On June 1, an estimated 50,000 Croatians gathered in the main square of Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, to protest against political interference in long-needed education reforms in the country. I was among them. The last time Croatians mobilized on this scale was in 1996, when people took to the streets against the government’s attempt to shut down the country’s last independent radio station at the time, Radio 101.
The current protest, sparked by the threat of stalling education reforms, brought together diverse parts of Croatian society: over 300 groups including civil society organizations, unions, sports clubs, and local parents’ organizations gathered under the slogan Hrvatska može bolje! (Croatia can do better!). For the first time in the country’s history, the protest was decentralized: people in 13 towns and cities across the country mobilized, and the Croatian diaspora from London to Budapest also got involved.
“Croatia can do better!” has a simple aim: to make education a priority for this country. Croatia’s education system lags far behind other Western democracies and EU member states (Croatia joined the EU in 2013). The system is drastically out of date; it prioritizes a 19th-century ethos of knowledge-only learning—facts, figures, and so on—with no role for critical thinking, working with others, or practical experience.
Graduates are desperately unprepared for the job market, and the current education system does not prepare citizens to play an active role in our society. A fact is of no use to a student who does not know how to apply it.
For a while in Croatia, it seemed like much-needed education reforms might happen. At the beginning of 2015, a working group of seven experts was set up through a public call for bids to lead a reform of the curriculum taught in classes throughout the country. This reform effort was participatory and transparent, including hundreds of experts, teachers, parents, religious groups, political parties, civil society organizations, and more.
The process was supported by many Croatians who see education as vitally important for the future of their children and the country. It was also the first time that an education reform effort was supported by both trade unions and employers’ associations.
However, following elections in January 2016, the newly elected government began to claim the process was ideologically driven and attempted to manipulate the process: the Parliamentary Committee on Education sought to appoint 10 more experts without clear procedure for their appointment, essentially rendering the work to date void. In protest over this political meddling, the existing working group presented its resignation to the education minister, who has yet to respond.
This debacle led to the current public outcry and helped spark the “Croatia can do better!” movement. The GOOD initiative, which brings together 20 grassroots organizations advocating for inclusive civic education programs in Croatian schools, was at the core of the protest, and the movement is now supported by over 260 different organizations.
We believe that education should be a priority for Croatia that cuts across ideological or political lines. The “Croatia can do better!” movement is nonpartisan and receives no political support—we seek an education system free of politics, bias or ideology.
As a member of the civil society in Croatia, it was an incredible feeling to see so many people mobilize and overcome our differences in support of a better education system for Croatia. It felt empowering to see all these people in a peaceful demonstration, united behind a better future for our country.
Yet I also feel frustration: the people of Croatia have sent a message loud and clear to the government, but are they listening? I worry about democracy in Croatia and fear that we are facing many of the same challenges of the 1990s, when Croatia was an illiberal regime.
For our part, civil society will try to capture this momentum to keep the reform process moving and to channel the energy of the thousands of Croatians who protested this week into meaningful change. The curriculum reform effort was a participatory process; recent public outcry shows that Croatians want to continue be involved.
The working group is currently only tasked with reforming Croatia’s curriculum, but a more fundamental reform of the whole education system is needed. Last week’s protests are only the beginning.