An eternal orphan of election campaigns, education has started to creep into public discussion in recent days despite stiff competition from the usual headlines. Crucial negotiations with the International Monetary Fund at a delicate stage have been accompanied by a lively political scenario with last Sunday’s huge upset in the San Juan provincial elections against a contrasting backdrop of infighting in the Juntos por el Cambio opposition and a fabricated unity in the ruling Unión por la Patria coalition (where even such a disruptive figure as Juan Grabois is only questioning the official standard-bearer Sergio Massa as much as needed to keep the Kirchnerite left within the fold). And yet the far longer-term challenges of education have also been made an issue.
One major catalyst in that direction came from the increasingly trend-setting medium of the social networks – a Bahía Blanca haulier confronted the government’s pet slogan of “el Estado presente” (“the state present”) with the reality of teacher absence due to one strike after another. A complaint with some statistical grounding since the data show San Luis to be the only province with a perfect school calendar in this regard.
Rather less statistical grounding was enjoyed by a recent intervention of PRO presidential hopeful Patricia Bullrich in the educational debate when she ventured: “Argentine universities are vacant of Argentine students because almost half those matriculated are foreign students who come and take advantage of the opportunities offered by Argentina.” A detailed Education Ministry report has set the percentage of foreign students at 3.9 percent (almost 96 percent from this hemisphere) but Bullrich’s outburst was absurd even taken at face value because even if half the university students are foreign, then who are the other half if not Argentine – zombies or Martians? Yet this gaffe can also be taken as a backhanded tribute to the importance given to education by the general public – Bullrich would never have strayed into this arena had she not sensed that it was a hot electoral issue.
The Argentine political tradition is for Peronist governments to attach more importance to primary schooling while the more middle-class opposition parties tend to focus on higher education but it is public primary schools which are being found most wanting under a populist administration. The statistics show that of the 1,962 days of classes scheduled for the first half of this year in the 24 districts, no less than 435 have been completely lost to strikes without even counting the loss of hours to minor stoppages (where San Luis would also lose its perfect record) or individual absences – quite apart from the fact that in several provinces public schooling does not extend beyond half a day. In Santa Cruz under a third of the classes scheduled (27 days or less than a month in half a year) have been held while only 10 provinces have lost a week or less – Buenos Aires Province as by far the biggest has given its almost four million school pupils only three-quarters of the classes due them. One case worth mentioning in a broader context is Salta where 19 days were lost to strikes last May. Why? Because the provincial government then came out with anti-picket legislation very similar to the related initiatives in Jujuy’s provincial constitutional reform the following month and yet the Salta teacher strikes in protest as the only reaction went unnoticed outside the province while the uproar in Jujuy totally dominated the national agenda. A telling question both on the origins of that violence and the priority given to education alike.
Beyond all the numbers quantity is one thing and quality another. The two categories of over 1.4 million teachers and some 2.5 million university students alone already approximate 10 percent of the Argentine population, staggering figures, yet only two-thirds of secondary school students complete their studies while surveys show varying but always important percentages to lack comprehension of texts or satisfactory mathematical capacities.
Yet all is relative. In the so-called golden years of Argentina, illiteracy was 36 percent of the population according to the 1914 census, while in the here and now it could always be argued that any deficiencies reflect the mismatch of an outdated educational system with the digital age as much as the shortcomings of schoolchildren. If artificial intelligence ends up supplanting the human, even the finest schooling would become irrelevant. Yet the entry of education into a campaign debate where it has so long been absent remains more than welcome.