Roma scholarships: investing in Europe’s future

The Roma Education Fund (REF) scholarship programs provide the kind of support that is literally life changing for many young Roma students across Europe. The sobering reality is that without scholarship support from REF, thousands of young at-risk Roma pupils would simply drop out from secondary schools every year; many would never even consider applying for university; and without REF interventions to support them, large numbers of students would be forced to quit their third level studies.


REF’s secondary and tertiary scholarship programs provide just what is needed to keep these young people in education. This includes financial assistance, mentoring and guidance to prevent early leaving and increase graduation rates. The programs also provide powerful motivation and public recognition of students’ achievements. Scholarship support makes for successful completion with higher grades, so students are better prepared to compete on the labor market, and more confident and able to pursue further studies.


The 2014 Eurydice report on early school leaving confirms that young people who leave education and training early are often both socially and economically disadvantaged; and that those who fail to complete secondary education are more likely to be welfare-dependent, less likely to participate in lifelong learning, are at a higher risk of poverty and social exclusion; and that the impact of leaving education and training early can carry across generations. So in terms of narrowing the gaps and promoting equity in educational opportunities and outcomes between Roma and non-Roma, it is a high priority for REF to combat early school leaving and improve the academic performance of Roma students in secondary schools.


REF’s secondary scholarship schemes cover part of the basic and hidden costs of secondary education. This can make the crucial difference between staying on to finish secondary schooling, or dropping out to take up unskilled, casual labor. REF provides mentorship and tutoring that improves academic performance; boosts integration processes inside the schools; and motivates parents to support their children to finish school. In cooperation with public and non-governmental organizations, REF currently implements its secondary scholarship programs across seven countries;[1] and in 2014, a total of 5,432 students received scholarships and school-based mentoring.


Through its third- level scholarship schemes REF aims to consolidate a critical mass of self-identifying Romani intellectuals and professionals with enduring ties to local Roma communities. By publicly affirming their identity, and by virtue of their visibility and professional success, these graduates effectively refute negative anti-Roma stereotypes, and serve as role models not only for their peers but for everybody. Since 2005 almost 7,000 Roma university students from 15 countries have received scholarship support.


Over these ten years REF has constantly adapted to respond to changes and challenges in different national education systems, and to meet the particular needs of Roma communities in each country. For example, REF now merges upper secondary level and tertiary level scholarships to support students from the end of lower secondary right up until they graduate from third-level education. This approach allows REF to target young Roma from particularly vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds, who could not hope to complete their education without outside support.


UNDP research data confirm that our REF’s secondary scholarship schemes are having a positive impact on attendance rates among upper-secondary Roma pupils in countries such as Macedonia and Bulgaria. For instance, in Macedonia, where REF co-operates with the Ministry of Education, and its secondary scholarship program is tied to a mentoring and tutoring scheme the enrollment rate rose from 10% in 2004 to 17% in 2011.


Since the first third-level scholarship scheme (RMUSP) was launched in 2001[2], nearly 7000 young Roma have received scholarship support, for three academic years on average. In the last two academic years the majority of scholarship students (56%) obtained Bachelor degrees or equivalents, while 35% successfully finished post-graduate education, with six Roma students completing their Doctorates. The majority of the successful graduates majored in the social sciences and humanities.


When it comes to dropout rates among beneficiaries the figures are encouraging. The total dropout, studies interruption and graduation postponement rate is 16%, which compares rather favorably with the reported average rate of 32% across OECD countries.


In the ten years since REF was founded, several countries and international actors have joined the effort to widen access to secondary and tertiary education through scholarship-based support to Roma students. REF is now actively partnering with Ministries of Education in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia to implement secondary scholarship schemes.


In the first decade of its existence, REF has shown that school desegregation is possible, feasible and better for all; that substantive Roma participation is crucial for success; and that effective cooperation on the ground delivers the kind of change that can transform the lives of tens of thousands of Romani pupils.

The cumulative effect of years of work by REF and its partners has resulted in ever larger cohorts of Roma children enrolling in pre-school, and more and more students successfully graduating from secondary and tertiary education.


REF’s mission to promote equity, improve quality, broaden access and increase completion rates throughout the entire education cycle, with carefully targeted and closely monitored interventions, provides a proven template for what needs to be done across Europe. The evidence from ever-increasing number of high quality projects across 13 countries shows that it is possible to narrow the gap in educational outcomes between Roma and non-Roma.


Successful integration in society demands that young people at a minimum complete upper secondary education, and increasingly third level qualifications are necessary to compete in tight labor markets. REF’s scholarship programs show how targeted and tailored interventions make a critical difference to the life chances and opportunities for thousands of young Roma.


However the challenges remain formidable, and educated and qualified Roma need worthwhile jobs if Europe 2020 is to have any meaning for them. Over the last ten years there has been little progress and in many countries unemployment rates rose amongst Roma since 2005. The 2011 Fundamental Rights Agency report found that unemployment rates for Roma stood three times higher than for non-Roma; that the most disadvantaged Roma were those aged 16-24, 58 % of whom were not in employment or in education or training, compared to 18% of non-Roma.


Worryingly although Roma in this age group had improved their educational attainment significantly, this was not reflected in enhanced employment prospects. The 2014 report from the European Commission on the implementation of the Roma integration strategies reported further deterioration in the employment situation of Roma, with chances limited by direct and indirect discrimination and concluded that “no tangible widespread impact has yet been achieved on the ground.” Education and training must lead to equal opportunities for Roma in the labor market. Discrimination needs to be tackled head on, and the European Commission has called for resolute action on this issue. The profound challenge facing Europe 2020 and its vision of growth and prosperity is how best to manage successful transitions from education into gainful employment for hitherto excluded populations, especially young Roma.


[1] Albania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovakia

[2] RMUSP was originally administered by the Open Society Institute. The Program became part of REF in 2007.


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