Written by Aurelia Bejenari
A small country located between Romania and Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe that in its three decades of independence has been troubled by corruption, oligarchy, and polarization, the Republic of Moldova has been generally ignored, or at least overlooked on an international scale. YouTube videos by travel bloggers attempting to sensationalize the destination bear titles such as “Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why”, “Travelling to the “Worst” Country in Europe”, and “Travelling to the Country Everyone is Trying to Leave”. This has been the case until the war in Ukraine has effectively put Moldova on the map, garnering international audiences’ attention.
The conflict across the border has forced Moldova to think about its own security and potential threats to the country. Many have speculated that Moldova could be the next one to fall under Russian attack, in a sort of twisted, imperialistic domino reaction. And while this prediction has not been proven accurate thus far, Moldova has undoubtedly been shaken up by the war, with its economy being strongly affected and internal conflicts brewing. This destabilized situation challenged all aspects of society, including education, which was already in a troubled state and left a lot to be desired.
The history of education, and especially higher education, in the Republic of Moldova is relatively young. In 1918, Bessarabia (the region corresponding, for the most part, with Moldova’s present-day territory) became part of Greater Romania. And while all the newly integrated regions showcased widely different levels of general schooling and literacy rates, Bessarabia displayed the lowest levels, despite the efforts to create and expand an elementary public school system at the end of the 19th century during the tsarist administration.
Romanian political elites directed their efforts towards national integration and cultural unification, including the decolonization and “Romanianization” of schools. This had a negative effect on the schooling of ethnic minorities, who accounted for more than
one-quarter of the general population, as Romanian authorities were concerned with the ethnic heterogeneity of Romanian society and often suspected ethnic minorities of subversion and disloyalty.
After 28 June 1940, Bessarabia became part of the Soviet Union. It was during the Soviet period that the bulk of Moldova’s development in education occurred. The contents of the courses, study programs, teaching methods, and recruitment policies were directly replicated from the already existing Soviet republics. The lack of academic traditions prior to the Soviet period facilitated this process. Professors and scientists immigrated from other Soviet republics, particularly Russia and Ukraine, which, on the one hand, raised the educational levels while, on the other hand, it has promoted the use of the Russian language, which
became the predominant language of education.
The Republic of Moldova declared its independence on 27 August 1991, marking the beginning of radical political, economic, and social changes which required the educational system to adapt. This was met by a series of challenges and barriers that continue to exist, despite Moldova’s efforts and the educational reforms it has implemented since its independence.
In Moldova, more than half of students are only partially competent in reading, mathematics, or science. Moldovan students are lagging behind their peers in neighbouring countries. The results of the PISA 2018 survey show the following:
- 57% of Moldovan students attained at least Level 2 proficiency in reading (OECD average: 77%)
- 1% of students in Moldova were top performers in reading (OECD average: 9%)
- 50% of students in Moldova attained Level 2 or higher in mathematics (OECD average: 76%)
- 2% of students scored at Level 5 or higher in mathematics (OECD average: 11%)
- 57% of students in Moldova attained Level 2 or higher in science (OECD average: 78%)
- 1% of students were top performers in science (OECD average: 7%).
While school attendance rates in both primary and secondary education are high, children from rural spaces are more likely than others to be out of the classroom. This generally happens so children can carry out domestic work and assume responsibilities within
the household. The attendance rates of Roma children are much lower at all educational levels, as some of these children are never enrolled, are enrolled much later than they should have been, or drop out. Furthermore, only 20 per cent of Roma children attend a preschool compared to 80 per cent of non-Roma children.
Socio-economically advantaged students outperformed disadvantaged students in reading
by 102 score points in PISA 2018, which is a larger gap than the average difference between the two groups (89 score points) across OECD countries. Many students, especially disadvantaged ones, hold lower ambitions than would be expected given their academic achievement, with one in three disadvantaged students and one in ten advantaged students expecting to not complete tertiary education.
Social norms and stereotypical gender roles heavily influence education and further professional attainments. For instance, dropout rates are higher among boys than girls, possibly due to the fact that men and boys see their gender role as breadwinners and economic providers. While, in general, the gender gap in education is relatively small, educational attainment among Roma women remains low. Last but not least, influenced by gender roles and societal pressure, girls tend to choose specializations related to liberal arts subjects (philology, political science, social sciences, social assistance, etc.), which are usually less well-paid.
Another issue is the situation of students with disabilities, who continue to face exclusion. Most educational institutions in Moldova are not adapted to meet inclusive education standards. There is a lack of accessible school buildings and facilities, a lack of training on
inclusive education for teachers and staff, as well as social barriers in the form of negative stereotypes and prejudices against people with disabilities.
Additionally, many schools in Moldova lack basic structures, such as sanitary blocks. For instance, especially in villages, toilets are usually located outside the building and lack the necessary hygienic, safe, and/or gender-sensitive conditions.
The Moldovan educational system also suffers from a severe staff shortage. 43% of students enrolled in a disadvantaged school and 28% of students enrolled in an advantaged school attend a school whose principal reported that the capacity of the school to provide instruction is hindered, at least to some extent, by a lack of teaching staff. Only up to a quarter of pedagogy graduates chose to pursue a career in education. Low salaries and not wanting to move to a rural area, where shortages are most acute, are some of the main reasons for this.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the discrepancies and inequalities between advantaged and disadvantaged student groups. With internet penetration in Moldova standing around 79.9% in 2019 (considerably lower than the EU penetration rate of 90% in 2019), approximately 16,000 students (4.8% of total) and 3000 teachers (10.6% of total) without access to ICT technology (laptop, tablet or access to internet) were left without any ability to deliver or receive instruction. The most affected categories were those in rural areas, families
with lower levels of education, and households with a low-income level. A lack of adequate
equipment, like a computer or connection to the internet, and high illiteracy rates among parents created additional obstacles to benefiting from distance learning for Roma children. Children with disabilities also faced additional challenges, as it proved more difficult to provide the support they need for learning remotely.
Education and the War Across the Border
Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moldova and Poland have received the highest number of refugees compared to its population size. The sudden arrival of Ukrainian refugees has placed tremendous pressure on the Moldovan educational system to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of children seeking an education. In response to the influx of refugees, the Ministry of Education and Research has implemented regulations allowing the inclusion and integration of refugees into the national education system. However, this open refugee policy has further strained an already fragile educational system. Enormous educational needs are overstretching and straining the educational capacity of the country, given the shortage of teachers, the language barriers, the demand for mental health help and resources, etc.
Moldova, a small and often overlooked European country, has been pushed into the spotlight by the conflict across its border. The country faces significant educational challenges. More than half of its students struggle with basic skills like reading, math, and science, falling behind neighbouring countries. Inequality is a concern, children from rural communities and ethnic minorities missing out on education, and disadvantaged students facing lower expectations. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated the situation, exposing the digital divide. At present, the conflict in Ukraine has brought an influx of refugees, putting more strain on Moldova’s already fragile education system.
Moldova finds itself at a crossroads regarding its future and the future of its education system, as the two are inherently intertwined. Without a well-educated and skilled workforce, Moldova’s future as a nation looks grim. Unless the disparities between urban and rural areas, as well as the marginalization of certain minority groups, are addressed, the country risks perpetuating a cycle of poverty and exclusion that could hinder social cohesion and stability.
The Republic of Moldova is currently facing daunting challenges, to be sure. Still, with determination and cooperation, it is at least within its power as a state to build a resilient education system that would unlock the potential of its youth so they may build a brighter future.
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