Statement of the Roma Education Fund on a Public Backlash against the October Launch of a Secondary School Scholarship Scheme in Partnership with the Ministry of Education of Bulgaria

Recent criticism by members of the Bulgarian public of a joint partnership of the Roma Education Fund and the Ministry of Education and Science in Bulgaria – namely a secondary school scholarship scheme for Roma high school students – deserves a response. At its press conference on October 18, the Ministry of Education of Bulgaria clearly communicated the aim and goal of this scheme to provide 700 scholarships for Roma high school students this year, with a similar amount to be made available the next academic year. The scholarship amounts to EUR 30/month, and tutoring and mentoring are also provided as part of the package.

Such a scheme fulfills REF’s mission to close the gap in educational achievement between Roma and non-Roma under its evidence-based scholarship and tutoring model developed for secondary education. Over the last decade, REF has invested in educational programs in Bulgaria that help to improve the educational outcomes across all educational levels for Roma children and youth. National data clearly points to the need: 33.7% of Roma in the country have completed only primary school, 37% have lower secondary school diploma and only 6.5% have upper secondary education (Census 2011). Thousands of Roma children have passed through REF programs in Bulgaria. 

Since the press conference a vocal minority has begun to discredit this partnership by the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and the Fund to provide inclusive, quality education to Roma high school students. After announcing the official launch of this scholarship scheme in most major Bulgarian news outlets, Bulgarian media was quick to report a backlash less than 48 hours later: non-Roma mothers in Dobrich began to protest on Thursday, October 20, claiming that scholarships targeting Roma students are unjust and discriminate against non-Roma; two national TV morning shows and a growing number of online articles, bloggers and Facebook posts have weighed in on the matter, most of which negatively portray this partnership to provide scholarships to Roma students. By the morning of October 24, an MP from the Reform block, Petar Slavkov, questioned the Minister of Education whether the minister considers this ethnic-based privilege anti-constitutional. Some leading actors are threatening protests across the country. 

Minister of Education Meglena Kuneva also emphasized on October 24 that: “Last year, there were 2300 early school leavers, most of them Roma. At the moment there is no equal start in education. If a child grows up in a house full of books, when child’s both parents speak Bulgarian and are literate and they could possibly help the child in its homework, then this is not equal to a child whose parents are illiterate. The latter child will have the difficult task of catching up with his/her peers all the time and once s/he reaches 9th or 10th grade that will be a real success for him/her. Hence, the GPA of 3.50 means a ‘good’ GPA for such a child.”

Not for the first time in REF’s history is our mission challenged and questioned. While the Fund welcomes social dialogue on the role of education in improving opportunities for Roma, the Fund has a duty to respond to such gross misunderstanding. Here, the Fund must iterate that secondary school scholarships are a proven tool to successfully end early school leaving and absenteeism; they not only spur Roma school success but also encourage graduation and subsequent university enrollment and/or placement in the labor market. Evidence from all REF secondary scholarship schemes supports this conclusion.

REF has supported secondary school scholarship programs since 2006, beginning in Macedonia and subsequently Serbia and Romania, before being scaled up in Slovakia in 2010, and again in 2014 with Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Romania also opening programs. In 2014, REF supported 2152 scholarships. Approximately, one-third transitioned to tertiary education. By 2015, the number of scholarships had grown to 4383, implemented in eight countries. Currently, the governments of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia contribute to their respective national programs.

The launch of the secondary school scholarship scheme with the Ministry of Education of Bulgaria is a reflection of REF’s strategy and its hard work and commitment to advance the opportunity for Roma youth to fulfill their right to education. Building effective, working partnerships with educational institutions, municipalities, local authorities, ministries, Roma NGOs, and national and international organizations has been key to fostering institutional dialogue that allows the Fund to continue its work. REF also works with schools, teachers and parents, and sometimes it provides incentives to encourage Roma pupils’ better academic performance. This state-supported, merit-based secondary school scholarship scheme is a positive outcome of years of collaborative efforts between the government of Bulgaria and the Fund.

REF approached the Bulgarian government with the proposal to provide 60% of the funds under the scholarship program while the Bulgarian government committed to provide the remaining 40% costs due to its engagement under the National Strategy for Roma Integration and all related international obligations. The secondary school scholarship scheme does not segregate Roma pupils from their non-Roma peers: it seeks to stimulate Roma pupils to be aware of their academic potential and continue their studies. The intervention enables young people to break out of vicious circles of deprivation and exclusion, thus making sense for the entirety of Bulgarian society.

Earlier this year REF Director Nadir Redzepi emphasized the continued relevance of the Fund’s mission, writing, “Discrimination of Roma children in education is morally and economically unacceptable. It must stop, as it is basic prerequisite for socio-economic, political and cultural progress of Roma in the 21st century.”

REF works in 16 countries in Europe, providing grants and scholarships for Roma education, as well as advocating for the right to quality, inclusive education for Roma children and youth. Many governmental partners have joined this effort, particularly in South Eastern Europe and the Balkans, including governments of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia co-funding scholarships for Roma high school students to even larger degree than the new scheme launched in Bulgaria.

REF’s donors include the Open Society Foundations and the World Bank, along with other major supporters like the Swedish International Development Corporation Agency (SIDA) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).