Teaching, but at what cost?

Teaching, but at what cost?

How much money do teachers make in Central and Eastern Europe, and how can they live on their salary?

In Hungary, much attention is focused on education now, especially on teachers’ salaries and dignity. Teachers complain because of financial difficulties, poor circumstances, and overwork. A large part of society supports their demands as education, a cornerstone of a well-functioning state, is important for many. Nonetheless, a question arises: is this a specific Hungarian phenomenon, or is the plight the same across the region? Is it as difficult to be a teacher in Romania, Poland, or Czechia as in Hungary?

The Eurydice Network has recently published a report on the annual gross salaries of teachers for 2020/21 and the results show significant differences in teachers’ pay across the continent. The yearly gross starting salary of a Luxembourgish teacher is roughly €69 000 (around HUF 29.5 million at the current exchange rates), while a bit further to the east, in Hungary and Romania, the teachers’ salaries are the lowest in Europe. The demoralizing annual salary of Romanian teachers is €8027 (roughly HUF 3.4 million), which is less than eighths of their Luxembourgish counterpart’s earnings. The average Romanian teacher salary is the seventh lowest among the examined countries; Bucharest is ahead of Poland and Bulgaria and one place below Hungary. But the difference between Hungary and its eastern neighbor is not significant. The average annual salary of a Hungarian teacher (€8063, roughly HUF 3.4 million) is only 26 euros higher than in Romania, so the difference is marginal. These amounts are far below the European average of €25 055 (HUF 10.7 million). Despite the significant regional differences in the cost of living, the difference in salaries is not proportional. Moreover, the teachers’ difficulties in Central and Eastern Europe are compounded by other factors, such as the lack of educational reforms.

Besides salaries, teachers’ circumstances are also very different in Central and Eastern Europe. The World Vision Romania’s study highlighted several other issues concerning Romania’s education system. The report, summarized by the Romania Journal, revealed that two out of three Romanian teachers believe the curriculum is overloaded and outdated, 65% of them believe IT innovation is urgently needed in Romanian schools, and teachers have too many bureaucratic obligations and a too busy schedule in the country. The latter is also among the main complaints of Hungarian teachers. The Hungarian Teachers' Union's vice president said that Hungarian teachers have far more lessons (an average of 25.5 hours) than their Romanian counterparts (18 hours).

So, the education systems of the two neighboring countries face similar challenges. Despite their crucial job, teachers are extremely underpaid in both countries, the curriculum is not adapted to the children’s current needs, and schools lack appropriate infrastructure and equipment. The situation is not much brighter in Poland where, according to the Eurydice report, teachers' annual gross starting salaries are even lower (€7908, slightly less than HUF 3.4 million) than in Romania or Hungary. What is more, Polish teachers earn the closest to the minimum wage; their starting salary is only a bit higher. Underpaying leads to another pressing problem that makes the future of education ominous: teacher shortages are an increasingly enormous challenge. Many young people facing a career choice reject working in the education sector as their salary earned with hard work would only cover their basic needs. According to the Polish Teachers’ Union, approximately 20 000 teachers are missing from the country’s education system due to complex problems. Poles, like Hungarians, have already gone on strike several times because of the low salaries; protests and strikes have been announced for the start of the current school year.

We can see that the low salaries of teachers and their overload is an issue everywhere in the region. The situation is slightly better in Czechia and Slovakia, but the differences are not very significant. According to the aforementioned Eurydice report, Czech teachers are the luckiest in the region, with an average annual salary of €13 807 (around HUF 5.9 million), this amount is higher than the salaries in the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and Greek or Montenegrin teachers also earn less. The cost of living in the region has also been the highest in Czechia last year, but the differences are not significant. Furthermore, the energy crisis and the high inflation severely affect all countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Slovakia is between Czechia and Hungary regarding teacher salaries, just like it is geographically. The annual gross salary of a Slovak teacher is €8862 (approximately HUF 3.8 million), meaning the amount is much closer to the Hungarian figure than to the Czech average teacher salary. Thus, it is no surprise that Slovak teachers also started a strike recently. Thousands protested in Bratislava in mid-June to demand fair wages, and the teachers signaled that they would continue their strike in September (when school years start) if the issue is still not solved. The strike worked in Slovakia; the teachers and the state reached an agreement: Slovak teachers will receive a 10% pay rise in January 2023 and a 12% pay rise in September 2023, plus a one-off payment of €500. In response, the leader of the Slovak education trade union announced that there would be no strikes until August 2024. Nonetheless, critical voices say the pay rise will not have a real impact because of the high inflation; thus, teachers’ circumstances will not change.

To sum up, teachers’ salaries are low in Central and Eastern European countries, and the contrast between the importance of education and low salaries signals disproportionality. Therefore, the dissatisfaction of teachers is a common phenomenon in the region. In addition, the current energy crisis and high inflation significantly contribute to teachers' uncertainty. Despite their essential work, the teachers’ situation is getting increasingly dark in the region.

Graphics: Roland Molnár

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