October 26, 2001

As part of the process of European Union accession, the Slovak Roma's stake in European society is being reinforced by non-governmental agencies that want them to play a more central role in Slovakia.

But a university-educated elite is a necessary precondition for full involvement, and language immediately becomes an issue. Over the past few years, the right to education in "sub-state languages" has become a matter for international debate.

But if Roma-taught education is to be introduced, not only must teachers be trained but also the problem of the standardisation of the Romany language must be addressed.

Peter Duncan, lecturer in politics at London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies, said the issue had been "much affected by the popularity of regionalism within the European Union - the concept of a 'Europe of the regions'".

The Slovak government pursues a policy of "integration without assimilation", following international norms required for aspirants to EU membership. Presyov and Nitra universities already have courses in Roma studies, and Roma students are encouraged into social work and teaching to provide role models for Roma pupils.

The growth of a worldwide intelligentsia in which "young, very bright Roma who might have been isolated even 20 years ago find each other on the internet, and communicate in their own language" is important for the standardisation of the language, according to Thomas Acton, reader in Romany studies at the University of Greenwich.

"I should not like to see undergraduate courses in Romany studies, but I can see some 30 years down the road - in some place of dense Roma settlement, perhaps in the Balkans - a Romany university," Dr Acton said.

While the Roma have long abandoned their nomadic lifestyle, they are trapped in a cycle of poverty and up to 97 per cent unemployment.

"Education is their only hope in the future. If their children are not educated, they have no hope. Both government and Roma would agree with this," said Will Guy of Bristol University's sociology department.

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