The teachers strikes across Europe expose systemic under-investment in education

The teachers strikes across Europe expose systemic under-investment in education

08. 06. 2023 – Lomond

Teachers have taken strike action and protested in other ways in various countries across Europe over the last six months. Two of the most recent (and, potentially, most politically significant) examples have come in Central & Eastern Europe, and they are illustrative of some broader, more systemic issues with the education system across the region.

First, Hungary: there have been a series of teacher / student protests over recent months, including a rally in early May which led to police firing tear gas at teenagers and detaining people outside Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s offices.

Second, Romania: two weeks ago, a teachers’ strike led to the planned rotation of power within the governing coalition being put on hold.

The motivations behind these protests are complex. With inflation at such high levels (particularly in Hungary), it’s partly about pay, of course. But it’s also about working conditions, exacerbated by teacher shortages. In Hungary specifically, teachers’ status as public employees and the restoration of their right to strike are factors too.

That complexity is illustrated very clearly by a report published in 2021 by Eurydice, the European information network which collects and disseminates information on education systems and education policy across Europe. Entitled ‘Teachers in Europe: Careers, Development and Well-being’, one of the most informative charts was this one:

It’s worth highlighting that this survey was conducted in 2018/19, so before the pandemic and before the current cost-of-living crisis. An awful lot has changed since then. However,  there are two very obvious conclusions to draw from this chart:

  1. To repeat, it’s not just about pay – or at least attitudes to pay are not necessarily straightforward. Three of the countries where teachers’ salaries are, at least compared to average pay levels, most positive – England, France and Portugal – have seen teachers strike this year. Indeed, teachers’ salaries in Portugal are much healthier than elsewhere, yet levels of satisfaction are amongst the lowest in Europe. Stress appears to be the primary cause. Based on the report, Portuguese teachers experience more stress at work than anywhere else in Europe, with England and Hungary not far behind.
  2. Teachers’ salaries in CEE remain very low (even if the situation is, in many countries, quite a lot better than it was ten years ago). As a result, most of the CEE countries surveyed are grouped together in the bottom left-hand box on this chart.

The issue in CEE is that teachers’ salaries cannot be seen in isolation – they are part of a much bigger under-funding problem. When it comes to public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP, the bottom half of the European league table is dominated by CEE countries:

Romania sits at the very bottom of the list. The main reason for this is that the proportion spent on primary level education is less than half the EU average. Interestingly, the proportion of GDP spent on primary education also didn’t increase in any significant way between 2014 and 2019 at a time when, bucking the trend across most of the EU, overall spending on education did increase in Romania.

Different factors explain Hungary’s position towards the bottom of this list: there, it’s more to do with tertiary education. Hungary languishes third from bottom of the EU rankings when it comes to spending on tertiary education, below every other CEE country. This must be part of the reason why, based on the latest edition of the QS World University Rankings, Hungary doesn’t have a single university ranked in the world’s top 500 (by way of comparison, Poland and the Czech Republic have three each).

But it’s clear that the under-funding of the education sector is a region-wide problem. The difficulty for politicians in CEE is that, while the situation is complex and the specific challenges vary from country-to-country, it’s hard to see how any of the issues in schools and universities can be fixed without increasing overall spending on education. And that’s really just the first step necessary to address some of the most acute problems. Longer-term, the stated goal of most countries in this region is to transition into becoming more innovative, knowledge-based economies. That will need to start with the education system, but, realistically, where will the money be found to bring that objective to life?

Let’s be positive, though. Economically, this is still a very tough period across most of CEE but the European Commission’s recent Spring 2023 Economic Forecast was encouraging, with all of the CEE member states forecast to grow at above-EU-average levels next year:

Economic growth will be the key. Without it, there is no way that the under-funding of education can be addressed. With it, and with some serious political will, it might just be possible to tackle one of the most serious obstacles to progress in this region.