Hungary: Shortage of teaching staff in public education

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The Hungarian government is facing a severe shortage of teachers, coupled with the fact that more than one-third of those remaining in the profession are over 50. In the last school year, around 1,400 teachers retired and another 3,970 decided to leave teaching. The number of student teachers has increased, but not in the sciences.

Public education affected by labour shortages

A shortage of labour has become serious in many parts of the Hungarian economy, and the public sector is no exception. According to an analysis of official data on public financing, although the overall number of civil servants, government officials and public officials remained unchanged in 2016 compared with the previous year, the number of public employees fell by 1.2%, of which the number of employed in public education shrunk by 4.6%.

The reasons for this are complex. Several public institutions, including schools, have been handed over to the authority of churches, and this has changed the employment status of teachers from public employees to ordinary workers covered by the labour code. However, there are other reasons, including:

  • too much overtime;
  • a strict curriculum developed centrally by the government;
  • too much administration and formality attached to the new career path model;
  • lack of transparency in decisions on promotions;
  • wage tensions;
  • the low prestige of teaching;
  • the overall labour market demand for workers – which can be easily met by those with a teaching diploma.

Official figures cover only teachers who are public employees; those whose schools are taken over by the church are no longer covered by the statistics mentioned above, as their employment status has changed. This has, of course, led to a decline in the official statistics. However, there has also been a real decline in the number of teachers, with many leaving the education sector altogether.

In the past few months, there has been growing media coverage about the significant lack of teachers, with an increasing number of vacancies being advertised. According to a recent news report, teachers are needed in 180 localities. Hiring is often hampered by the legal ban on anyone beyond the legal retirement age being employed as a teacher.

The number of teachers employed decreased by more than 5,000 in the academic year 2016–2017, according to the Trade Union of Teachers (PSZ). Around 1,400 teachers retired and 3,970 gave up their jobs.

One way to tackle the lack of teaching staff is by tackling overtime. According to the OECD Education at a glance 2017 report, teachers in Hungary worked 1,624 hours a year, which is more than the EU average. This works out at nine working hours per day (on the basis on 180 days of school in a year).

However, by law, the weekly working time of teachers at school (primary and secondary) is set at 32 hours, of which a maximum of 26 can be used for actual teaching, as teachers may also be required to substitute for absent colleagues (for up to six hours per week). In a school year, a teacher may be required to stand in for another teacher for up to 30 days. Nevertheless, teachers get overtime pay only if their weekly working time exceeds 32 hours. According to the Klebelsberg Centre (KK),the total overtime in public education is equivalent to the full-time employment of 1,300 people.

Overview of the challenges and possible solutions

In recent years, the institutional system of public education has been fundamentally transformed. Since 2013, the government has assumed control of elementary schools, which had been owned and run by local councils. This was aimed at stabilising schools’ funding, making them no longer dependent on the finances of individual councils, and providing an equal financial footing for all schools. However, in practice, this actually meant a serious loss of income for some schools and better financial conditions for others. No systematic research has been published on the final, actual outcome.

This centralisation of public education also led to wage increases and serious conflicts as the gradual introduction of a career path model has meant that teachers paid under the previous wage scale have been working alongside those paid according to the new model, with some young teachers earning more than their more experienced colleagues.

The medium-term challenge associated with the shortage of teacher staff is the forthcoming retirement wave of teachers. This problem has also been noted by the government; its strategy for 2016–2025 on higher education estimates that about 50,000 teachers will reach the legal retirement age by 2025. In order to compensate for those departures, at least 2,000 entrants to the profession are needed each year.

To ensure a continuing supply of teachers, the Klebelsberg Study Scholarship (Klebelsberg Képzési Ösztöndíj) was introduced in 2013. The programme’s main stated aim is to increase the number of specialised teachers, primarily in subject areas where shortages are the most severe, with the greatest financial support given to student teachers specialising in subjects such as information technology, mathematics, physical education, biology, physics, chemistry, and natural and environmental sciences. So far, however, the scholarship has made no tangible contribution to increasing the number of teachers in these fields. The number of people applying to teach in higher education still remains limited.

The government acknowledges the shortage of labour in education, but does not consider it out of the norm. Several ideas have been outlined to address the shortage including:

  • allowing lecturers – mainly retired teachers – to teach for 14 hours instead of the current 10;
  • allowing university students in their final terms to teach in schools.

However, no specific decision has yet been made.

Trade union position

PSZ says that, despite the introduction of the career path model, the prestige and attractiveness of the profession has not improved. It adds that many schools tell of teachers having to teach subjects outside their specialist knowledge. It also claims that teachers, in general, are overwhelmed and exhausted due to the great amount of extra work. PSZ has suggested re-employing retired teachers as regular public employees as a temporary solution to the current critical shortage

Another problem in attracting teachers is low wages. Although this is a problem common to many sectors, a beginner elementary school teacher, despite wage increases, does not receive the guaranteed minimum wage.

One of the biggest shortcomings of the education system is that there is no sectoral social dialogue. The government does not tend to consult the trade unions, even though this kind of consultation is enshrined in law. Trade unions consider this attitude to be a serious violation of the law. If consultation does take place, they maintain that trade unions’ opinions and proposals are not incorporated in any legal changes. The trade unions argue that it is not possible therefore to achieve any tangible progress.

Commentary

The government faces a dual challenge in public education. First, an immediate response to the severe shortage of teachers is needed, since they are already in an untenable situation owing to excessive overtime and the large numbers of teachers leaving the profession. It is not yet clear whether the government will allow retired teachers to continue working as public employees while receiving their pension. Secondly, 37% of teachers are aged over 50. The government has not yet said how many plan to retire, since women can choose to retire earlier (if they have completed 40 years of service) and it is difficult to predict how many female teachers might take this option.

The number of students enrolled in teacher training has increased, but not in the sciences such as physics, mathematics, biology or chemistry. According to the results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, Hungarian students are lagging far behind in these subject areas, which could explain, in part, the shortage of teachers in these subjects.

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