Beggars of Europe despair of recovery

February 14, 1997

Bulgaria's economic and political crisis is producing a deepening sense of hopelessness among academics despite the promise as new elections in April after a month of protests.

But many academics believe the problems in universities are so deep-seated that they will defy even a change of government.

There is also a widespread sense of embarrassment among many academics. Universities and colleges have increasingly participated in international projects and this has resulted in some reforms in higher education in terms of both the curriculum and methodology.

There is a growing sense of belonging to an international educational community but the crisis is threatening all this.

Most lecturers cannot even afford to buy a bus ticket to attend conferences within Bulgaria let alone go abroad. They have to ask for funding from foreign educational bodies as their own universities have nothing in the coffers and, as one academic said, "it is just so embarrassing. We are very poor neighbours with a begging bowl".

Many lecturers have put aside plans for professional development and research activities in order to earn money to feed their families.

Thousands of students and university lecturers have joined the daily demonstrations and added their support to the cause for early elections.

Students in Sofia have been attempting to keep the momentum going in spite of below zero temperatures and biting cold winds, which have reduced the numbers coming out on to the streets to air their grievances. They have declared a students' strike but as it is the mid-sessional exam period no one is boycotting lectures just yet.

It remains to be seen, once a new semester begins later this month, whether a full student strike will occur. Many students and lecturers may simply not turn up to classes because of a sense of despair rather than active support for a formal strike. The mood is one of extreme pessimism and uncertainty.

"We have no hope now and are very confused," said one young university lecturer. "We certainly no longer want these people in power but what can their successors do? The situation is so bad it's just hard to imagine what can be changed to end this misery."

When comparing the present anti-government demonstrations with those of 1990, an older academic said that the main difference then would be optimism about the future.

Political change was seen as the key for reforms throughout the education system with improvements in conditions and status for university staff.

It is difficult to avoid reaching the same pessimistic conclusion when considering the disastrous financial situation. Any new leadership would inherit these problems. The economy and not education would be the priority and lecturers might have to continue to struggle for the forseeable future.

When asked for a solution to the present crisis, one person cynically but not atypically remarked, "a ticket out of here". Lecturers and students are increasingly applying for grants and scholarships which offer a chance to leave even if on a temporary basis.

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