Tough Lessons: The Slow Crisis of Malagasy Education

In the short time I’ve lived in Madagascar, I’ve been forced to constantly reconcile the beauty of the nation and its people with the ugliness of its present circumstances. The future of this remarkable place is tarnished by the specter of perpetual political crisis, a moribund economy, and above all, an educational system that finds itself in increasingly dire straits. The ongoing crisis in Madagascar’s schools reaches students at all levels, in both public and private classrooms, and has its roots in the country’s traumatic 65 years under French colonial rule. France did today’s Malagasy students no favors. Prior to former President Didier Ratisaraka’s “malgachization” reforms in the 1970s, use of Malagasy was actively discouraged in education, and the use of French teachers and language of instruction remained deeply entrenched within the system even after independence in 1960. Malgachization was in and of itself, however, a disaster for national development. Students passing through the system during the tortuous process of reforming the curriculum between 1975 and 1990 still commonly lamented as a “lost generation”, largely neglected and forgotten by policy makers.

Troublingly, the national curriculum has remained “under revision” for years, with funding having dried up partway through the desperately needed reform process. The need to modernize content is perhaps illustrated by the somewhat bizarre choice of secondary language studies available to students in the high-school equivalency. As a result of the country’s alliance with the Eastern Bloc during the late 20th century, students have the chance to learn Russian, German, or Italian in addition to the still-prevalent French. English is beginning to become more common , but one is left at a loss to defend the choice to instruct of an ambitious Malagasy pupil in a European language found nowhere outside of the borders of its country of origin instead of the languages used by contemporary Madagascar’s most vital economic partners (Swahili, Chinese, and Arabic all come to mind). Even if the curriculum could be made coherent, the environment in which young Malagasy are obliged to study often borders on the unmanageable. One of our program’s language instructors, Madame Lydia, is a multi-decade veteran of Madagascar’s Ministry of Education. The system which she described to us in a recent lecture is one of primary school classrooms packed with up to 65 students, woefully compensated teachers, and cynical government appropriation of crucial funding.

Much of the slack is picked up by private schools run by the country’s Catholic and Protestant churches, but these are only affordable for the upper-middle and upper classes. For the children of foreigners and the very wealthiest Malagasy, there remains the option of attending the American School or Lycée Français, both of which essentially funnel into Western universities. Setting aside the maddening economic situation which has resulted in this opportunity gap in Madagascar (as well as concurrent strikes involving Madagascar’s largest airline and electric company), anyone wishing to learn anything of consequence from Malagasy education is forced to account for the highly-publicized teacher’s and student’s union strikes at the University of Antananarivo. The strikes, originally sparked by the sudden revocation of research funding and teacher’s salaries, have witnessed frustration turn to outrage after the heavy-handed military and police response to protests, which ultimately led to the near-killing of the student union leader, found on the front-page of every newspaper in recent weeks as “The Affair of Jean-Pierre”. It’s been crushing to speak with numerous students and teachers from the University, hearing an endless flow of stories of career prospects squandered and years wasted waiting for a resolution.

When compounded with an awareness of just how low of a chance these students have of passing the ultra-competitive entrance exam to reach the University in the first place, one cannot help but wonder how the country can possibly move forward when the cream of its proverbial crop remains mired in bad governance and the politicization of the right to education. As it turns out, conversations with recent graduates have given me a rather depressing answer: it probably won’t anytime soon. This is because of the breathtaking scale of the brain drain of Madagascar’s most promising young people. Take my host family as an example: Of my grandmother’s 20 (middle class) grandchildren, 12 have moved to France after graduation, usually from private universities. Most of the 8 who remain hope or plan to do the same. Simply put, there is little real chance of finding employment in the formal sector after graduation, even for many of the brilliant business majors, biochemical engineers, and computer scientists whose perspectives I’ve been lucky enough to hear. This, more than any of the seemingly endless array of problems confronting society here, is cause for serious alarm. Without the future afforded by its best and brightest, the country has very little reason for optimism. 

So what should all of this mean for those interested in repairing our own dysfunctional educational system back home? Inevitably, it puts in perspective the relatively tame nature of our system’s problems when compared with its barely-functioning Malagasy counterpart. With that being said, the biggest take away for me is the necessity of addressing the effects of rampant inequality on education. In the U.S, disparities in teacher quality, resources, and environmental safety between urban and suburban schools deny entire generations of students (often members of lower class and racial minority communities) to better their circumstances. Recent reversals in Civil-Rights Era bussing laws could prove disastrous for students finding themselves in de facto segregated learning environments with widely unequal resources available to them, and should be reinstated throughout the nation. Strengthening unemployment benefits for parents and providing students with food vouchers to ensure they eat three square meals a day could prove crucial towards bettering lives outside of the classroom, with immediate impacts inside of it. The crisis in Malagasy higher education also illustrates the crucial importance of ensuring that qualified graduates leave school with opportunities to find meaningful and well-compensated work. Towards this end, American policy makers should begin to strongly consider (at the very least) a partial forgiveness of federal student loans, perhaps extended initially to students working in crucial fields like STEM and law. In any case, it is incumbent upon leaders in both countries to avoid the potentially destructive effects of a student population without hope. If history is any indicator, the results of that sort of scenario are not something that we would want to test.

Dan Myers is an International Studies major at the University of Denver currently studying abroad in Antananarivo, Madagascar. He is passionate about foreign policy, agricultural reform, and education policy.