Equal Opportunity Backlash in Bulgaria – Did Roma Secondary School Students and the €30 Scholarship Topple a Government?

Bulgarian presidential elections were approaching in early November 2016 and the public mood was grim after 25 years of socioeconomic restructuring and instability. The announcement in late October from the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science about a new national program of scholarships for 700 Roma secondary school students did not seem controversial. It was envisaged that the project would open doors for mainstreaming more Roma policies and wider inclusion of Roma in Bulgaria’s economic fabric.

REF’s track record supporting and/or implementing national scholarship programs in the region – with significant gains in recipients’ GPAs and graduation rates – had convinced the ministry that REF was a partner who could provide not only financial support to its equal opportunity programs but also deliver a complete package of technical assistance. The timing seemed to be right for an initiative that would help secondary school-age Roma students with a €30 scholarship as well as access to quality academic support.

A backlash began soon after the launch, motivated by national politics and the misperception that the state was unfairly making a financial contribution to a program that discriminated against Bulgarians. Soon every major news outlet was talking about the “€30 scholarship” –significant to any working-age Bulgarian earning the minimum wage of €170 a month.

Bulgarian Minister of Education and Science Meglena Kuneva was forced to defend her commitment to equality in education and her backing of the program. She deflected the media’s negative coverage of the “€30 scholarship”, and to her enormous credit, Minister Kuneva clearly argued why Bulgarian Roma are disadvantaged – because the mother tongue for many is not Bulgarian. Nonetheless, the educational system continues to insist that there are no performance gaps between students who speak the official language fluently and those who speak it partly if at all, which leads to low performance in other school subjects.

The protesters and their backers claimed the measure was unconstitutional, but the government could refer to Bulgaria’s Protection Against Discrimination Act, of which Article 7, Paragraph 1, Section 17 states: “Guaranteeing the participation of persons belonging to ethnic minorities in education and training does not constitute discrimination measures, as far as such measures are necessary.” This is in line with the Race Equality Directive 2000/43/EC and Bulgaria’s responsibilities as an EU member.

But this did not stick. Voters cast their ballots in two rounds of voting November 6 and 13. Minister Kuneva had to leave her post and REF feared for the fate of its new secondary scholarship program in Bulgaria.

With all its work at stake, and a clear opening for dialogue, REF and its allies assembled a coalition of civic actors, independent actors and international partners to lobby for the program. Together, the coalition voiced its readiness to fight for justice in Bulgaria’s schools, universities and ultimately labor market, and appeared regularly in the Bulgarian media to dispute what equal opportunity means in Bulgaria. On the ground and in the schools, the enthusiasm of potential applicants for the scholarship had been dampened by the controversy. Many Roma students who might have qualified to apply were wary of doing so, for fear of being viewed as “privileged.” They certainly remembered the unprovoked beating of Mitko, a Roma boy attacked by an extremist who recorded the event and shared it across social media earlier in the year, much to the condemnation of international human rights groups.

The new government buckled to the pressure and agreed to not cancel the program – but with an important caveat: so long as the Ministry of Education’s contribution of some 40 percent was earmarked solely for administration costs and honoraria for Bulgarian tutors and mentors providing academic support, with REF covering scholarship fees for Roma students, then the program could continue.

If there is a silver lining to this story, then over 1,400 Roma students did apply and 700 were found eligible, were accepted and now are enrolled in Bulgaria’s public secondary schools.

Written by REF Country Facilitator for Bulgaria Ognyan Isaev for the REF 2016 Annual Report