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Basic skills in Latvia - A pessimistic outlook

The pessimist comments: “It can’t get any worse”. The optimist replies: “Yes it can!"

An often discussed question in the new EU Member States is how long it will take to reach the average economical and social welfare level of the old EU Member States. In spite of a thriving economy and a rapidly changing and developing society, I am afraid that in the case of Latvia this will be a long time. This pessimistic outlook is based on the assumption that we will be faced with a great number of persons, who will not have gained the competencies needed to successfully integrate in today’s society and labour market.

What is the current situation in regard to basic skills in Latvia?

Some year ago an English colleague commented the situation in Latvia in the following way:
“In 1841 the German historian Johann Kohl wrote that ‘every Latvian is a born poet, everyone makes up verse and songs and can sing’. This may still be true; but in Latvia they will soon start to discover that not every Latvian can read and write.”

The myths prevails that Latvia has a very well educated society. It is true that Latvia has a high number of people who have passed through the education system; however these figures do not provide much information, whether these people have acquired the competencies needed to be successful in today¡¦s society. There is no scientific research data about the basic skills situation in Latvia, but anecdotal information suggests that this is not the case:
• About 10.000 pupils drop out of school each year.
• Night-schools see an ever increasing number of enrolments (night-schools in Latvia provide primary school education and a three year education which results in a secondary school leafing certificate); if until some years ago night-schools were mainly attended by students up to 20, the number of older students who want to gain a school leaving certificate is permanently increasing.
• Employment agencies are facing more and more illiterate people. This is also true for prisons, where the number of inmates, who have not gained any education at all, has increased over the last years.
• Youth unemployment in Latvia lies above 20%.
• More than 10% of people who have gained a university degree are unemployed.
• Many job applicants in banks lack basic numeracy skills e.g. have problems counting money - these are usually young people with university background.

If the situation is as bleak as I think it is, the question arises, why is it to a large extend ignored by decision makers, media, and society at large? An explanation could be that in the current situation it is relatively easy for people to find work in spite of their insufficient basic skills because low-skilled workers are in high demand, e.g. in farming or in lumber mills. Moreover each year thousands of people leave the country to work in agriculture and other production sectors in the UK, Ireland or Spain; the number of Latvian workers in Ireland alone is estimated at above 20.000. Conditions in these jobs are often inhumane and sometimes remind the darkest ages of Manchester capitalism. This exodus has led to the situation that some industries in Latvia have started looking towards the Ukraine and Byelorussia to find needed labour-force.

It can be foreseen that the number of low-skilled jobs will diminish over the next years due to improved production techniques and increased salaries. This will probably go along with a rising awareness of the real scale of the basic skills problem in Latvia. But already today many employers are facing a problem to find qualified employees.

It is worthwhile keeping in mind that our human resources are not very big - 2.3 Million with a declining tendency due to low life expectancy (the average life expectancy for males in 2002 was 65 years), low birth rate, and economical migration.

What is been done to improve the situation?

The short answer is - Not much. Everybody happily agrees that “new basic skills” like language and ICT proficiency, learning to learn, entrepreneurship are important; but there is a limited awareness that a large number of people lack underpinning “old basic skills” like, reading, writing and numeracy. I am not aware of any learning offers which address these needs neither as integrated skills nor as a separate course.

The education system has undergone numerous reforms over the last 15 years and without doubt there have been substantial improvements in teacher-training, curricula, teaching didactics and methodology. However it will take much more time to overcome a left-brain centred skills- and knowledge-acquisition approach that develops a wider set of competencies relevant in today’s society and labour-market. The same is true for university education, where even the Academy of Arts proudly pronounces it’s emphasise on traditional skills acquisition while neglecting creativity or innovation. But vocational training in Latvia lacks interaction with the labour market and is in many cases too formalized and out-dated.

Adult education is still a neglected component in the Latvian education system; in different strategic papers, you will find references to lifelong learning, human-resources development, etc., but these references are patchy and often used without any substance. Just the other week I attended a presentation on a research about human development in the Latvian regions where the aspect of learning opportunities for adults had been completely ignored. But the Ministry of Education and Science has on its website not even any reference to adult education or lifelong learning.

Enterprises invest increasingly in their staff in order to update its competencies; however, even with an increased awareness that the training of employees is an investment, such courses usually concentrate on narrow work-specific subjects and competencies. Additionally many employers are hesitant to invest too much in their staff because of the threat that this investment will prove void because the person moves on to another job or will be headhunted by the competition.

There are a number of activities, which give some hope, e.g. the Latvian Adult Education Association has started to implement European Social Fund activities, which will result into a lifelong learning strategy. The State Employment Agency stresses the need to improve basic skills of unemployed persons and jobseekers and offers a number of different module-based courses, which are focused on the acquisition of “new basic skills”. And the European Structural Funds provide possibilities to start tackling such issues.

What will happen?

An interesting observation about the developments in Latvia over the last 15 years is that many things have developed in a positive way in spite of political neglect and lack of strategic thinking, e.g. there is a nation-wide system of adult education in place even without active involvement of the State; another example is the relative harmonic coexistence of Latvians and non-Latvians in spite of massive attempts by the political parties to create fear and a feeling of insecurity.

I believe that also in regard to the problem of insufficient basic skills solutions will appear - enterprises, civic and municipal organizations, and individuals themselves will take care of this. But lacking political responsibility and strategic thinking means that we are not making use of the opportunity to proactively shape our future. And I am afraid that the free market and civic activities alone will not ensure the promotion of skills and attitudes needed to create not only a competitive but also a just society.

Therefore a change of existing thinking patterns and attitudes of political decision makers in regard to the perception and promotion of basic skills is needed. The current attitude reminds me sometimes of a writing on the examination office’s door at my former university:

Be happy, be merry - it could have been worse.
I was happy, I was merry - and it got worse.

Toms Urdze
Toms Urdze
by Toms Urdze, Director of the training and consultancy company ICD Riga
What is the current situation in regard to basic skills in Latvia?

What is been done to improve the situation?

What will happen?