In Cyprus, there is no greater accolade for an education minister than being publicly vilified by the arrogant teaching unions. Angering the teaching union bosses indicates the minister is doing something right because they represent the forces of reaction in public education, protecting privileges and restrictive practices. Nothing will change for the better without a confrontation with the unions that have ensured we have a public education system primarily serving teachers while the interests of schoolchildren are relegated to minor importance.
It is a good sign that Education Minister Costas Hambiaouris has publicly fallen out with the unions several times since his appointment four months ago. His predecessor, in contrast, was never criticised, let alone publicly abused in his five years at the ministry, because he always gave in to the unions. An education minister enjoys the support and cooperation of the union bosses only when he does as he is told. Anything less makes him a target for the bullies that, regrettably, have the unwavering support of most of our parties.
On Thursday the union bosses launched a vicious attack on Hambiarouris, accusing him of being a ‘liar’ and an ‘untrustworthy interlocutor’ who talked ‘nonsense’ and was ‘intentionally misleading’. He was also accused of ‘having no coherent thought’ and of ‘jumping from one subject to another’. The unions will be meeting on Monday to decide the dynamic measures they will take in protest against the decisions announced by the government. All decisions they objected to were approved by the cabinet, but it was easier to turn on the minister than the government.
These were sensible measures that will save the taxpayer money. The practice of reducing the teaching hours of teachers with many years of service – described as unlawful by the auditor-general – will end, as will the practice of cutting the teaching hours of form teachers by 50 per cent. The annual cost to the taxpayer of these unjustified exemptions from teaching was in the region of €20 million. As the auditor-general pointed out, nowhere else in the public sector are employees entitled to do less work after 25 years of service, hence his conclusion that the practice is unlawful. The government has also decided to stop funding union activities. Until now, the taxpayer paid some €750,000 a year for teaching cover for teachers involved in union duties! This despite the fact that teachers do not work in the afternoon and could perform their union duties then.
The unions’ complaint is that these decisions were arbitrary, taken without consultations with them. Why should there have been consultations, so the unions could veto the measures? Hambiaouris was absolutely right to take the decisions to the cabinet for approval without consulting the unions as this was also a message that he will not allow them to call the shots. It was about time someone did this.