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Worlds of Education

Uruguay: The importance of a global campaign to defend public education

published 23 January 2023 updated 27 January 2023
written by:

Latin America is the most unequal region in the world, with one of the highest rates of wealth concentration and the associated poverty and marginalisation affecting the majority of the region’s population. It also suffers from unequal income distribution, be it direct, through active or passive income, or indirect, through states’ underinvestment in public social spending.

Added to this is the fact that state budgets for the implementation of rights-based public policies (education, health, housing, etc.) in the region are subject to economic cycles, with the first reaction to any negative economic signs being to reduce the budgets in these areas, which has a clearly negative impact on the protection of rights.

At the same time, this is the region most affected by the commercialisation and privatisation of education, as shown by the research carried out by EI as part of the Global Response Campaign against the privatisation of education. The contest within the profit-driven private sector for public funds for education is another key element to be considered.

Education trade union organisations have systematically taken up the fight for public and state education funding. During the late 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, under the leadership of people-centred, democratic and progressive governments, several countries in the region saw their education budgets grow, with government policies and programmes aimed at realising and expanding protection of the right to education and recognising the state’s responsibility for it.

Uruguay, although later than other countries, increased its investment in public education, which accounts for 84% of enrolment at all levels, from 2.7% of GDP in 2005 to 4.9% of GDP in 2019. And it did so in spite of the heavy attack on public education being waged by pro-market education think tanks, backed by the mass media.

Since March 2020, with the establishment of a neoliberal and conservative coalition government of the right and extreme right in the country:

  • the education budget has been cut by 0.6% of GDP (about US$150 million);
  • institutional changes have concentrated and privatised public education policymaking;
  • transformation of the education system has followed policies of the World Bank, the OECD and the Inter-American Development Bank; and
  • teachers, their organisations and leaders have become the targets of systematic media attacks and judicial persecution.

It is against this backdrop that FENAPES (National Federation of Secondary Education Teachers) has been waging an intense campaign to stop the budget cuts and demand greater investment, to highlight and denounce the commercialisation and privatisation of education. It has opposed the aims of the educational transformation promoted by the current administration, which threatens the quality of education for future generations, especially democratic access to knowledge. The union has fought back against the attacks on teachers, their working conditions and professional development, and their exclusion from public education policy making.

“Our organisation has become a valid social interlocutor in the educational debate and in the promotion of a movement defending public education.”

We have called for information and denunciation campaigns taking an innovative approach through cultural activities such as carnival and music festivals; sporting activities such as football and cycling; conducting and disseminating research that provides evidence of commodification and privatisation processes; and printing and distributing visual materials aimed at students and families.

We have also organised training activities for teachers; open discussions with workers from different sectors, families and students; a communication campaign on radio and television; an intense social media campaign, as well as the holding of a pedagogical congress from which a set of proposals have emerged that will be promoted by the union.

These initiatives have enabled us to circumvent the media blackout benefitting the government and its reform programme, to reach the large portion of our society that has shown support for the trade union perspective. They have also ensured that our organisation has not been isolated and has become a valid social interlocutor in the educational debate and in the promotion of a movement defending public education.

The development of these actions has also been made possible by EI’s contribution and support within the framework of the Global Response Campaign against the privatisation of education. It is essential that such contributions and support be maintained in the immediate future, as part of this new campaign Go Public! Fund education, so that we can continue to engage in the battle for the meaning of education, its funding, to defend the teaching profession, and to counter the commodification and commercialisation of education.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.