Roma face deteriorating prospects

It is always necessary to begin with the question ‘Who are the Roma?’. They are paradoxically the most visible and the most invisible of minority populations. There seem to be ‘gypsies’ everywhere, visible where they are least wanted, and neither the public nor the politicians understand much about where they come from; they only know they’d like their gypsies to disappear.

From the standpoint of ethnic history, the Roma are the descendants of several waves of slow migration from India to Europe (and then to the Americas). The first report of Roma in Europe comes from 10th century Byzantium: after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Roma population expanded quickly to the north and west. Many Roma joined in the mass emigrations to the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Roma brought from India a distinctive culture and an Indic language – Romany – but not all Roma today hold to Roma customs or speak Romany. The extent to which this relatively small group – between 10 and 15 million in Europe today – has ‘resisted’ assimilation and remained a recognisable, autonomous cultural group for several hundred years is testimony both to Roma cohesion and gadje (non-Roma) discrimination and exclusion.

The history of the Roma in Europe is one of pervasive and destructive racism that has in many places intensified over the past 20 years. Perhaps 250,000 Roma were victims of Nazi genocide: one of the first internment camps for Roma was established in Salzburg in 1938.

The largest Roma populations currently reside in the post-communist countries of Central Europe: they constitute approximately 10% of the populations of Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, though official censuses are notoriously unreliable as ‘Roma’ often don’t self-identify as Roma. Populations within and between countries are very diverse, owing partly to longstanding internal divisions and partly to the vagaries of migratory history.

It is, though, a young, growing, and mobile population, which has heightened the apprehension of many in the majority cultures. Historically the Roma have lived on the outer margins of national societies in most places, with ongoing and frequent interaction with majority populations. Prior to World War II, there was minimal participation of Roma in any formal education, although there were some exceptions among Roma groups with higher degrees of social and economic integration.

The present state of Roma education is generally desperate: for example, in the Czech Republic, only 1.2% of eligible youth graduate from high school, while the school completion rate for Czech students is close to 100%. A majority of Roma youth across the region do not complete eighth grade and more than half are functionally illiterate.

The situation for Roma students

The current condition for Roma youth across Europe is encapsulated in the phrase ‘social exclusion’. Understanding the provenance of this term is useful in understanding the ‘life world’ of the Roma, because the ways in which the Roma are understood by majority society and policymakers determine to a large extent the possibilities open to them in most government - and even many NGO - policy documents.

Roma are not referred to as Roma (that is, as an ethnic minority), but rather are referred to as a ‘socially excluded population’ whose plight is often perceived to be their own fault. In other words, racial reasoning is preserved in full force by evacuating race from the identifying terminology. Social exclusion as a concept originated in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a means of describing the outcome of globalisation, privatisation and the shrinking of public investment in social services for those least able to compete in the free market.

This has had devastating consequences for the quality of life of Roma people: they are unable to find employment, unable to live anywhere but the least desirable locations, and social benefits have decreased substantially. Social exclusion has both economic and social dimensions, linked to the ubiquitous and all-encompassing discrimination and hostility that characterises Roma experience across Europe.

In Hungary, it is estimated that more than 70% of adult Roma are unemployed, and more than 90% in some areas of the country. The adult Roma population is generally uneducated and unskilled (with respect to the official economy) so the work Roma do manage to acquire tends to be low paying and insecure. Roma are highly dependent on social welfare and benefits have steadily shrunk over the past 20 years, leaving them deeper in poverty.

Many rural settlements in Slovakia and Hungary give the appearance of refugee camps in war zones or slums in ‘undeveloped’ parts of the world. There is little opportunity for positive social or economic interaction with the mainstream society or economy from this position.

Roma children usually attend highly segregated schools or classrooms. In rural areas with large Roma populations, ‘Roma schools’ tend to exist, though there are very few Roma teachers. In Slovak villages, it is not uncommon to see Roma and Slovak schools in close proximity. In urban areas, where Roma children are in a minority, they are often shuttled into one or another kind of ‘special class’, making it difficult to transition to regular educational settings.

The living conditions in Roma homes of course affect the ability of Roma children to prosper in schools. For youth in Slovakia and Czech Republic, there has been a rapid language shift away from Romany and toward Czech/Slovak, but their Czech/Slovak is identified as a ‘Roma ethnolect’ which further handicaps them in school and the workplace. These phenomena can be observed in other countries as well, though the dynamics vary considerably.

Over the past 10 years, several school segregation cases have been decided in the European Court of Human Rights in favour of Roma plaintiffs, which has resulted in the perceived need to promote fuller integration of Roma children in schools; but to date there has been a great deal of renaming of institutions without meaningful structural changes and a good deal of frank resistance on the part of national and local governments to implementing reform.

University and college support for Roma students

It is, of course, important for universities and colleges to assist those few Roma students who do manage to matriculate, to succeed. The lack of a Roma intelligentsia is debilitating in every respect for progress toward Roma self-determination. But this goal probably cannot be approached directly, because so few Roma scholars complete secondary education and only a small percentage of those are prepared to attend college.

The greatest need is in the area of teacher education, leadership and curriculum development. Because all central European education systems are highly centralised, with university ‘faculty’ and ‘institutes’ playing a major role in the development of curricula and policy, it is important that work at this level targets Roma education and anti-racism.

In broad terms, there are two major decision points in Roma education where current default conditions do not favour these children. First, there seems to be almost universal agreement that better pre-school education is the sine qua non to improving school integration. Roma children, like many children from minority cultural and linguistic backgrounds, are not prepared to engage successfully in the academic, national language curriculum that meets them on the first day of primary school.

Pre-school education and the related community and family support are at best inconsistent and often completely lacking. There is a lack of qualified or committed personnel to do this work, though programmes in early childhood education and social work in the university tend to give greater attention to cultural factors than is the case with general teacher education.

The second decision point, a decision point shared with all European schoolchildren, is the bridge between primary and secondary school. Very few Roma students cross this bridge into gymnasia, the only path toward university study. But, perhaps more pressing at this moment, is the fact that a majority of Roma students don’t cross this bridge at all, and many who do don’t last long, even in technical or vocational high schools.

Simply put, universities in post-communist countries are not committed to preparing teacher candidates for teaching Roma – or any other minority – students. There is some discussion around intercultural literacy, but often this has more to do with teaching mainstream students how to speak English or German and how to interact in the ‘global knowledge economy’.

If Roma students are to cross the bridge from primary to secondary school and then continue on to graduation, then they cannot arrive in seventh grade illiterate and innumerate, alienated from majority society. These necessary changes in professional preparatory programmes are unlikely until the ethnocentric, anti-Roma atmosphere of European universities is addressed in some way, from top to bottom .

*William New is a professor of education and youth studies at Beloit College. This essay was written as part of the Salzburg Global Seminar (SGS) – Students at the Margins and the Institutions that Serve Them – held from 11 to 16 October 2014. #Salzburg MSI. The SGS is sponsored by the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, Educational Testing Service.