With the Asia Pacific region facing serious challenges to its education system, educators in the region have gathered to focus on the future, sharpen their analysis and decide a common ground for action.
At the Asia Pacific regional conference of Education International (EI) on October 10-12 in Kathmandu, Nepal, more than 400 union delegates reasserted their determination to become agents of transformative change. Under the theme, “Transforming Asia Pacific: Education Unions Driving the Education 2030 Agenda”, participants outlined solutions to challenges facing the region’s education system.
Some of the topics highlighted included quality public education for all and the Education 2030 Agenda, quality teachers for quality education, the financing of education – including the challenges posed by privatisation and commercialisation – and how teacher unions can promote equity in their societies.
In his remarks to the conference, EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen highlighted the strength and unbreakable will of Asia Pacific education unions when confronted with grave events like the natural disasters that have hit the region in recent years. “Those responses are at the core of unionism. It was inspiring,” he said.
Educators worldwide have also faced challenges, such as the hollowing-out of the power of democratic institutions through globalisation in favour of corporations, declining democratic freedoms and civic rights, a new geo-political scenario threatening national sovereignty and peace, and the surge of extremism. These challenges, that place additional strain on unions, must be tackled collectively and with determination, guided by principles of democracy, human rights, equity and quality education.
The crisis of half-truths and “outright lies”, as van Leeuwen labelled it, a consequence of the new political landscape in the US after the election of Donald Trump, poses an unanticipated challenge that must be confronted by educators. “In times of great uncertainty, it is important to stick to one’s core principles and objectives,” he said.
Need for union action
The global debate about the future of education, which was at the core of the conference’s agenda, was described by van Leeuwen as being driven by two competing visions. One believes in publicly funded education and highly qualified motivated teachers as guarantees for the creation of stable societies and sustainable economies; another promotes the commodification and standardisation of education.
He warned about the effects of the sweeping privatisation of education in many countries, of which Nepal is no exception. “In the global economy, as long as the rights of investors prevail over the rights of our students and over human and trade union rights, we cannot allow private corporations to conquer the public domain,” he said, adding that public funding is crucial in countering this trend.
Making a difference
To conclude, van Leeuwen reasserted the importance of education unions in shaping the future of the region and of the world. Regaining control of the profession had become one of the most urgent steps in a context where, in many countries, teachers were overworked, overburdened, underpaid and undervalued.
In addition, attacks on civil freedoms, and trade union freedom in particular, are a particularly severe threat and a hurdle in transforming societies, including Asia Pacific.
While observing that there was always room for improvement in the trade union structures, and that self-reflection was needed to come up with new ideas to “meet the challenges ahead with confidence”, van Leeuwen said “quality public education and solidarity are powerful weapons” which the world and Asia Pacific were counting on.