Tackling Politicization in Education - The Case of Pre-University Education in Armenia

by Mihaylo Milovanovitch

There is evidence that corruption is a persistent problem in Armenian education and that attempts to tackle it have so far led to less satisfactory results: in the perceptions of the Armenian public, education continues to be a sector particularly affected by the problem.

The Armenian authorities acknowledge and accept the challenge, and in recent years, the Ministry of Education has committed to fighting corruption as a matter of priority. In support of these efforts and in the hope to give them a new momentum, the Open Society Foundations – Armenia commissioned an integrity assessment of the education system as a new, potentially more effective and constructive way to address the problem of (institutional) corruption in Armenian secondary and higher education.

This blog post is prepared as a preview of analysis from a forthcoming publication by the Open Society Foundations on Strengthening Integrity and Fighting Corruption in Education in Armenia. The assessment applies a novel methodology—INTES1—that was designed to support national authorities, the civil society, and participants in education in developing effective solutions to the corruption challenge in their schools and universities.

This blog post briefly presents the INTES methodology and applies it to analyze politicization of secondary education as one of the major integrity challenges facing education in Armenia.

INTES Methodology and the Notion of “Integrity”

Corruption in education is not a stand-alone phenomenon. It is a consequence of deeper-rooted problems in the education system, and sometimes of the society that the education system is serving.

To the extent corruption can be “seen,” its most visible part is the corruption offense itself—the act of bribing, cheating, embezzlement, etc. Typically, the focus of measures against it is limited to these most obvious, oftentimes criminal manifestations of non-compliance with rules and regulations. This appears to be a logical choice of focus, but measures that try to address the offense and the offense alone have serious disadvantages.

The first disadvantage is that they are reactive, taking place in response to problems that are already happening, have possibly become pervasive, and might be too late to address. Prevention is better than punishment.

The second disadvantage is that a focus on the manifestations of corruption can easily overlook the context in which the corruption offense takes place. The context might contain hints that are key to understanding why perpetrators do what they do and to designing more proactive responses. Without such an understanding, fighting corruption is like fighting the symptoms of a disease without understanding its causes.

Finally, yet importantly, the visible manifestations of corruption in education are commonly just the “tip of the iceberg.” In their “shadow,” numerous more subtle, softer forms of sector-specific malpractice can go undefined and undetected.

To avoid the pitfall of one-sided analysis, the INTES methodology approaches the corruption problem in a more comprehensive way. It treats each violation as the final stage in a corruption process. It is a process that originates in a combination of factors on the education system level, is enabled by another set of factors on the system level, or broader, and ends into manifestations of malpractice that perception surveys capture and the media reports about (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The corruption process

Figure 1 - The Corruption ProcessSource: Milovanovitch, forthcoming

To reveal what happens at these key stages of the corruption process, INTES places each type of corruption offense that it deals with in the broader integrity context in which it takes place, and analyses the ways in which context and offense are related. To do so, it seeks an answer to three questions:

  1. What is the violation?
  2. How does it happen?
  3. Why does it happen?

Questions two and three aim at revealing the root causes of each violation. The INTES framework groups these causes in two major groups of contextual factors: (i) factors that make the offense possible, and (ii) factors that create incentives for the perpetrators to engage in the offense.

Table I. INTES assessment logic and sequence

Table 1 - INTES Assessment Logic and Sequence

Source: Milovanovitch, forthcoming

Such a process-oriented take on the corruption challenge in education allows for a broader, more comprehensive treatment of the problem. It shows that a violation is the sum of smaller steps and actions, each one in turn violating a particular aspect of what is meant to be a proper functioning education system.

The Concept of Integrity

Corruption is too narrow a notion to capture the connection between the offense and the chain of actions and systemic weaknesses that lead to it. Therefore, INTES resorts to the broader, more constructive, and less contagious notion of integrity.

The choice of the term “integrity violation” over “corruption offense” has two significant advantages. First, it allows consideration of softer, education-specific forms of malpractice that would not quality as corruption offenses according to the respective national legislation. Second, it points towards the importance of individuals and their incentives to act in compliance with (or against) rules and regulations in education.

Integrity is well described with an analogy. If corruption would be a disease, integrity would be the state of being “healthy.” The healthier an education system, the less likely it is that it will “suffer” from a corruption “disease.” The state of integrity of most education systems would be somewhere in between two extremes: that of being perfectly “healthy,” that is, delivering to the full satisfaction of everyone involved and thus free of corruption; and that of a “failed” education system in which deliverables can only be obtained by violating rules, as it fails to serve the public interest.

The normative fundament of institutional integrity is the set of values, principles and norms of operation are reflected in laws and bylaws (regulations) that set the “rules of the game” in the public sector in general and in education in particular.

Below this normative fundament, there is a deeper, less visible layer of integrity. It is the integrity of individuals participating in education. Without their compliance with norms, even the best of laws and bylaws will fail to make a difference. The integrity of individuals is a function of their willingness to comply with the norms, and the extent to which the education system serves their needs. In the case of education, public and individual interest alike comprise access to good quality education, and proper management of staff and resources.

Politicization of Secondary Education in Armenia as a Violation

A. Description

Article 4 of the Law on Education of the Republic of Armenia prohibits political activities or advocacy in education institutions. However, there is an abundance of anecdotal observations of how the practice of school management and operation is influenced by informal arrangements driven by political interest. Empirical evidence is scarce, not the least because the problem has many manifestations. Instead of choosing among them, the analysis focuses on an underlying trend that makes all forms of the violation possible—the politicization of secondary education.

A standard definition applicable to all forms of politicization describes it as the substitution of political criteria for merit-based criteria in the selection, retention, promotion and disciplining of members of the public service (Peters & Pierre, 2004). In addition to this “direct” form, a more subtle pattern exists that targets only the senior positions in the public service by filling them with political loyalists who are highly professional in their respective fields. Common to both is that they aim at increasing the influence of political leaders on bureaucracy and on public policy.

The cases reflected in media reports, electoral reports, and the interviews carried out in the course of this assessment suggest that the politicization of Armenian education oscillates between the direct and professional forms of the practice. Sometimes the political bias is “limited” to decisions about appointments of heads of regional education departments and principals of schools; on other occasions it might permeate all of the staff-related policies in the schools. In addition, there is plentiful anecdotal evidence of education professionals who act as multipliers of political influence by proactively lobbying parents and students to follow the “official” line of electoral choices.

Whatever the form, the benefits that emerge in this politicization process are reciprocal, long-term, and occur at the expense of those who do not participate. The primary aim of the politicization effort is to ensure allegiance to the incumbent political power. In exchange, the authorities offer preferential treatment in a range of domains, most notably hiring and firing of staff, appointment of principals, and procurement and financing decisions.

In an education system characterized by high stakes and scarce resources, this is an offer that education professionals and those that depend on them (parents and students) are finding hard to resist. The election observation report for the 2012 Parliamentary Elections in Armenia, for example, concludes that teachers regularly participated in campaign events, including during school time (European Parliament, 2012). This is an instance of misuse of administrative resources, including human resources of education-sector employees. Many such cases are reported to have taken place also during the municipal and Presidential elections.2 This suggests that in Armenia, the misuse of administrative resources in education is a common offense, and thus that the process of politicization of the sector must be quite advanced. Indeed, over 82% of the school principals in the country are members of the ruling political party (Turpanjian Center for Policy Research, 2012).

The following sections discuss in some detail what makes the politicization process of secondary education in Armenia possible, needed, and so detrimentally effective, and what could be done to start reversing the trend.

B. Factors That Create Opportunities for the Integrity Violation

Interdependence between Schools and Regional Authorities

It appears that most of the fertile (school) ground on which the politicization efforts fall is cleared by clientelism3 relationships. These are institutionalized by patterns of interaction and exchange in which education professionals are able to “trade political support for various outputs of the public decision-making process” (Roniger, 2004).

The Law on Education vests most of the responsibility for implementation of the State policies on education with the regional administrations (Marzpetarans) and correspondingly equips them with wide-reaching powers. Schools are highly dependent on the Marzpetarans both formally and informally as regional authorities commonly lobby with the central level authorities and the Parliament for capital investment and projects in “their” schools and regions. Schools without such regional “protection” would quickly fall behind the others in terms of attractiveness and popularity with parents—a situation which principals are trying to avoid by demonstrating allegiance, whenever needed.

Capture and Malfunctioning of School Governance and Management

The politicization process is enabled mainly by a capture of structures and functions in charge of management and decision-making in the secondary education system: school boards and school leadership (principals).4 The process is further facilitated by a legal framework that allows for patron-client type relationships between regional authorities and schools to flourish.

Principals as Political Functionaries

The school principals are positioned at the junction between the two major groups participating in the electoral process: political parties and voters with children of school age. In a setting marked by politicization, the authority of principals to hire and fire staff and manage the school budget, and the stakes associated with their institutions, make them valuable counterparts for the incumbent political powers. The political establishment in Armenia treats the school leaders as entry points for influence over the public school network. What leverage do politicians have over the profession of school leaders?

The first and most important lever of influence is access to employment. In theory, appointments of principals are carried out in a transparent way based on merit. Considering the prevalence of party membership among school leaders (82%), cases where candidates get or retain a job only because of qualifications and experience must be quite rare. In recent days, the Armenian media has even featured stories about principals who are transferring their jobs to their children with the consent of the regional education authorities.5

The second lever of influence over the principals is the prospect of impunity for personal enrichment offered by the authorities. The regulatory framework guiding school management and operation leaves ample scope for arbitrariness on the side of school leadership with the collection and use of extra-budgetary funds. Impunity, though, comes with a trade-off—it provides the regional authorities who are aware of the violations but “turn a blind eye” with information that can be used to blackmail and pressure the principals.

School Boards as Rubber Stamp

The regulation of school boards at state secondary institutions envisages that the board is composed of eight members, including representatives of the government of the republic, local government bodies, teachers and parents. Principals are meant to be accountable to the school boards.

Media reports, as well as several independent, in-depth assessments of operations of the school boards6 conclude that these bodies are not strong enough to balance out the bias of school management towards political and informal networks and offer a more technocratic alternative to decision-making. The parents and teachers on the school boards are not necessarily acting in the best of interest of the stakeholders groups they represent. Not infrequently, the parents sitting on the school boards are at the same time teachers of the same school, which increases the potential number of school board members loyal to the principal.

In fact, the power of principals is limited only by their dependence on the regional administrative bodies. These are, in turn, subordinate to the central authorities. This yields a system of school governance which is fully permeable for vertical command and influence, straight from the very top and the central authorities, to the very bottom and the teachers’ daily work, if need be.

C. Factors That Create Incentives for the Integrity Violation

The politicization of Armenian education is a process that relies on a two-way partnership. Educational institutions provide their loyalty in exchange for benefits and preferential treatment.

Research implies that in places where clientelism is pervasive, the benefits which characterize the relationship between politicians and the electorate are targeted to individuals and groups that are known to be highly responsive to such benefits, and hence are willing to surrender their vote (or professional integrity) for the right price (Kitschelt & Wilkinson, 2007). What makes education professionals in Armenia susceptible to the temptations and pressures of political interest?

Education professionals in Armenia offer little resistance to politicization, for a combination of reasons. These include a calculus that conformism will help to solve existing problems, for example resource shortages, but also hope that it will help to prevent future problems, such as loss of employment or unfavorable treatment of students by teachers and of the school by regional education authorities. There is also a strong cultural-traditional dimension as Armenian schools closely mirror a pattern of relationship in a typical Armenian family, which is based on tradition and allegiance to authority.

In such a setting, resistance to collective behavior requires more than rational thinking and a sense of integrity. It requires courage and readiness to take risks, which are rare qualities in any profession or sector.

Among the factors that motivate behavior, and can be influenced through public policy interventions, the two that probably matter most are shortage of resources and employment insecurity.

Resource Shortages

Public investment in secondary education in Armenia is modest in international comparison. Spending per student as share of GDP per capita in Armenia was less than in other countries with comparable level of income and considerably less than in countries of the EU or the OECD, on average (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Expenditure per student in secondary education (% of GDP per capita), Armenia and selected groups of countries (2012 or latest year available)

Figure 2 - Expenditure per StudentNotes: European Union and OECD – year of reference 2011. Lower middle-income countries – countries for which there is data. Data for latest year available since 2000.

Source: OSF - Armenia, forthcoming

In 2012, per student expenditure in Armenia amounted to 17.7% of its GDP per capita. Countries that were classified as lower middle-income countries, like Armenia, spent an equivalent of 21.5% of their GDP per capita per student, and per student spending in the group of wealthier countries—members of the OECD and the EU, amounted to 25.2% and 25.9% of GDP per capita, respectively.

It would be farfetched to make conclusions about the actual conditions in public schools across Armenia from such aggregate data. Still, the figures imply that either secondary education in Armenia is more efficient than secondary education in other countries (which is unlikely), or that funding might be an issue. If funding were an issue (as suggested by numerous reports), this finding would imply that a prospect of influencing decisions on the allocation of the scarce resources would matter a great deal for the schools.

Some data indeed suggest that the authorities have a persistent problem to address the needs of all schools they are responsible for, and that they are giving a preference to some schools over others. Figure 3 shows an overview of infrastructural needs of schools across Armenia in 2013. It is striking to discover that over half of the public schools in the country need renovation, and that well over a third need a complete overhaul. Less than 6% of the schools have hot water, 12.7% have no canalization, and some schools do not even have a water supply (6.6%).

Figure 3 Condition of the school infrastructure in Armenia (2013)

Figure 3 - Conditions of the School ArchitechtureSource: OSF - Armenia, forthcoming

This data is confirmed in interviews with school principals carried out in the course of various studies.

Unfortunately, no study so far has attempted to quantify the benefit of political engagement in terms of funding and variance between schools in the condition of school infrastructure. It is, however, safe to assume that schools have a strong incentive to look for ways, formal and informal, to ensure a more favorable treatment with resource allocations. All evidence so far, anecdotal and empirical, points towards political affiliation as effective strategy to that end.

Employment (In)Security

Another factor that in all likelihood contributes to the readiness of education professionals to act as political loyalists is the risk of loss of employment. In some of the interviews during the field visits for this analysis, counterparts noted that despite the official reasons for firing, in reality teachers are being fired for non-compliance with the expectations of the principal and/or of those whose directives the principal is following. Apart from sporadic media reports, evidence that this is a regular practice is scarce, probably because, with some notable exceptions,7 those who are fired do not want to attract public or media attention to their cases. Civil society organizations which have tried to take such cases to court report that the teachers are “too scared” to file the complaints themselves.8

Teachers are especially vulnerable during elections. The voting polls are commonly in the schools and the teachers are often members of the electoral commissions. Being the ones in touch with the parents and with this—with a substantial proportion of the electorate, teachers are also put under pressure to lobby for the ruling party. Whether forced or not, their political activity makes them vulnerable on formal grounds because it violates the Law on Education. If they resist and do not engage in political actions, they make themselves vulnerable too, but on informal grounds. In both cases, the choice of consequences is entirely up to the principals. In sum, the risk of being fired is fueled by precisely the type of behavior that teachers are expected to show in order to keep their jobs—political activism in support of the incumbent political party.

D. Pointers for Action

Armenia is not the only country where education is being politicized. Other countries are exposed to their own versions of this problem. Despite the likely pervasiveness of this challenge, it is still under-reported, under-researched, and there is still little evidence of lessons learned about successful prevention. Should Armenia succeed in halting or even reversing the politicization trend in its education system, it might easily become an example of good practice for other countries.

The integrity assessment report from which this blog post was compiled recommends that the authorities urgently initiate a de-politicization process to clean the public education system of undue influence. The first and foremost step is to acknowledge that politicization is a problem and commit to its solution in legally binding documents. Other suggested interventions include the prohibition of political activism in all its forms, and the placement of professional education staff in the category of professionals who are banned from political activism, such as judges.

The report further recommends identifying and closing the channels through which the political establishment delivers preferential treatment to loyal education institutions, most notably through improvements in procurement and capital investment regulations. There is also acute need for reforms that will help to reduce the vulnerability of teaching staff vis-à-vis school leadership and its susceptibility to external pressure. Finally, the media should be encouraged to play a more active role in the public reporting and debate about the problem, and protected from reprisal when they do so.9

Notes 

1. Integrity of Education Systems—INTES—is an assessment methodology initially developed for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) by the lead author of the Armenian integrity assessment and author of this blog post, and refined in the course of his fellowship with the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. The section describing the methodology reproduces parts of a forthcoming OECD Working Paper on the INTES approach (Milovanovitch, forthcoming). 

3. While it is common to link clientelism with corruption (both involve political actors using public and private resources for personal gain), they are not synonyms.

4. A detrimental side effect of this strategy is that it makes it more difficult to differentiate between regular and politically biased decisions in the education sector.

6. See Mkrtchyan & Tsaturyan, 2008, 8-11 and 14-15.

9. Armenia still scores relatively low in the ratings of international freedom of media watchdogs and defamation cases, civil libel cases by politicians against journalists are especially common.

References

European Parliament, “Report of the Election Observation Delegation to the Parliamentary Elections in Armenia, European Parliament, 2012.

Herbert Kitschelt and Steven I. Wilkinson, Patrons, Clients and Policies: Patterns of Democratic Accountability and Political Competition (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Mihaylo Milovanovitch, “A Methodology for Assessing the Integrity of Education Systems,” OECD, forthcoming.

Satenik Mkrtchyan and Ruzanna Tsaturyan, “Public Participation in School Management in Armenia: School Boards,” CCRC Armenia, 2008.

Open Society Foundations - Armenia, “Strengthening Integrity and Fighting Corruption in Education: Armenia,” forthcoming.

B. Guy Peters and Jon Pierre, Politicization of the Public Service in Comparative Perspective. The Quest for Control (Routledge, 2004).

Luis Roniger, “Political Clientelism, Democracy and Market Economy,” Comparative Politics 36.3 (2004): 353-375.

Turpanjian Center for Policy Research, “Access to School Education in Armenia: Exploratory Research,” American University Armenia, 2012.