RIGA - Planned government education cuts would limit students' access to higher education and dramatically hinder Latvia's intellectual development, according to the country's student union body.
The Latvian government is currently considering funding cuts between 20 to 40 percent in the education sector.
Kirils Solovjovs, international affairs officer of the Student Union of Latvia (LSA) said severe cuts could potentially jeopardize university student intakes in 2010.
According to preliminary estimates student populations could be reduced some 20 to 30 percent if higher education institutions are forced to curb their intake.
The union is planning nationwide action should severe government cuts go ahead.
"We have expressed a strong position on this and we have agreed across every city where there is a university that we will not tolerate cuts more than 20 percent," said Solovjovs.
The move comes following a mass protest in Riga on April 2 by an estimated 10,000 education and science workers, who took to the streets to protest the government's plan to slash wages and cut financing.
Latvia is among the only countries in the European Union to cut financing and slash employee salaries in the education and science sector.
Solovjovs said the union unequivocally rejected the government's defense that dramatic cuts were unavoidable in light of the country's deteriorating economic situation.
"Other EU countries are either increasing funding [in the education] or at least keeping it at one level. It [education] is one investment that will not lose its value in times of crisis, but in Latvia the government, it seems, has not recognized this," he said.
HARD TIMES AHEAD
Higher education institutions have already been forced to reduce teacher salaries, trim administrative costs and shut down merit based courses for high achieving students, following previous funding cuts in the sector announced last year.
There are fears further financing cuts to universities by another 30 to 40 percent will cause irreversible damage to higher education quality and render the Latvian higher education system uncompetitive with universities in other countries in Europe and the world.
According to the union body planned cuts would not only lead to poorer quality higher education, but worsening social conditions for students.
Although there are no plans for hikes to study fees, students are already being squeezed by cuts in higher education benefits and other subsidies including public transportation and student dormitories.
"Of course there is a very real concern [that education quality will be reduced], especially with these official courses, usually taken by high level students, being cut," said Solovjovs.
"It means that students will not excel and our education and our science will lose because of that," he said.
The Latvian government announced hefty cuts to the education sector in December as part of requirements of a 7.5 billion euro bailout package brokered by the International Monetary Fund.
Under the government's hard hitting austerity measures public sector employees are facing wage cuts of up to 20 percent.
Meanwhile, the higher education sector was hit with a 25 percent cut in public subsidies.
The Student Union of Latvia was founded in 1994, with the aim of representing Latvia's students and to fight for the observance of their rights and interests at a national and international level.
The organization currently represents about 125,000 students across Latvia, equating to more than 5 percent of the country's total population.