It is beyond any shadow of a doubt that education has ranked high on the agendas of each and every post-socialist government. Decentralization, democratization of curricula, professionalization of education are ubiquitous concepts in most party platforms. Beyond these shiny words however reality started slowly creeping up: low wages and disgruntled teachers, declining services and upset citizens-customers. Qua employees, teachers faced with declining wages and increased competition, but also benefiting from the alternative of employment opportunities in private schools, have found their options placed on the well-known Hirschmanian duality of exit-voice (Hirschman). Intuitively, in a context of ubiquitous economic shortage, the exit and voice options could be expected to display extremely high levels. Yet, a closer look shows a rather intriguing picture: private schools have not really taken off as a true market competitor to public education, and mass teacher protests have not occurred at any high rate.  The main coordinate seems to have been, surprisingly so, an attitude of silent non-exit. 

Does loyalty actually play any part?

Most analysts have indeed drawn attention that Hirschman’s original work underlines an, at best, fishy transition from exit to voice via loyalty (Barry). Acknowledging this ambiguity in Hirschman’s original work, I will not go into a very theoretical debate, but rather limit myself for the time being to the following line of inquiry: the undoubtedly very strong vocational element in teaching. Coupled with generally high professional rigidity this element means that high-school teachers (which are my main focus here, university professors fall clearly in a different category as scholars rather than just educators) have limited exit options. Although a low level of voice cannot be directly, nor exclusively, attributed to some understanding of loyalty, it seems equally far-fetched to disregard it. A more prudent path is to acknowledge quite simply that we must differentiate between the object of loyalty (teaching) and the channel of voice – i.e. the state cum employee. If exit promises at best unclear better revenue, then voice is even more dubious: oftentimes dilluted in the form of more general welfare-related protests, unclear bargaining leverage by teachers’ unions, weak probability of improvement etc. A broken-voice type model (Vanhuysse) might in part explain the lack of mass protests, but still leaves room open as private schools have not taken off. Hence the central point here is to disentangle Hirschman’s original ambiguity by understanding exit-voice-loyalty on a continuum rather than as quasi-boolean options (in the tradition of Hoffmann for instance).

Private tutoring – more than a financial compensation strategy

My intriguing starting point for this article is a huge Romanian public scandal in 1998-1999 related to curricula democratization in history teaching: the integration of regional historical narratives  was translated into Romanian audiences as an identity-threat, generating political tensions. Surprisingly though, the whole affair showed two major issues: a firm commitment for European integration  and the fact that high-school teachers affected by curricula democratization did not at all involve in the debate. This peculiar absence of voice seems to point towards the existence of a complex compensatory mechanism, not only in financial terms, but also on deeper layers of employee loyalty. Certainly, this is not a unique example, though being more familiar with the Romanian case I can draw more in-depth conclusions on it that could certainly be employed by observers of other CEE countries.

What seems to strike out is that even a rather radical, modernizing attack on the subject-matter of teaching itself did not directly generate a strike. If one bears in mind the common feature of dubious quality-assessment mechanisms by most Ministries of Education, this absence of voice points to a shifted locus of loyalty (not object, but locus!). This is where the grey market of private tutoring steps in: a meritocratic-conservative reaction to proposed democratization of curricula and de-centralized education meant that teachers’ could stop the erosion of their in-class authority and conserve a decommodified understanding of culture and education. The grey market thus performed more than a financial-compesatory strategy: it also permitted some sort of professional competition for revenue. This means a prima facie disloyal behavior towards the state cum employer (as it is loosing tax money, although the argument could be made that this is a very twisted line), conserves a normative-ladden loyalty: private tutoring raises educational results (which naturally is the original aim of an education reform policy!). A legitimate linked question is whether this de facto changes education from an anti-poverty safety net to an inequality entrenching system as obviously parents’ incomes will affect access to the grey market.

Obviously, I am not assuming that teachers engage in this shadow economy purely out of “professional dedication”. What I am pointing out is that private tutoring is not some Machiavellian anti-system behavior as distorted neo-liberal discourses claim so that teachers get rich without doing their job. In this particular case, where one must also note that education is an integral part of the welfare-system for most CEE countries, disenfranchisement with the employer cannot be directly taken on an exit-voice polarity. Beyond the cases where private tutoring is forced by the considerable amounts of coercion vested in teachers in non-decentralized systems, private tutoring is a complicated shadow economy that seems to balance popular perceptions of political failures.

Acknowledging the can of worms I am opening, as is the case with most shadow economies, I maintain the opening nuance that there is something more than public policy of classical political economy arguments show us when it comes to educational reforms. This is not a normative statement (i.e. not to be read as a “taking of sides”), merely an argument of a backfiring of existing understandings of curricual democratization and decentralization of education, which should be used towards this end of improving existing reform projects by understanding arguably the most intricate side-effect it is generating.

Picture Source: Bidsbypros