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The Governance of Educational Welfare Markets

A Comparative Analysis of the European Social Fund in Five Countries

Edited By Daniel Pop and Cristina Stanus

This book is a first exploratory inquiry into possible educational selectivity effects of the European Social Fund (ESF). It assesses the extent of the gap between the social policy objectives set through regulatory competences in multi-level governance and the structure of incentives it breeds in practice, with a broad range of implications for the capacity of the government to control for an equitable distribution of services at the community level. The chapters emphasize the educational selectivity involved in national policy decisions concerning ESF implementation in the five countries, the role of informal mechanisms in fine-tuning implementation, the negative effects of formalization and failures in accommodating the complexity of goals which characterizes the ESF, as well as the overall fairness of ESF implementation towards the most disadvantaged groups in society. The empirical analysis suggests that social-service delivery contracting as an instrument of governance is no longer regulating against risks for beneficiaries, but fuels increased social division in access to public services.
The book is the result of the Educational selectivity effects of the European Social Fund project (July 2012 and December 2013), developed with the support of the Education Support Program of the Open Society Foundations.
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7 The educational selectivity effects of bureaucratic discretion: Conclusion and policy recommendations

← 164 | 165 → CRISTINA STĂNUȘ

7 The educational selectivity effects of bureaucratic discretion: Conclusion and policy recommendations

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Most academic and practitioner approaches to EU structural funding emphasize the role these might (and do) play in the fulfilment of the social contract between the EU and its citizens. Consequently, the discussion is often framed in terms of effectiveness; efficiency; and compliance with EU standards in terms of expenditures, public procurement, publicity, environment, and equality. However, effectiveness, efficiency, and compliance are to a large extent dependent on an institutional framework which is the direct result of domestic policy to accomplish EU objectives codified in the structural funds programming documents (or the lack of it).

This chapter approaches the extent of the gap between the social policy objectives set through regulatory competences in multi-level governance and the structure of incentives it breeds in practice, with a broad range of implications for the capacity of the government to control for an equitable distribution of services at the community level. In order to do this it studies the managing authorities of ESF-funded national programmes and their role in transposing the general regulation of market driven service funding ← 165 | 166 → of educational inclusion policy objectives into effective commissioning -procurement-purchasing cycles (quasi-markets ).

The topic of this chapter lies at the intersection between the analyses concerning the role and impact of structural funds (Aiello and Puppo 2012, Barca 2009, J. Bradley 2005, Lennert and Robert 2010, Tomé 2012, Varga and in’t Veld 2011) and the notion that (quasi -)markets for educational services are created through a somewhat imbalanced demand and supply mechanism in an environment defined by political and policy decision (Adnett and Davies 1999, Bradley and Taylor 2010, Gingrich 2011, Lang 2001, Waslander, Pater and van de Weide 2010). A key aspect of the comparative effort rests on the notion that, despite the introduction of quasi-market mechanisms in welfare provision in the five countries via the same mechanism (ESF funding), there might be significant variation from one country to another, in the manner described in the literature for mainstream welfare state reforms.

Three research objectives are pursued. First, the chapter analyses the institutional set up of the management authorities for ESF funds in the five countries. Key aspects approached here are the framing of social and educational inclusion in national policy documents, the fact that managing authorities are still developing and shaping informal and formal rules, and the degree to which national governments have given policy-making discretion to these institutions. Second, the chapter empirically assesses the characteristics of the educational welfare markets created through ESF-funding in the five countries, emphasizing the actors involved and their degree of empowerment, rules concerning competition, and the motivations behing the market-shaping bureaucratic decisions. At the same time, we focus on the extent to which bureaucratic discretion influences positively and negatively the achievement of broad social and educational inclusion goals in a democratic and effective manner.

The analysis in this chapter is based on comparative data collected as part of the Public Sector Stream of the Educational selectivity of the European Social Fund Project, as well as on the meta-analysis of the country case-studies included in this book.

← 166 | 167 → The institutional dimension: Complexity and over-formalization

The analysis of national policy documents has pointed out several areas in which domestic policy decisions concerning ESF programming have created conditions with the potential to hinder the social and educational inclusion outcomes expected of the national ESF programmes. The relative inexperience in dealing with the complex set of formal rules and procedures used for the implementation of EU structural funds has affected the manner in which policy goals were balanced, how it has led to increased formalization and to a relatively poor use of partnership as a governance mechanism, as well as to relatively poor monitoring of the programme and delayed responses to unexpected situations. These were aggravated by the public-sector discomfort with the informal aspects of governing ESF-funded programmes and significant shifts in national sectoral policies as a result of changes in the political composition of national governments. All these aspects have produced effects in all areas of intervention of the ESF-funded programmes, not just in the education sector.

Balancing complex public goals

Managing authorities, like any other public sector actors, need to balance several goals in their operations (for the distinction between different types of public goals see Peters 2011). The balancing of these goals has the potential to influence the behaviour and decisions of the managing authorities, down to the market-shaping decisions mentioned above. Democratic and efficient implementation is a sweeping goal associated with ESF-funded national programmes. At the next level, we find cross-cutting goals such as environmental protection and gender equality, which derive from how the structural instruments are set up. ESF-funded programmes are supposed to achieve strategic levels in terms of social inclusion , education, and employment. Programme-level goals are usually defined in terms of their absorption of funds. Rather than balancing these goals, the managing ← 167 | 168 → authorities seem to prioritize them, with programme-level, absorption-focused goals usually coming first.

While democratic ESF implementation is nominally assumed in all countries, at least some of them fall short of democratic practices. For example, in Hungary, there is a major discussion on how the managing authority for HU-SROP makes available information concerning programme implementation, because it is widely believed that technicalities used in reporting make any democratic oversight of the programme quite difficult. This can also be said of the SK-OPE . An overly technical approach to implementation and public communication about it also works as a mechanism of blame avoidance. At the same time, during the implementation, democratic elements constantly disappear (for example, preparatory working groups). In Romania, civil society stakeholders repeatedly stress that the managing authority rejects any kind of outside input and assumes its independence equals accountability to nobody. Moreover, it even manages to actually dominate the monitoring committee of the RO-SOPHRD , which leaves the question of accountability wide open. The critical aspect in terms of ensuring democratic implementation seems to be the ability of the managing authorities to effectively use partnership as a governance mechanism. In this respect, with the exception of the Czech Republic, there seems to be quite some resistance of the national managing authorities (see Partnership as governance mechanism).

Nominally, all the managing authorities studied here pursue social inclusion , education and employment goals; they attempt to reach a strategic level for social and economic service that affects all or most members in society. This also applies to the cross-cutting goals embedded in many of EU’s structural programmes: environmental protection, gender equality, and others. However, in day-to-day operations, the five managing authorities seem to give priority to the programme goals of absorption. In Hungary, this happened specifically after the refined modular structure of the HU-SROP fell apart, as mutual interlinking between strategic developments and tenders for projects was not enforced. In Romania and Bulgaria, this prioritization seems to be linked to increasing political and public pressure over the managing authorities to increase the degree of absorption. At the same time, it could be linked to the broader frame of administrative capacity or the quality of national institutions.

← 168 | 169 → The emphasis on the technical, financial and administrative aspects of the MA’s duties suggests an unwillingness of the MAs (by their own initiative or incentivized by national policy-makers) to assume greater responsibility in shaping ESF implementation in the five countries. The MAs regard programme descriptions as fixed and, even when taking steps to do some changes to the programmes, seem to be very careful not to overstep this boundary. They usually make use of their prerogatives to change the programme only for such aspects. When challenged on this topic, MAs usually hide behind their apparent lack of policy discretion, diverting blame towards national policy-makers or, more often, towards unspecified decision-makers in Brussels.

The prioritization of technical programme goals in the sense described above is intertwined with an over-formalization of the day-to-day operation of the managing authorities.

Over-formalization

Public organizations are more complicated and formalized with regard to the activities that are regulated or overseen by the central government (Rainey and Bozeman 2000: 451–6), and ESF-funded programmes are no exception. Managing authorities for ESF programmes are public organizations, working in a complex political and administrative context, which requires them to balance formal aspects deriving from EU rules with specific formal aspects of the national administrative system. At the same time, managing authorities are imposing these formal, public-sector specific rules to all the contractors, be they public or private. In the case of the managing authorities analysed here, there is an obvious over-formalization, usually blamed on EU rules and procedures; yet it is more likely that MAs being overwhelmed by bureaucratic procedures results in severe delays in processing applications, contracts and reimbursements in three of the five countries analysed here.

Procedures and interactions with contractors most often suffer from over-formalization . For example, in Romania the RO-SOPHRD has experienced severe problems due to the under-staffing of the managing authority. ← 169 | 170 → Yet all these problems were addressed with higher formalization of procedures and interactions with contractors, resulting in long lists of binding instructions and decisions usually changing implementation rules for projects which had already commenced. This also happens in some of the other countries. Communication with contractors is also affected by formalization; in Romania communication is most often reduced to contacts through a help-desk which has been working intermittently. Moreover, communication with contractors is impersonal, with MA employees avoiding personal responsibility for their communication with contractors. This latter aspect can be said to affect, to a large extent, the managing authorities in Romania, Hungary or Bulgaria. The analysis of Slovak and Hungarian domestic-policy documents shows that all communication around the ESF-funded programmes can be hidden behind structural-programmes jargon. While over-formalization of interactions with contractors and procedures makes implementation difficult, managing authorities reject proposals for simplification (as has been proposed by the EC in Slovakia and the interim evaluation in Romania).

We also find stances of over-formalization in the relationship of the managing authorities with diverse governmental bodies. In Bulgaria, formalization affects the relationship between the managing authority and the intermediate bod ies with whom it has shared responsibility. Concerning implementation, formal communication channels seem to be the norm, while more dynamic and informal communication is discouraged. The most notable symptom of formalization in Hungary is the slow disappearance of the working groups designed to assist with planning (drafting of the two-year national action plans used as reference in implementation). Their dual formal/informal nature, designed to help the managing authority cope better with the demands of implementation, did not seem to fit the modus operandi of the managing authority. Another example of over-formalization in Romania is the stance taken by the MA on co-ordination with other operational programmes, namely reporting that it has taken the necessary steps to ensure co-ordination by making a formal written request to the Authority for the Co-ordination of Structural Instruments (RO-ACIS).

Another area of over-formalization concerns how more-or-less unexpected situations, which appear during implementation, are dealt with. ← 170 | 171 → When the degree to which the Roma population is being reached by RO-SOPHRD comes unexpectedly under discussion, the MA responds by requesting the establishment of a formal working group on the topic, guided by a set of formal rules endorsed by the monitoring committee . Over-formalization in this case results in the actual establishment of a working group taking more than a year. No results of the working group were identified a year later after it being established. Not unexpectedly, given previous experience in the Czech Republic, over-formalization manifested itself in calls to have rules concerning partnership structures for project implementation specified in a law, despite the obvious rigidity which could have been introduced by having this aspect regulated in a law rather than an executive decision. Before dealing with partnership at the project level, managing authorities had to deal with partnership as a governance mechanism.

Partnership as governance mechanism

Managing partnerships is a task that management authorities in the five countries approach quite differently. While partnership, in any form, is usually associated with network governance and deemed to be essential to reaching societal goals in a democratic manner and without placing a too heavy burden on the state (Fenwick, Johnston Miller and McTavish 2012, Geddes 2000), it soon becomes obvious that the management of partnerships depends to a great extent on its definition.

In all the five countries, partnership is first and foremost discussed in relation to the programming process. In this respect, all countries present, to various degrees, significant shortcomings. In most countries, the civil society organizations express discontent at how far their suggestions and ideas were taken into account into the programming process. In Slovakia, things went as far as having coalitions of NGOs openly boycotting the programming process, which they described as problematic and ineffective. In Hungary, a coalition of NGOs had to exert a great deal of public pressure during programming to get the central government to make some key documents public. In Romania, documents were relatively public, yet ← 171 | 172 → third-sector organizations found themselves in the position of not being able to significantly influence content. This suggests central-government-driven programming processes were the norm, despite the formal involvement of non-central government stakeholders. Hierarchical governance has kicked in, despite formal rules creating conditions for inclusive programming processes (network governance).

A second area of interest in terms of partnership is the actual involvement of non-central government stakeholders in the evaluation and monitoring of the programmes, as well as in the drafting of calls for applications. This would normally be a continuation of the partnerships established during initial programming. In this respect, in all five countries, we find nominal representation of stakeholders such as NGOs , trade unions, professional associations, local and regional governments, etc. Discontent is expressed concerning the meaningfulness of representation, or the actual influence these actors are able to exert during the implementation process. For example, in Romania, we find the dominance of central-government actors in the bodies supposed to take charge of the monitoring and evaluation programme, and an obvious dominance exerted by the managing authority over the monitoring body, a fact pointed out by the description of the relationship included in the annual implementation reports of the RO-SOPHRD , as well as by other analyses (see Public Policy Institute 2012).

In the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, different mechanisms to involve these actors in drafting calls for applications (drafting of national action plans in Hungary) have been set up, yet they do not seem to work. In Hungary, the working groups involved in drafting these plans disappear at some point during implementation. In the Czech Republic, a 2011 evaluation report suggests this possibility was not explored, despite its potential beneficial effects, and recommends it to be used in the following stages of implementation (Potluka et al. 2011). In Slovakia, stakeholders were not involved at all in call drafting. In Bulgaria and Romania, the managing authorities prefer an in-house drafting of calls. In the former case, transparency is so low that only very late during implementation did the BG-OPHRD managing authority submit the text of the calls to public debate before making a final decision.

A very interesting aspect of partnership as a governance mechanism comes from Romania, in the form of Regional Pacts for Social Inclusion ← 172 | 173 → and Employment. These are designed to be ‘participatory processes of regional public policy and strategy making, by the use of all existing funding opportunities, especially of the ESF. The Regional Pacts bring together representatives of local governments, central government offices at the local level, civil society and clergy, with responsibilities in the area of employment and social inclusion ’ (AMPOSDRU 2008). Such structures work at the regional and county levels, and help policy co-ordination and provide assistance to potential contractors. As the implementation problems of the RO-SOPHRD became more and more visible, the regional pacts assumed a very critical position of the MA, emphasizing that problems facing the programme are structural in nature, the result of the action or inaction of the central government and the MA, and emphasizing the blame-avoidance strategies of the MA (Council for National Co-ordination of Regional Pacts for Employment and Social Inclusion 2013). In fact, a coalition of over 800 stakeholders, created by the MA to aid its efforts of implementation, became one of the fiercest critics of the attitude and behavior of the managing authority.

The most important issue seems to be the extent to which programme-level partnership is being defined by the national MAs in a manner reminiscent of hierarchical governance, which either leaves no room for shaping the partnership according to the preferences of the members or, in all, gives immense leverage or control to a single member of the partnership structure. The propensity of managing authorities to act as such, or to attempt to control this partnership structure, leaves with them a significant responsibility concerning programme failures.

Programme failures

The five ESF-funded programmes analysed in this book are, nationally, considered to be some of the worst-performing structural programmes. The similarities between the five programmes become highly visible if we attempt to describe their failures.

A major failure seems to be in not pursuing the underlying goals and rules which were the result of national programming. In Hungary, a very complicated system aimed at ensuring the co-ordination of interventions ← 173 | 174 → funded by HU-SROP has never been implemented. In the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, the set of pre-established monitoring indicators was poorly used in practice. Moreover, changes to the political composition of the national governments (Hungary, Slovakia) led to sectoral policy shifts, which resulted in sudden shifts in terms of programme goals and rules.

The lack of predictability in the relationship with potential contractors is a key aspect here. We found significant delays in the assessment of applications, contracting, and reimbursement to contractors in all countries. Delays in the assessment of applications, quite common in all five countries, raise question concerning the viability of projects which finally receive funding. In Romania delays in reimbursements are so large that they produced significant social and economic consequences: third sector organizations had to halt projects and effectively abandon beneficiaries, some financially over-exposed universities are now in technical bankruptcy, and private companies who provided goods and services to RO-SOPHRD contractors are experiencing cash-flow problems. Moreover, reports from all countries suggest constant changes to the administrative and financial implementation rules, some applied retroactively. Unilateral changes to the contracts are frequent in Romania and Slovakia, in the case of RO-SOPHD the behavior of the managing authority is, in this respect, labelled as abusive.

All the programmes analysed here have significant structural problems, deriving from the (in)action of managing authorities, and potentially affecting the entire commissioning cycle. Managing authorities in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia fail to implement recommendations from the DG Employment and interim evaluators concerning these structural problems. The recommendations refer to the publication of comprehensible information concerning the programme (Hungary), financial simplifications (flat rates, unit costs, lump sums, and others; Slovakia and Romania), and the introduction of the global grants (Romania). Structural problems are deemed severe enough to produce suspension of payments in three countries: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Romania.

Moreover, central governments fail to regulate key areas for successful programme implementation in time, or make fiscal and procurement related decisions without taking into account their potential effect on structural programmes. The Romanian government makes fiscal policy changes which seem to make sense in the short term (such as provisions ← 174 | 175 → concerning the frequency of tax payments for private companies) and manages to hinder RO-SOPHRD implementation (companies are not longer able/willing to meet the fiscal eligibility criteria of the RO-SOPHRD). The same government delays the implementation of the key area of intervention by several years, by failing to create a national agency for professional qualifications in time, and fails to see that not all schools in Romania are technically eligible to apply for RO-SOPHRD funding. The Hungarian government fails to provide the necessary framework for the completion of key national projects, the results of which were supposed to guide the selection of small grass-roots projects. This raises questions concerning the co-ordination with national education policy during implementation.

Ensuring co-ordination with national education policy

The links with national education policy are embedded to various degrees in programming documents, since these are based on a situation analysis which comprises the national education system. Differences between the five countries appear during the implementation process, in the form of changes to national education policy not followed by changes in programmes implementation, or changes in implementation not triggered by shifts in national education policy.

The countries analysed here present various degrees of consistency and continuity in national education policy . For Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, we can emphasize the lack of continuity across political cycles, associated with the lack of a national consensus on what the educational system should look like or achieve. This lack of consensus reflects in ESF programming.

In the Czech Republic, a national policy shift was triggered by a 2009 decision of the European Court for Human Rights which found the Czech state guilty of systemic discrimination against Roma children. A national strategy soon followed; yet by 2011, its implementation status, including through CZ-ECOP , was still unclear. In Hungary, a shift in national education priorities is reflected in programme implementation, resulting in a scaling back of efforts directed at vulnerable groups and the introduction of components targeting socially and economically better off groups. For example, Romania ← 175 | 176 → experiences a significant shift in education policy at the beginning of 2011, with changes in the sphere of VET important enough to justify a discussion on the validity of VET-related interventions in RO-SOPHRD . To this day, such an issue was not approached by the managing authority, the supervisory boards of the programme, the Ministry of Education or the Romanian government. In Slovakia, a change of government produced major changes in terms of programming and, lacking the time to fill in the details, resulted in the introduction of a mechanism of incremental strategy formation.

Sometimes it is the institutional structure itself which leads to ESF-funded interventions being disconnected from national education reforms. In Slovakia, the decentralization of implementation led to demand-driven projects (smaller projects) being disconnected from the national projects deeply linked to education reforms. In Hungary, such a situation was taken into account and a mutual interlinking of programme components was introduced, yet it was never put into practice. Romania and Bulgaria do not seem to have taken this into account. In the Czech Republic, the use of the global grants model seemed designed precisely to approach this particular aspect. Further analysis is necessary to determine whether this model has produced better results in terms of linking small projects/interventions to national strategies and national education reforms. In this respect, a key factor are the regulatory decisions of the managing authorities, which actually shape the market for educational service delivery.

Bureaucratic decisions shaping the markets for educational service delivery

The commissioning process within the framework of ESF programmes involves managing a market for the delivery of educational services . This market results from the allowance of entry decisions made in policy documents on topics such as who is to provide practical training for pupils enrolled in ISCED 2–3 vocational and technical schools, who is to provide assistance to children at risk of early school-leaving , who is allowed to train ← 176 | 177 → teachers, and so on. At the same time, this market is regulated via decisions on the characteristics of the educational services provided, as well as through conditions in terms of users of these services. It involves competition for funding, which raises questions concerning the relative power of providers allowed to enter the market and what are the best mechanisms to ensure competition is fair. It also involves consideration of the relative power of providers in their relationship with service users and, maybe, even of the degree of protection of users. An important question is thus how aware the management authorities of ESF funded programmes are of the market principles applicable to techniques and instruments they are using, and how they govern and steer this market in practice. The first step in shaping the market is determining its size, through the allocation of resources for education in the national ESF-funded programmes.

Resource allocation

Resource allocation under ESF should be a matter of differentiation and negotiation between different agencies and networks at the national level. While there is some negotiation between the members states and Brussels, the process is (or should be) determined by national specificities. In this section, we point out some of the major decisions concerning the allocation of resources made in the five countries, which have impacted the disbursement of funds on issues concerning access to quality ISCED 0–3 education of vulnerable groups. Two types of decisions are relevant from this point of view: those concerning the breakdown of funds in different operational programmes, priority axes and key areas of intervention; and those concerning the manner in which funding is distributed, namely types of projects and their accessibility to potential contractors other than the central government. It must be said that resource allocation seems to be mandated and hierarchically managed by the central governments, with very little or no involvement of other stakeholders.

As shown in Table 7-1, there are significant differences between the countries studied here in terms of ESF spending for education and training , with per capita programme expenses being five times smaller in Bulgaria than ← 177 | 178 → in the Czech Republic or Hungary. On the one hand, these figures detail the prioritization of education in national policy-making. On the other hand, they show that any analysis of the extent to which these programmes reach vulnerable groups has to take into account not only the ratio of funds allocated to these groups, but also absolute amounts. It must be noted that, for the Czech Republic, in addition to the CZ-ECOP , this step of the analysis also includes the Operational Programme Prague Adaptability.

Table 7-1. ESF spending on reforming education and training systems in the five countries, 2007–2013.

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Notes: Per capita expenses calculated using total population in January 2007. Sources of data: EC for spending data, Eurostat for population data

← 178 | 179 → The Czech Republic divides ESF funding into three different operational programmes, separating the human resources development interventions from interventions centred on the national education system. The Educational Competitiveness Operational Programme (CZ-ECOP ) is managed by the Ministry of Education and clearly separates interventions by level in the national education system. Moreover, these interventions are decentralized through the mechanism of global grants for regions. There is a clear differentiation between interventions aimed at inducing structural change throughout the national education system (the national individual projects and multi-regional individual projects) through policy and methodologies development, and interventions at grass-roots level (grants available in each region as a result of the global grants scheme) focused on educational service provision.

In Hungary, the core of ESF education-related interventions happens within the Social Renewal Operational Programme (HU-SROP ), which has two major components: one focused on labor-market participation, and the other focused on sectoral objectives, projects and interests. Two key areas of intervention are focused on decreasing the segregation of severely disadvantaged and Roma pupils, promoting their equal opportunities in public education, and supporting the education of groups with different educational needs. Many of the interventions seem to have focused on the grass-roots level with little attention paid to structural change, especially after the politically induced 2010 reshuffle of the HU-SROP. In terms of types of projects, Hungary opted for several instruments: key/strategic projects, which are supported without a call for applications, in a two-stage assessment process, and are supposed to produce infrastructure of public benefit or investments having priority employment effects; global or indirect grants, which result in bodies such as non-governmental organizations acting as grantors for small grass-roots projects; and tenders, which may involve one or two stages in the application process, with more complex issues subject to two-stage calls. The system is highly complicated, as it also takes into account the types of potential contractors, with some not eligible to apply for certain types of projects. The global grants component, introduced in 2008, was never made operational.

← 179 | 180 → Slovakia also has a dedicated programme for education, the Operational Programme Education (SK-OPE ), while a completely different ESF programme is focused on employment and social inclusion . The SK-OPE singles out the reform of the VET and defines separate areas of intervention for marginalized Roma communities and children with special educational needs . In a clear co-ordination of ESF interventions with reforms in the national education system, there is a distinction between national projects, aimed at strategic policy and methodologies development and commissioned directly by the ministry of education to different entities, and demand-drive projects which are the core of grass-roots interventions.

Romania and Bulgaria have opted for general human resources development operational programmes, which include, among many other things, interventions focused on ISCED 0–3 education. In both countries, there is a very poor separation between different types of intervention, resulting in areas of intervention comprising primary and secondary education and higher education at the same time. In Romania, interventions of interest to this project are divided into two different priority axes, under three labels: quality of e ducation, transition from school to active life, and correcting and preventing early-school leaving. There is no funding specifically set aside for Roma and other vulnerable groups, nor for children with special educational needs , nor for bridging the rural-urban gap or even for ISCED 0–3 level education as a whole. Moreover, Romania opts for a distinction between strategic and grant projects, which is made in terms of territorial coverage, duration, and minimum and maximum amounts of funding available per project, and which is not accompanied by any kind of linking between the two (i.e. some mechanisms to ensure grant projects take into account results of the strategic projects). In Bulgaria, it is easier to identify areas of intervention focused on ISCED 0–3 education, yet the labelling is equally unclear and general in nature: access to e ducation and training for disadvantaged groups and the place of children and youth in education and society. In terms of types of project, Bulgaria has made no distinctions in macro-programming, but has chosen to differentiate between calls in terms of potential project budgets and duration.

The breakdown of available ESF funds , as well as decisions concerning how many ESF programmes to establish and how to divide priorities ← 180 | 181 → between them are the starting point of an even more elaborate effort to shape the market for educational service delivery. The next step is detailed in the following sections and is concerned with the process of defining the issues at stake and the types of educational services to be provided.

Defining the issues at stake

The issues at stake are defined similarly in the five countries, yet with very different degrees of detailing. Each of the five countries identifies issues such as territorial disparities in terms of access to and quality of e ducation, in urban-rural terms (Romania and Bulgaria) or in regional terms (the Czech Republic). Each country identifies majority-minority gaps in terms of access to e ducation, with special reference to the Roma and, in the case of Bulgaria, the Turkish minority. Most importantly, all countries try to link ESF-funded interventions with national reforms of education, with Bulgaria introducing a structural reform prior to 2007, Romania quoting the need to reinforce recent reforms of VET and doctoral studies, and Slovakia trying to correlate a loosely defined operational programme with a major shift of strategy in educational policy. Some of the countries take quite some time in identifying the problems facing the Roma as a substantial issue, the most notable examples being the Czech Republic (under EC pressure following a case lost in the European Court of Human Rights ), Romania (failing to properly account for Roma beneficiaries until 2010), and Slovakia (policy priorities concerning education of Roma children are formulated in 2008). Concerning the Roma and children with special educational needs , de facto school segregation is an important problem in Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

There are significant differences between countries in terms of details, as reflected by the analysis of the social problems identified in the texts of the calls for applications. From this perspective, we can place the five countries into three different categories: 1) countries using generic calls (Romania); 2) countries using a mix of generic and very specific calls (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic); 3) countries using very specific calls (Hungary, Slovakia).

← 181 | 182 → The social problems addressed by the RO-SOPHRD calls for applications are early school leaving and the poor correlation between the national education and professional training system and the labor market. The framing of these issues emphasizes their nation-wide applicability, with restrained mentions of vulnerable groups disproportionately affected, and seems to prescribe one-size-fits-all solutions, without references to specialized approaches to issues such as school drop-out among Roma children. The situation analysis fails to address narrower problems, which appear in the other countries, such as those associated with teaching Romanian to national minorities or the results of Romanian pupils in international comparative assessment.

Bulgarian and Czech calls for applications mix this approach with a more specific one: emphasizing education for members of marginalized Roma communities and special-needs education. In Bulgaria, these problems are framed quite specifically, with emphasis on the need for both individual approaches and alternative methodologies. The wording used to frame these issues is very telling: there are calls separately approaching the inter-related phenomena of ethnic discrimination in the national education system, the failure to integrate children with special educational needs and the problem of school drop-out among minorities. A specific feature in Bulgaria is the high emphasis placed on the need for out-of-school activities to help solve the problems of the national education system. Among the calls analysed here, only two are defined in very general terms (social inclusion , access to e ducation), while the rest are quite specific in nature. There are multiple calls making reference to education for people with special educational needs, as well as to ethnic discrimination in the national education system. The Czech Republic uses some catch-all calls, making reference to lists of very specific problems including, among others, the situation of multiply disadvantaged children and those with special educational needs, or even of highly specific groups such as children of migrants . Some other calls are quite general in nature. Multiple calls emphasize the insufficient development of inclusive education, while a very specific call links general issues to delinquency, violence and substance abuse.

Hungary uses highly specific calls making references to very narrowly defined problems. Approximately a quarter of all calls emphasize the ← 182 | 183 → cumulative disadvantages and learning challenges affecting children, with three singling out Roma children and two highlighting the problem of unreported segregation of these children. Almost a quarter emphasizes the issue of school drop-out. Multiple calls approach the issue of children with special educational needs , emphasizing the controversial definitions still in use in Hungary, where 70 per cent of multiply disadvantaged children are defined as having special educational needs. There are huge discrepancies between micro-regions. Specific to Hungary are calls which approach the problem of educating minority children in their native tongue, and the problem of teaching Hungarian as a second language to the children of migrants . As national policy shifted in another direction after 2010, we also find more than one call with a focus on the inadequate talent development in the national education system. The situation is similar in Slovakia, where we find very specific calls targeting the education of members of marginalized Roma communities in two different problem-solving frames, one focusing on the need to approach such issues by the use of comprehensive local strategies, and the other emphasizing that the problem needs to be seen through the filter-notion of special educational needs addressed in specialized settings.

The extent to which the issues at stake are defined in a broader framework, linking ESF interventions with other policy areas, is obvious by references or the lack of references to national policy documents and instruments or to policy research. In Bulgaria, we could find no references to national policy documents and instruments. In Romania, there are solitary references to an anti-crisis plan of the Romanian government in two calls launched in 2010. In Hungary, there are some references to the act on public education, the tanoda programme, and national policy on equal opportunities. All references in calls from Slovakia focus on national policies concerning the Roma ; while in the Czech Republic, only some calls make references to policy documents, especially national policy concerning youth and children. Generally, references appear in the case of calls for applications for large strategic projects (global grants in the Czech Republic, strategic projects in Romania, etc.).

An important aspect of how the social issues at stake are framed in ESF interventions is linked to the notion of integrated approach es, defined here as comprising the full cycle of methodology design, piloting, ← 183 | 184 → implementation and dissemination. The issues at stake are at the same time economic, social, and educational; they require both individualized and community interventions and, sometimes, national policy and interventions. In Hungary, the need to integrate approaches to the issues identified is very commonly found. It is compulsory in calls focused on gifted children and two calls focused on migrant children, and explicitly recommended in seven calls focused on equality of opportunities, in four calls on inclusive education for children with special educational needs , and in two calls on quality assurance. The use of the integrated approach seems consistent, as it is compulsory in areas where there is a lack of methodology in the national education system. In Romania, integrated approaches are explicitly recommended in calls on second-chance education. In the Czech Republic, it is explicitly recommended or compulsory in some calls on equality of opportunities, especially for children with special educational needs, including calls for global grants on this topic.

Defining services and their users

ESF is centred on the notion of capacity-building, at the individual and community level. Consequently, this notion is frequently mentioned by the managing authorities analysed here. However, empirical analyses of the workings of EU development funding have pointed out the ambiguity surrounding this concept, its frequent detachment from the reality of disadvantaged groups and communities (due to an overwhelmingly economic definition and over-quantification), as well as the failure to account for the attitudes and motivations of target individuals (Fudge 2009). An important aspect of our comparative approach to ESF implementation in central and eastern Europe is how the notion of capacity building is translated into demands for educational services .

From this point of view, a key distinction is the one between core educational services and additional or support services . By core educational services, we mean those services delivered to pupils through the traditional education system, such as curriculum/educational programme development and implementation, but also second-chance programmes or ← 184 | 185 → practical training programmes for pupils enrolled in vocational education programmes. Additional or support services comprise, among other things, counseling for parents or the creation of networks to improve co-operation and information transfer between providers of educational services. Core educational services are very well represented in the demands formulated by the five states through ESF mechanisms, as shown in Table 7-2, with curriculum development and implementation (a key aspect of educational reforms in all countries) being best represented.

Table 7-2. Number of calls for applications requesting the provision of core educational services in the five countries, 2007–2013.

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The only other called-for service with a comparable presence is teacher training (see Table 7-2, Table 7-3). However, it is the case of teacher training on specific issues relevant to the social problems approached by the calls which we analysed. At the opposite end, we find requests for services related to the reintegration of juvenile delinquents into schools, as well as for policy elaboration on topics relevant to the call. Other additional or support services which are in highly in demand by the five states are information campaigns, activities to promote partnership, the creation of networks and the transfer of best practices.

← 185 | 186 → Table 7-3. Eligibility of additional educational services/activities under ESF-funded programmes in the five countries, 2007–2013.

Eligible activities

Per cent of calls within which it is eligible

Core educational services

Curriculum/education programmes development

79.8%

Literacy and second chance programmes

34.1%

Remedial education

42.4%

Educational counselling and orientation

70.6%

Additional services

Information campaigns

70.6%

Development of family kindergarten and home schooling

16.5%

Counselling for parents

46.1%

Activities focused on health issues of school population

22.4%

Activities to promote partnership between schools and local actors

60.0%

Reintegration of juvenile delinquents into schools

9.4%

After-school programmes

55.3%

Research on education and educational policy

30.6%

Teacher training on specific issues related to the call

75.3%

Development of social skills

31.8%

Creation of networks

56.5%

Policy elaboration on topics related to the call

17.6%

Transfer of best practices, study visits, etc.

65.9%

The frequency of these additional services in the lists of demanded/eligible project activities raises an important question concerning the ← 186 | 187 → proportion of ESF funding for education and social inclusion which is in fact dedicated to them. Unless the calls for applications contain very specific constraints, we can theoretically think of successful applications for projects in the area of education which do not involve the direct provision of educational services to the specified target group, and limit themselves to such support activities. The relative weight of research activities and policy elaboration also needs some discussion. While only 17 per cent of the calls analysed make references to policy elaboration, many more (30 per cent) make reference to research on education and educational policy. In the broader ESF context, granting funding for research activities without linking them to the policy-making needs of the state seems an unnecessary diversion of funding otherwise dedicated to social interventions.

Besides these aspects, we found some differences in approach between the countries we analysed . The BG-OPHRD grants significant discretion to contractors in selecting project activities from a catch-all menu included in each call for applications. There are also some very specific national requirements, beyond the lists of activities mentioned in the above tables, such as the development of activities that would help an understanding of the culture and history of ethnic minorities, scholarship disbursement, different activities involving the use of Roma language, and the development of software to be used by pupils with special educational needs .

In the Czech Republic, we find significant changes to the demands for educational service throughout the implementation process in the form of more and more refined descriptions of the services to be provided/­eligible activities . In terms of educational services not included in our list, the emphasis is on the inclusion of disadvantaged pupils in mainstream schools. Interesting is the request for the development of tools to assess the quality of e ducational services provided in non-formal settings. The emphasis on the inclusion of pupils defined as having special educational needs in mainstream schools is accompanied by an over-specification of details. For example, the calls request potential contractors to develop methodological and consultative centres for pupils with disabilities, which will be requested to provide support to other schools as well. This specification of ← 187 | 188 → details suggests certain methodologies are endorsed nationally and imposed on the potential contractors, an aspect which seems to be missing in the other countries. While from certain perspectives this can be interpreted as hindering innovation , it also suggests a deliberate decision to prescribe methodologies thought to be the most effective in the respective national context.

In Hungary, the demands for educational services articulated in HU-SROP calls for applications seem guided by the belief that EU funds can and should be invested in supporting fundamental public services, in this case, core educational services . In Hungary, the activities outside our predefined list are structurally oriented, focusing on regulatory and operational aspects of educational service provision, support activities, infrastructure development, project development, restructuring of school districts, and stimulating self-assessment by schools. This strategic approach seems to be undermined by a national policy shift; in recent years we find significant changes in the contents of the calls launched under the same KAIs, with educational integration being replaced by talent management, even though the programme goals and objectives were not reformulated in any way.

The demands for educational services embedded in RO-SOPHRD calls are thought by the interim evaluator to inhibit innovation on behalf of the contractors, with lists of eligible activities working like a menu from which contractors cherry-pick for fear that going outside the list might make their applications ineligible (also reinforced by widely held perceptions of the poor quality of the assessment of applications). Another important aspect is the fact that, by 2010, some of the potential activities/services can only be provided by certain categories of contractors, which suggests efforts on behalf of the MA to ensure that the programme targets beneficiaries better. Among the eligible activities not included in the above list, the emphasis falls upon labor-market-related aspects, such as workplace-learning activities and the training of mentors in enterprises, as well as on very specific services such as summer/Sunday schools and kindergartens, and school debut methodologies.

In Slovakia, the manner in which the lists of eligible activities and eligible expenses are defined reinforces the perception of SK-OPE as an ← 188 | 189 → opportunity for the renewal and equipment of schools, rather than an investment into education. Consequently, calls do not provide mandatory guidelines nor do they recommend types of interventions proven to be more effective in areas such as education in inclusive settings, including of Roma children; they leave a lot to the discretion of contractors in terms of defining activities.

Table 7-4. Eligibility of different categories of potential beneficiaries, ESF-funded programmes in the five countries, 2007–2013.

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The definition of services to be provided comes hand in hand with the distinction between eligible and non-eligible groups and the specificities of national definitions of vulnerable/disadvantaged groups . As shown in Table 7-4, while disadvantaged groups of school age are ← 189 | 190 → eligible beneficiaries of projects in most of the calls analysed here, the more general category of ‘pupils’ appears in a similar number of calls for applications. Our selection of calls to be analysed took into account their relevance for social inclusion and ISCED 0–3 education, yet we find among the eligible beneficiaries of large numbers of calls ISCED 5–6 students or employees of governmental institutions and NGOs . In the case of Romania, we must note that some of the calls mention more frequently general categories rather than specific ones. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, teachers are eligible beneficiaries in all calls and employees of governmental institutions and non-governmental organizations in most of the calls, which could be linked to the specific need of overcoming the discrimination and segregation problems within the national educational systems.

Looking within the broader category of disadvantaged groups , we find some significant differences between our five countries in terms of targeting such groups (see Table 7-5). In the case of Hungary, not all disadvantaged groups are eligible beneficiaries in all calls for applications, which suggests that there are attempts to refine targeting. Only in the Czech Republic and Romania are juvenile delinquents specifically included among the lists of beneficiaries of educational services to be targeted by potential projects. Only half of the Romanian calls specifically target these groups, while others seem to take a more general approach. In Slovakia, calls make specific reference to Roma pupils and pupils with disabilities and exclude other definitions of disadvantaged groups.

All countries seem to operate with long lists of potential beneficiaries of services , which leave a lot to the discretion of contractors. In Bulgarian, Czech or Romanian calls for applications for projects focusing on educational inclusion issues, we frequently find general labels such as ‘pupils’ on the lists of potential project beneficiaries. This is an invitation to disproportionately include mainstream children who are more accessible than multiply disadvantaged children from Roma families. There are, however, differences. In Bulgaria some of the calls targeting ethnic minorities narrowly specify target groups. In the Czech Republic, the main problem seems to be the fact that calls nominally target children with special educational needs , using a very specific meaning of the term.

← 190 | 191 → Table 7-5. Eligibility of disadvantaged groups in calls for applications under ESF-funded programmes in the five countries, 2007–2013.

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Another aspect concerns the distinction between two groups of beneficiaries : the pupils and students in need of support and the teachers and support staff that need to be trained in order to provide the requested educational services to the first group. None of the countries analysed here properly distinguished between the two groups and limited the extent to which money is invested in teachers and support staff. Technically, there is the possibility that ESF-funded projects in the five countries spend more resources on these staff than on the end-users of educational services. Although money spent on teacher training or research indirectly benefits the end-users, the matters of proportion and cost-effectiveness of investments are not properly approached by national ESF programmes.

In Romania, there is something even more damaging than the list of potential beneficiaries . The procedure for target group registration used until 2011, widely known to all potential applicants, uses a breakdown of beneficiaries into vulnerable groups which does not distinguish between ← 191 | 192 → Roma and other ethnic groups. This had the potential to stimulate contractors to include beneficiaries from other more accessible ethnic groups in their projects. Moreover, the targeting of disadvantaged groups such as Roma pupils and their families, pupils with disabilities and their families, and other vulnerable groups is not automatically rewarded when an application is assessed; all rewards are completely left to the discretion of the person doing the assessment. The breakdown into vulnerable groups is so damaging that MA have reported figures showing the largest of the four vulnerable groups reached by the RO-SOPHRD under priority area 2.1. is Others. This is almost six times more than all beneficiaries belonging to ethnic minorities, fifteen times more than Roma, sixty times more than people with disabilities. Women or families with two children, despite their socio-economic status, may be categorized as vulnerable under RO-SOPHRD rules and included in the others category. Something similar also happens in Slovakia, where we have the same kind of failure on behalf of the managing authority in defining the programme indicators.

Beyond the long lists of potential beneficiaries/users of services , there is the matter of how each of the national programmes defines the most educationally vulnerable groups. In Bulgaria, we find the specific identification of Roma pupils (in most calls, very few contain references to ethnic-minority students), pupils with disabilities, children with special educational needs and school dropouts. In the Czech Republic, emphasis is on pupils and students with special educational needs enrolled in different levels of the national education system, early school leavers (without completed secondary education), the parents of children and pupils with disabilities or social disadvantage, and institutionalized children. It must be noted that gifted children are also included on the lists of beneficiaries of interest to some of the calls analysed here. In Hungary, the emphasis falls on multiply disadvantaged children (including Roma and/or pupils form socio-economically disadvantaged areas), pupils and students with migrant backgrounds, and children with special educational needs. Some calls also mention students lagging behind, children in state care or young school dropouts. A very special category is of ISCED 1 students who had been qualified as having special educational needs but, after revision, were transferred from a segregated educational environment to an integrated ← 192 | 193 → one. Like in the Czech Republic, later calls for applications identify gifted children as a group of interest for the national programme. In Romania, Roma pupils, pupils with disabilities and pupils from rural and/or socio-economically disadvantaged areas are identified as groups of interest for education-related calls under RO-SOPHRD . The identification always mentions pupils from these groups alongside parents, which suggests that the demand for comprehensive approaches to the problems facing these groups goes beyond the limits of the education system. Early school leavers or pupils lagging behind are also mentioned in some of the calls. Calls also identify ‘other vulnerable groups’ as being important, much in line with the national breakdown of vulnerable groups approached by the RO-SOPHRD, discussed elsewhere in this book. Calls for applications in Slovakia emphasize the notion of marginalized Roma communities and target pupils and parents in these communities, especially in the case of primary education. Some calls make specific mention of pupils with special educational needs enrolled in special schools; pupils with disabilities enrolled in special schools, and, most importantly, marginalized Roma pupils enrolled in special schools or being affected by a disability.

Very relevant here is the meaning attributed to the ‘special educational needs ’ label in national policy documents and national ESF programmes. Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania use orthodox interpretations of this notion. In the Czech Republic, despite the formal steps taken to address this issue in response to pressure from the European Commission, it is obvious that the national government and the national educational establishment are unwilling to let go of the definition in use, which places Roma children automatically in the category of children with special educational needs and on a special educational route. Starting from similar premises, Slovakia presents significant progress in addressing this issue, a fact reflected by how it identifies vulnerable groups. This combines relative unease with ethnic identification in the wider society and a reliance on self-identification with regional or local targeting, or the statements of the contractors in determining whether this specific group has been reached by ESF interventions.

An aspect relevant to all countries involved concerns the identification of vulnerable groups which are defined ethnically. In Hungary, ethnic ← 193 | 194 → registration is actually considered a sensitive issue, so the contractors have to be able to demonstrate they have the consent of the beneficiaries they report to be of a certain ethnicity. In Slovakia, there is complete reliance on the statements of the contractors concerning beneficiaries belonging to ethnic groups. However, some calls contain eligibility provisions concerning the share of beneficiaries from certain marginalized groups included in ESF-funded projects. Both countries use social or local and regional characteristics to target groups such as the Roma ; however these only work partially.

Reaching these vulnerable groups involves (in the case of potential contractors outside the national education system) some problems concerning access to the potential beneficiaries . At the same time, there is the question of how many educational services are to be provided by actors in the national education system (especially schools), and how many are left to other actors. In this direction, the following two sections approach the issue of potential contractors/providers of educational services and the use of partnership as a project methodology.

Market competition and the empowerment of actors

In all the countries analysed, the contractors seem to enjoy significant discretion in making decisions which induce educational selectivity , namely the choice of project activities/services to be delivered and the choice of beneficiaries/users of services. Equally empowered are the managing authorities, which enjoy significant discretion in the power relationship they establish with applicants and contractors. The least empowered are the beneficiaries/users of services. There are, of course, some differences between the countries, with the Hungarian attempt to include Roma representatives in designing better projects addressing Roma issues standing out. However, beyond this, beneficiaries/users seem to have no influence over the design and delivery of educational services meant to address their specific situation. While this is the general approach of ESF implementation in the five countries, there might be a different situation at grass-roots level. Moreover, it is unclear in what way the guides and calls direct ← 194 | 195 → contractors towards participatory approaches to project implementation. An in-depth approach to the types of projects or educational interventions which appear more frequently could help in this respect.

Table 7-6. Eligibility of potential contractors under ESF-funded programmes in the five countries, 2007–2013.

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Within the broader category of contractors , we do find some differences, as shown in Table 7-6. In all the countries, regular schools are eligible contractors in most but not all calls for applications. In Bulgaria, the surprise comes from the absence of third-sector organizations from the lists of eligible contractors included in most calls, given the emphasis placed by the domestic policy-maker on finding solutions to the social problems approached by the calls outside the traditional education system. Moreover, the only category of contractors mentioned in all calls is central government entities. In the Czech Republic, the lion’s share belongs to local and regional governments, followed closely by the central government. In Hungary, very similar to what we previously found out, we find a distribution of potential ← 195 | 196 → contractors per calls which suggests a deliberate attempt to target vulnerable groups. In the case of Romania, what is striking is the limited presence of local governments among the eligible contractors, as well as the much stronger presence of universities and research institutes when compared to the other countries. Almost all calls for applications from Slovakia strictly limit potential contractors to governmental actors and the actors from the national education system. Third-sector organizations are only eligible in calls which specifically mention the need for the comprehensive or integrated development of Roma communities.

Being admitted on the market for ESF-funded educational service delivery and actually making the most of it are two different things, as there are significant differences in terms of know-how and resources between these actors. In at least three of the five countries, small potential contractors (NGOs , schools) are at a clear disadvantage, either because of decisions concerning the size of potential projects, or because they have to compete against actors with superior know-how and resources, such as central government agencies or universities.

Several implementation decisions shape the market in terms of competition . First, it is important to look at the frequency with which MAs launch calls which have a single potential applicant, which is quite high (fourteen out of eighty-five calls analysed here). In Bulgaria, it is the case for more than half of the calls analysed here (six out of eleven), while in Slovakia it is the case for three out of eight cases. At the other end, we find Romania, where no such calls could be identified, with Hungary and the Czech Republic somewhere in the middle (approximately one in ten calls). Second, and equally important is the size of the potential projects, which differs significantly from country to country. While Bulgaria and the Czech Republic allow potential contractors to seek funding for small projects with budgets as low as EUR 10,000, in Romania and Slovakia the smallest projects should have budgets of EUR 50,000 and EUR 100,000. This acts against small grassroots NGOs and schools. Third, there is the matter of the financial contributions of the applicants to the budget of the projects. Romania treats not-for-profits and public entities equally in most calls and requires them to contribute with 2 per cent of the total budget of the project, while for-profits are supposed to contribute with at least 5 per cent. In other calls, public entities are exempt from contributing to ← 196 | 197 → the budgets of the projects. In Slovakia, public entities are also exempt, while all other contractors are required to contribute with 5 per cent of the total budget of the project.1

In shaping a market for educational service delivery, the decision to let some actors inside the market and keep others out is usually followed by decisions concerning when and how different categories of actors compete against each other . In the case of educational services, this is particularly important given that the providers mentioned above are extremely diverse in terms of know-how and resources. Our data show that national governments and managing authorities did not pay enough attention to this. In approximately a quarter of the calls analysed here, universities and research institutes are eligible potential contractors alongside schools. In a third of the calls, schools are made to compete with for-profits, while in more than half of the calls, schools are set against the central government ministries and agencies. This raises questions concerning the fairness of competition on the market for educational service delivery created in the five countries.

Nationally, some other factors further influence competition negatively . In Hungary, public institutions used an unusual strategy to maximize their access to European funding and established non-profit/civil organizations to apply for financial support. Very late during implementation, steps were taken to gradually eliminate these so-called public foundations from the competition for funding. In Romania, the managing authority noticed after some time that not all schools in Romania were actually eligible for funding. This happened due to the fact that not all were judged capable by the Ministry of Finance of managing their own budgets. Consequently, some schools were designated as budget centres and asked to manage, alongside their own, the budgets of neighboring schools. Only schools acting as budget centres had fiscal registration numbers and were eligible to apply for funding. This effectively excluded any schools from socio-economically disadvantaged areas (rural and urban periphery schools). A correction was made only in 2011 when, following the adoption of a new law on education, the budget centres were disbanded and each school gained the right to manage its own budget.

← 197 | 198 → Moreover, in at least three of the countries analysed here, the competition is influenced by professional for-profit consultants, able to capitalize upon previous experience in other EU countries or local political connections. In Slovakia, our analysis points toward an ever-increasing role of such actors, due to the complexity and formalization embedded in the commissioning process. Romania is where we find the most convincing data on this topic, due to the use in RO-SOPHRD commissioning of the ‘first come, first served’ principle. Thus, calls for grant projects would close when the total amount of money requested by applicants equals the amount of money allocated to the respective calls. It was administered through an electronic platform, which performed this automatically. Using specifically designed software, professional consultancies managed, on behalf of their customers, to upload large numbers of applications in minutes, triggering the automatic shutdown of the call, before other categories of applicants were able to submit their own applications. In Hungary, for-profits get themselves hired as consultants or otherwise involved into projects or use, much like public institutions, the option of establishing civil organizations in order to access ESF funding. This leads to anomalous cases such as the funding of golf clubs under calls aimed at supporting gifted children.

These imbalances might be corrected by a proper use of the provisions concerning partnership as a project methodology. Competing against central government agencies might put regular schools at a disadvantage. Yet, such a disadvantage might be easily compensated if other categories of contractors were somehow stimulated to include schools in the projects they develop. The instrument at their disposal in this respect is partnership as a project methodology.

Partnership as project methodology

During the implementation of ESF-funded national programmes, central governments and managing authorities have several alternatives at their disposal to stimulate partnerships in project implementation. First, partnerships can be stimulated by granting bonus points during assessment to the applications submitted by a partnership between two or more actors. Second, partnerships could be made compulsory. Third, a certain ← 198 | 199 → partnership structure could be made compulsory, e.g. making NGOs or churches eligible applicants only if they partner one or more schools or make trans-national partnerships compulsory under certain key areas of intervention.

The approach to partnership as project methodology provides some of the most striking differences between these countries. In Romania, provisions aimed at stimulating partnership in project implementation seem to work, since the managing authority reports it is the case for 70 per cent of all contracted projects. However, because partnership structures benefited from bonus points during the assessment of applications, it is quite difficult to distinguish between meaningful partnerships and ones which are simply window-dressing. Some steps to ensure meaningfulness are provided, starting with calls for applications (requiring applicants to describe the actual involvement of partners in several areas), yet these could be quite easily circumvented. Moreover, while partnership is rewarded in such a manner, it is not used to steer projects’ implementation in directions which could increase the quality of interventions and their long-term sustainability. For example, while so many of the educational services requested by calls were supposed to be delivered in or around schools, there are no specific provisions requiring a contractor to partner with a school. Consequently, while the overall capacity of Romanian society to address problems such as early school leaving might increase it becomes unclear if the capacity of schools to address such problems on their own will increase. Like Romania, Bulgaria promotes partnership in project implementation but does not make it compulsory, nor does it use it to steer interventions in certain directions.

Hungary has a completely different approach, making partnership compulsory under some calls and even going as far as identifying a compulsory partner, usually a professional training agency or, in the case of Roma integration projects, the National Roma Self-Government. The practice is judged by Hungarian experts as questionable, due to the manner in which the selection of compulsory partners is made as well as to the fact that the National Roma Self Government does not seem to have the professional expertise necessary. Moreover, these compulsory partners may be selective and may refuse to partner some potential contractors, meaning a selection would have been made before there was an application. Despite this problem, the practice of involving the National Roma Self-Government seems, ← 199 | 200 → in itself, promising because it suggests attention is being paid to the need to empower beneficiaries of the projects as well.

In the Czech Republic, partnership as project methodology has a complicated history since the 2004–06 programming period. Partnerships between public institutions and other actors in the implementation of EU-funded projects were subject to some provisions of national public procurement legislation which made them de facto not functional. While the legal issues were overcome, the extent to which public sector project promoters/potential contractors are still discouraged to engage in partnership issues remains an important issue (Potluka et al. 2011). Probably deriving from the same earlier problems, current ESF programmes in the Czech Republic distinguish between financial and non-financial partnerships (Stott 2008) and provide potential contractors with rules and template which are judged to induce some rigidity in project implementation. It must also be noted that there is one priority axis in an ESF programme in the Czech Republic which makes international partnership compulsory.

In Slovakia, the SK-OPE develops the partnership principle in programmatic documents with reference to programming and the full cycle of implementation and evaluation, yet in the text of the calls of relevance to education and social inclusion , it is absent. None of the calls analysed by us allows for partnership structures. Yet, in many projects, these partnerships seem necessary. Data from Slovakia suggests that informal, underground partnership structures do exist, usually between main applicants/contractors and consultancies able to assist them in the very complicated process of applying for, contracting and running an ESF funded project. The partnership structures needed to develop and implement essential projects are thus transferred into a grey area, where the relationships between partners are not regulated.

In terms of types of partnerships encouraged, the calls from the Czech Republic are the only ones explicitly encouraging partnerships between public and private entities. The Czech Republic is also the only country which systematically encourages partnership structures comprising both local and national actors. Trans-national partnerships seem to be specifically encouraged in Romania, as all calls include mentions of this direction being taken. This is also reflected in the annual implementation reports ← 200 | 201 → of the RO-SOPHRD , which invariably report how many projects funded involve a trans-national partnership structure. Multi-regional partnerships are encouraged in most countries.2 Romania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic provide (in the text of the calls) specific definitions of partnerships, while Bulgaria and Hungary leave the matter to the discretion of the applicants and assessors of applications.

In some countries, management authorities go as far as providing templates for the partnership agreements and tend to do it consistently, with the exception of the Czech Republic where this template is provided only for some of the calls under CZ-ECOP and for none of the calls under the CZ-PA (Prague Adaptability Programme). In terms of the financial capacity of the partnership structures, all countries except for Hungary require applicants to provide data concerning all partners, and not just the main applicant/project promoter. Romania rewards the existence of a partnership structure during assessment, while in Hungary this only applies to certain calls focusing on education for children with special educational needs , education for children of migrants , talent development in school and support to ‘learneries’.3 This suggests a differentiated approach based on the topics approached by the calls, yet it must be corroborated with the fact that in some cases, the partner is predetermined in the content of the call.

Some policy recommendations

The ESF-funded programmes analysed in this chapter have, to various degrees, structural problems related to their institutional set-up and the (in)actions of the national authority entrusted with managing them. ← 201 | 202 → These structural problems thwart the capacity building efforts of all actors involved, including those who take as their own the issue of access to e ducation for vulnerable groups. Beyond the structural problems, which affect all potential contractors and beneficiaries alike, these programmes present, to various degrees, significant problems in accessing the most vulnerable groups in society, due to the decisions being made in the commissioning process. Without ignoring the structural problems, which were repeatedly approached recently by both national actors and the European Commission, this book has focused on the programming and implementation issues more likely to hinder the realization of access to education and quality of e ducation goals. From a market perspective, this book has analysed the demand side and pointed out the decisions that have contributed significantly to shaping supply.

The analytical framework used to assess whether ESF-funded programmes in the five countries act as enabling environments for increased access to quality education of vulnerable groups emphasizes two dimensions: the institutional and the bureaucratic ones. The institutional dimension covers aspects related to the set-up of the national ESF-programmes, or the domestic policy decisions made during programming, as well as policy decisions of general applicability made during implementation. The bureaucratic dimension covers decisions made during implementation of direct relevance to the creation and operation of an educational service delivery quasi-market .

The main findings concerning the institutional dimension stress the fact that the managing authorities analysed in this book take on the role of technical-administrative implementers of ESF-funded programmes and rarely attempt to use the policy-making prerogatives which were granted to them during programming. This is linked to how they manage (not) to balance the complex public goals normally associated with such programmes. Most of the managing authorities analysed by us seem to make a hierarchy of goals and place the programme goal of absorption above all, either because they cave in to public pressure, or because they prefer to avoid politically sensitive areas. Among the sweeping goals, the democratic character of programme implementation is largely ignored by most of the five managing authorities. This links with the resistance to partnership as ← 202 | 203 → a governance mechanism, reflected by the protests of civil society organizations regarding their involvement in programming, the apparent inability of the monitoring committee s to exercise democratic control over the managing authorities, and the slow disappearance of all stakeholder involvement in implementation: namely the drafting of calls for applications.

The focus on absorption rather than substantive goals and over-formalization of the modi operandi of the managing authorities mutually reinforce. Over-formalization affects the relationships that managing authorities establish with other central government agencies, the intermediate bod ies working under their authority, and most of all, with the applicants and contractors. It leads to significant delays in assessing applications, contracting, and reimbursing contractors in most of the five countries. Despite these problems, managing authorities tend to reject all suggestions towards easing procedures and interactions with contractors and other actors, even when such suggestions come from the EC or the interim evaluators.

Hierarchical governance kicked in during programming and implementation, resulting from the discomfort of the central governments and managing authorities with the informality deemed necessary for good programming and commissioning . This leaves the managing authorities and, to some extent, national governments with most of the blame for the significant programme failures visible in all five countries, despite their best efforts to avert blame elsewhere (toward Brussels or contractors).

From the institutional perspective, and going closer to the field of education, it is also relevant that the institutional structure itself seems to lead to ESF-funded interventions in the five countries being disconnected from national education policy-making and implementation: the most striking example being the failure of Hungary to implement a carefully planned mutual interlinking of strategic and grass-roots components of the HU-SROP . Moreover, it can be argued that, to different degrees, in all countries the implementation of specific ESF educational and social exclusion objectives is pushed to the background by the efforts of the national governments to use such financing to substitute national funding for school operation and modernization. Less obvious in Romania and Bulgaria, this aspect is quite striking in the cases of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

← 203 | 204 → From the bureaucratic decision-making perspective, the reality of ESF implementation in the five countries is even more complex. There are a significant number of common features. All countries define the social issues approached in a similar manner, emphasizing territorial disparities in terms of access to and quality of education , and identifying groups such as Roma pupils or pupils with disabilities among the must-have beneficiaries of the educational services being funded. In terms of educational services demanded, the emphasis falls upon core educational services . However, none of the countries manages to formulate and enforce provisions concerning the division of funds allocated to the projects between the end-users of educational services (pupils) and groups such as teachers and support staff. The decisions concerning access to the market and who is allowed to compete with whom for funding generally empower governmental actors, to the detriment of schools and, in some countries, of third-sector organizations.

There are, of course, national specificities. Bulgaria provides to some extent an enabling framework for social and educational inclusion, as it allows for very small grass-roots projects to be funded from the BG-OPHRD , and issues separate calls for applications for projects targeting the two groups identified as problematic: Roma and Turkish children in the national education system. The positive effects of these decisions are diminished by the significant discretion granted to contractors in terms of selecting the services they provide and the end-users/beneficiaries, and by the fact that provisions concerning partnership are not used to counteract competitive disadvantages.

The Czech Republic has to effectively deal with the effects of the definition of ‘special educational needs ’ embedded in the national education system before it can effectively provide an enabling framework for social and educational inclusion. This seems to happen in a top-down process aided by the descriptions of the educational services demanded by calls for applications issued in the two operational programmes analysed here. As implementation progresses, the description of the services requested become more and more detailed, as the central government endorses certain intervention methodologies and imposes them on contractors. There is significant rigidity in implementation though, mostly associated with how the issue of partnership as a project methodology is dealt with, and ← 204 | 205 → with the deliberate choice to empower local and regional governments in educational service provision.

Hungary is by far the country with the most elaborate system of targeting vulnerable groups, resulting from the sensitivity surrounding ethnic identification and the subsequent use of regional and socio-economical targeting. This is obvious in how calls for applications define the problems approached and the educational services required to address these social problems, identify potential beneficiaries, and deal with competition among contractors. The positive effects of this are, however, severely undermined by the lack of transparency and predictability in HU-SROP implementation, as well as by a shift of emphasis in national education policy from the strategic approach to social inclusion to support for better-off segments of society. Guidance concerning methodologies of intervention is not provided to small grass-roots projects, despite being embedded in the description of the HU-SROP, because the managing authority fails to properly implement the mutual interlinking of programme components. It must also be noted that HU-SROP is alone in the programmes analysed here to show programme-level preoccupations with the empowerment of the users of educational services.

Romania presents the case for a limited approach to social and educational inclusion. It empowers large potential contractors, such as central government agencies and universities, in a drive to maximize absorption with a minimum of projects funded. It fails to address in due time the issue of eligibility of schools, resulting from inconsistencies between national sectoral policy and the RO-SOPHRD implementation framework. It provides no guidance concerning preferred interventions and methodologies to approach social and educational inclusion issues, mainly because the implementation framework has not included any type of linking mechanism between strategic and grass-roots interventions. RO-SOPHRD records notable results in the use of partnerships as a project methodology, even though the meaningfulness of some of the partnership structures is debatable.

Slovakia disproportionately empowers central and local government actors as potential providers of educational services to vulnerable groups, and (more than the other countries) disadvantages small contractors such as schools and NGOs . Moreover, focusing on vulnerable groups is severely affected by the use of regional and socio-economical targeting and the ← 205 | 206 → reliance on the statements of the contractors concerning the ethnic identification (Roma ) of the beneficiaries of projects. The most striking aspect of ESF implementation in Slovakia is the fact that partnerships as a project methodology is not enforced at all.

A common feature of ESF-funded programmes in these countries seems to be the choice to maintain and enhance the role of the state as an educational service provider. While in Hungary and the Czech Republic, this is obvious in the general framing of the programmes, which focus on structural developments of the national education systems, in the other countries this is visible in the policy choices concerning potential contractors and the rules of the competition in the market for educational service delivery. This is linked to the fact that central government remains as a power-broker, even when there is openness to partnership as a governance mechanism.

Another important common feature concerns the partial acknowledgment by central governments and managing authorities of the fact that this is indeed a market for service delivery, which needs to be governed taking into account aspects such as competition, asymmetries of information, or the interests of the users/beneficiaries of services. This leads to a deficient use of market regulatory instruments: namely calls for applications, not taken seriously enough in some of the countries.

Our analysis shows, once more, the importance of domestic policy decisions in pursuing the overarching goals of the EU structural instruments. This dependence on domestic policy also makes it easier to at least fine-tune existing policy. In any of the countries analysed in this book, a national set of policy recommendations would have to address several aspects.

• Even in the cases in which the entire territory of the country falls under the EU convergence objectives, programming and commissioning have to account for territorial disparities identified in each of the countries, possibly in the form of regional calls for applications with budgets which take into account the social and economic development of the region.

• A mutual interlinking of strategic and grass-roots interventions needs to be embedded and enforced in future ESF programmes.

• More attention should be paid to schools as potential contractors, and their capacity to compete on this market. There should be greater ← 206 | 207 → attention in national programming to targeting areas of intervention, and calls for applications should be designed so that schools and grassroots organizations do not have to compete with actors such as central government agencies and universities. At the same time, situations when there is no competition at all (all schools receive ESF-funding almost automatically) should also be avoided.

• Partnership as project methodology mechanisms can be used to ensure the national education system fully benefit from the intervention and methodologies developed with ESF funding. It could be useful, in some areas of intervention, to make it compulsory for schools to be partners in grass-roots projects.

• The meaningfulness of partnership as governance mechanism needs to be enhanced. This is potentially approached by the European Commission in its preparation for the following budgetary cycle, and could take the form of compulsory rules concerning the involvement of stakeholders in programming and commissioning .

The analysis in this book is limited by its focus on the demand side of the educational service delivery markets created through ESF in the five countries. Our evidence suggests that, under these circumstances, the social service delivery contracting as an instrument of governance is no longer regulating against risks for beneficiaries, but fuels increased social division in access to public services. The conclusions and policy lessons could, and should, be refined by an analysis of the supply side of the market, namely the reaction of potential contractors to ESF-funded programmes.

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1This information could not be compiled for the other three countries.

2This information is not available for Hungary, which accounts for the largest portion of the calls analysed here.

3‘Learneries’ refers here to the tanoda, extra-curricular learning programmes aimed at addressing social exclusion. ← 209 | 210 →