Professionals leave Central Europe public sector

  • 2002-11-21
  • Jean-Luc Testault

After five years in higher education, Marie Matulova received a gross salary of 7,030 crowns (229 euros) per month as a teacher in the Czech Republic. In mid-2000, after just one year teaching, she went over to the private sector where she now earns three times more.

Like Marie, the young educated elite in the Czech Republic is fleeing the teaching profession, causing a headache for Czech authorities as they seek to find qualified teachers.

"We have had to bring people out of retirement in order to fill posts, and we are asking elderly teachers to put off their retirement, which is not satisfactory," Ondrej Gabriel, a spokesman at the Czech Education Ministry, said.

Faced with fierce competition in a market economy in which qualified people are in demand, public services in former communist bloc countries have let the gap with the private sector grow when it comes to salaries for qualified people.

From Warsaw to Sofia, doctors, teachers, researchers are all finding it difficult to survive on state salaries.

According to the OECD, which groups the world's richest countries, the problem is particularly acute in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and until very recently in Hungary, at a time when all three countries are seeking to join the EU in 2004.

The OECD compares the salaries of those with 15 years' experience with national wealth. On average developed countries pay their secondary school teachers a rate of 135 percent of the wealth per capita. In 2000, however, the Czech Republic and Hungary only paid them at the level of 65 percent and 71 percent.

In the same year, South Korea, which is slightly richer or Mexico, which is poorer, were paying 248 percent and 205 percent of their wealth per capita respectively.

With 15 years of experience, a Czech secondary school teacher currently earns a gross salary of 440 euros. His Slovakian colleague gets even less at 290 euros.

"Inadequate funding for education is a serious problem in the long term," Slovakia's Education Minister Martin Fronc admitted.

Although the countries working to join the EU in 2004 will initially have a competitive advantage due to their low wages, that advantage will not last forever.

In order to gain new jobs, the new EU member countries will have to have a better qualified and trained work force.

However, their education systems are only in the second half of the class in a league table of 30 developed countries produced by the OECD.

Over the past few months, Central European leaders have suddenly woken up to the importance of investment in education. On Sept. 1 Hungary established a minimum wage for qualified people. At around 400 euros it is around double the country's minimum wage.

At the same time, wages for workers in the public sector, notably teachers, were increased on average by 50 percent. A secondary school teacher there now earns more than 600 euros.

In Slovakia the new government plans to increase the education budget to more than 5 percent of gross domestic product against less than 4 percent at present.

"The state wants to make the means available to encourage people to work in the profession, and that is being done through an increase in salaries," Fronc said.

In Prague, Education Minister Petra Buzkova battled with the Finance Ministry to get a 9 percent increase in wages for teachers in the 2003 budget, while inflation is currently lower than 1 percent.

The objective is to raise the average salary of teachers in four years' time to 130 percent of the average Czech salary against 102 percent today.

Buzkova also unwittingly acknowledged the weaknesses of the Czech school system by sending her daughter to Prague's French school.