Thanks to REF Scholarships, the Number of Roma with Degrees Is Increasing and the Roma Elite Is Growing

The following article by Jan Jiřička originally was published in Czech by the mainstream news portal iDnes.cz on July 27, 2014. The author focuses on the educational level of Roma minority and an increasing number of Roma graduates, while also citing the role of REF’s Roma Memorial University Scholarship Program in the Czech Republic. The original can be accessed here.

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In the Czech Republic, thanks to special scholarships, the number of Roma university students is gradually increasing. Experts point out that successful Roma serve as models for others and can serve as de facto ambassadors to the rest of society. However, access to the highest level of education still available to only a fraction of the Roma population.

Tomáš Bystrý’s parents always said to him, "You are Roma, so you have to try a hundred times harder than your friends."

"I thought that was incredibly unfair," says the editor and moderator of the Czech Radio.

Tomáš was a first-rate student, but he was lucky. In addition to receiving total support from his family, he also was privileged to attend a good elementary school. "I excelled in school and, later, in the Prague Child Parliament. My teachers recognized I had promise and sought to develop it." says Bystrý. Eventually, he fulfilled that promise, graduating with a degree in journalism from Charles University. Now he is pursuing a graduate degree in media studies at the Metropolitan University. None of Bystrý’s higher education would have been possible without the scholarship money he received upon entering the university system.

Eight hundred euro per academic year

Scholarships for Roma university students are handed out to students from 16 countries in Central and Eastern Europe through the Roma Education Fund, a non-profit organization committed to improving educational outcomes for the Roma that is based in Budapest. Each student receives 800 euros (about CZK 22,000) in scholarship money per academic year. If the student is at a more expensive private university, they can apply to have their tuition partially covered, usually up to 2,000 euros (about CZK 55,000) per year.

In the Czech Republic, students from all socially disadvantaged groups are eligible to apply for scholarships. However, applications are disproportionately common among the Roma, with most grantees are from Prague, Ústecký, Moravian-Silesian and Central Bohemian regions.

Special financial support for young Roma—many of whom would have no other way of affording college—is crucial their educational success. This is the case of Lucie Balážová from Roudnice nad Labem, who has completed her first year of studying Business Management and Corporate Finance with a focus on Accounting at The University of Finance and Administration.

"I learned about the scholarships from a friend and I was really excited," says Balážová, who wants to help run her mother’s small masonry company after graduation.

The number of grantees has increased rapidly in recent years. Between 2005 and 2009, only 59 students were given scholarships; from 2010 and 2013, that number skyrocketed to 151. “In recent years, there has been a large increase in the number of students studying economics in particular," said Iva Hlaváčková, a representative from a Roma NGO that has coordinated scholarships in the Czech Republic since 2010.

Roma university applicants can also attend free preparatory courses organized by the non-profit organization Slovo 21. These courses have a personalized bent, allowing for extensive one-on-one time with teachers: "Each student will work with their teachers to determine what they need to focus on and then design a curriculum around that, "explains project coordinator Martina Horváthová. Since 2004, 142 of 251 graduates of the program enrolled at a University.

“We need not only an elite, but also shop owners and bakers”

Many Roma sources agree that increasing the number of Roma university graduates is beneficial for both the minority and the rest of society. They note, however, that the ranks of the well-educated are still thin.

According to Horvathová, the low education level of many Roma hinders their active involvement in society and their ability to defend their civil rights. "We need to have both political and social representation, so that the Roma are seen as a normal presence: we need officials, lawyers, doctors and librarians. This needs to become the norm and not the exception like it is now, "she said.

According to Bystrý, better societal integration for the Roma—more Roma-owned stores and businesses, for example—could lead to a breakdown in the cultural barriers between Roma and non-Roma and a corresponding decrease in anti-Roma prejudice and discrimination. The young journalist also notes that some Roma university students are ashamed of their origins. "It's their choice, they have the right to do it. But it makes me really angry," he says.
 
According to Robert Sutorý, a field worker from the municipal authority from Hranice in the Přerov locality, one of the most difficult tasks is persuading Roma children of their ability to learn and motivating them to study. "The best motivators are examples of Roma who have already graduated, are successful and make a good salary. Unfortunately, these examples are in short supply," he said to iDNES.cz.

Over ten years of tutoring, Sutorý has helped about seventy children, mainly from socially disadvantaged minorities. .He says eight of them went on to college.

"It is a cliché that the Roma do not value education. The Roma have always respected people who work their way up, and education is a part of that," says the Roma Coordinator of the Central Bohemian Region Cyril Koky.

Koky, who has a degree in Political Science and Public Policy, owes his achievements to his teachers, who he says inspired him from early childhood. "I went to primary school in eastern Slovakia. My father could hardly teach me because he worked at the railway and was away during the week. My mother worked nightshifts at bakeris, "says Koky, whose son is now studying law.

The first Roma with a degree

 In 1936, Tomáš Holomek became the first Romani to complete a university degree in the territory of Bohemia. A native of Roma settlements in Svatobořice in the locality of Hodonínsko he eventually graduated from the Law Faculty of Charles University in Prague. His son, Karel Holomek, is the current chairman of the Association of Roma in Moravia, and his granddaughter, Jana Horváthová, who co-founded the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, graduated from the University as well.

Experts estimate one hundred Roma enrolled at universities

Nobody knows the precise number of Roma students currently studying at universities across the Czech Republic. Government reports about the status of minorities themselves recognize that the transition of Roma from secondary school to college is poorly mapped. In part, this is because of legal restrictions on the government’s ability to collect data on people belonging to recognized national minorities.

Another reason for the dearth of data is that some Romani students choose to hide their identity. "Some just do not feel the need to proclaim that they are Roma," said Bystrý. Horvathová, who has managed to put together an overview of Roma college students, estimates that there are currently around a hundred.

This small number is caused by limited access to higher education among the Romani: for example, a considerable number are wrongly categorized based on their academic abilities and are consequently transferred to vocational schools. Only a small portion of Roma end up taking the graduation exam, leaving a trickle of students who make it to the university level.

Four year of analysis by the GAC Company found that more than two-thirds of Roma children from socially excluded localities (home to roughly one-third of the total number of the Roma in the Czech Republic) go from elementary to vocational school, and less than one percent reach the gymnasium. Roughly 16 percent do not apply anywhere.

Many families simply cannot afford to support their children during their university studies, and scholarships reach only sixty percent of those who are eligible. Many high school graduates from poor families simply prefer to find work so that they can start earning money immediately.

Moreover, as highlighted in the report on the status of the Roma minority in 2012, some Roma are discouraged by the length of university programs or are otherwise uncertain whether they can successfully complete college.


Academically talented Roma to be supported by the Ministry of Education

In the near future, the state will offer gifted Roma university students financial support. The Ministry of Education recently announced it will begin to implement a program designed to facilitate greater Roma inclusion by the year 2020. Beginning in 2016, the Ministry will select 50 Roma students to receive scholarships of 60,000 crowns each per year.

According to the announcement for the initiative, the "education gap" between Roma and non-Roma is huge, and the creation of a university-educated Roma elite class is considered a priority. The Ministry currently provides grants to socially disadvantaged Roma students at secondary and upper secondary schools.