for REF and other Roma-related institutions and offices.

Engaging with Roma students who are beneficiaries of REF programs and scholarships to work with the Roma community is a priority, and it could be a future requirement for these scholarship students to serve for a given period of time in Roma communities, whether in education institutions, community centers or civil society.

Similarly, REF alumni should become key actors for multiplying the REF’s outcomes, not the least, by joining REF or other offices and institutions as its qualified and expert staff. It is critically important to keep them committed to the Roma cause but also REF should be informed about their after-university trajectories! At the end how they fare afterword at the labor market is a key in measuring REF’s impact.

Several other initiatives also are opening new prospects for Roma students: one is the Roma teachers’ training program in Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia supported by the Velux Foundation.

I strongly believe that REF should try to increase the number of Roma in formal education structures, especially at preschool and primary school levels; major change can and should happen with the engagement of an enlarged Roma professional teaching staff, dedicated to and familiar with Roma communities and families. I hope this will evolve into one main scholarship program of the REF in future. There is also a need to start talking about developing such Roma teaching staff, instead of resting with Roma school assistants or mediators.

Next is the recently announced Roma Chair position at the new Roma in European Societies Initiative at the Central European University, funded by CEU, Open Society Foundations’ Roma Initiatives Office, REF and the Velux Foundation. The first of its kind in higher education, this collaborative initiative will support efforts to improve the situation of Roma in all sectors at local, national and regional levels through teaching and research, leadership development and community outreach. Budapest, with its Roma-related institutions, is evolving into a home for developing a future Roma elite.

Finally, the last opportunity relates to the creation of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture or ERIAC in Berlin, an initiative supported by Secretary General of the CoE, Mr. Jagland, and Gorge Soros (through engagement of OSF) and Roma associated with the so-called Alliance for ERI (of which I am party to this body, and so is Nadir Redzepi, Executive Director of REF). This is an initiative that soon will be launched in Berlin. It will offer additional prospects for Roma higher education alumni.  

– Andrzej Mirga