The largest university in Slovakia, Comenius in Bratislava is one of many schools suffering a drain of young and talented teachers to better-paying jobs elsewhere.
photo: Ján Svrček
His experience is the rule rather than the exception in the Slovak university system. Talented young teachers are fleeing the profession, which pays less than every other field in the Slovak economy except agriculture and social services. While foreign investors in Slovakia still praise the nation's highly educated work force as one of the primary benefits of setting up shop here, many in the education field say that distinction is increasingly at risk.
In part, the difficulties in the university system stem from the marriage of a weak economy and a government which remains - for the time being - committed to providing a free university education to full-time students who can pass state entrance exams, officials said. But as living costs rise, and as teachers become more vocal with their complaints, different solutions - including the introduction of tuition fees - are being examined.
The issue of poor wages in the Slovak education sector brought about 300 teachers from all around the country to a protest in Bratislava on March 4. Some of the teachers met with Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik, who said that in order to raise morale, the government would consider giving teachers an extra month's salary and renewing the national Teacher's Day holiday, which was scheduled during Communist times on March 28. The teachers' group responded by calling their situation "unbearable" and asking for immediate and concrete action.
Anton Kompas, chairman of the Regional Association of School Employers, said that since the initial salary of a young assistant lecturer at a Slovak university is 6,600 crowns gross, young teachers leave the sector as soon as they realise they cannot cover their living costs with the salary they earn.
"They quit the school sector and get employed somewhere else for twice that much, depriving us of 27 years of their teaching careers," Kompas said.
But according to the state secretary of the Education Ministry, Martin Fronc, the core of the education crisis lies in the under-funding of the school sector. " Among European countries, Slovakia commits one of the lowest percentages of Gross Domestic Product to higher education," he said. In 1998, he said, Slovakia committed only 0.67% of GDP to universities.
"The only two worse European countries are Bulgaria and Romania, while in Norway, the state gave 2.16% of GDP," he added.
This year's Education Ministry budget, despite broad spending cuts announced for other sectors by the government, is almost the same as it was last year. According to the ministry, the proposed 1999 schools' budget amounts to 6.737 billion Sk ($168 million), the same figure as the final budget for 1998, which included an increase of 276 million Sk for small mid-year increases in teachers' salaries.
But Fronc warned that what sufficed last year would not be enough for this year. "The 1999 budget doesn't factor in the higher costs of energy, water, or even the inflation rate, which is supposed to hit 8 to 10%," he said.
Low funding meant low salaries, Fronc said. The resulting exodus of young teachers from the university sector, he added, underlay a very negative trend in Slovak universities - a steady increase in the average age of university pedagogues.
Igor Hudoba, president of the Slovak Conference of Rectors, and himself a rector of the Slovak Technical University (STU), agreed, saying that as ever fewer teachers between the ages of 25 and 40 entered the system, "the result is that the average age of full professors in Slovakia is almost 70."
Fronc pointed out yet another negative trend in the Slovak education sector, the fact that 80% of graduates from Teachers' Colleges are not willing to teach in Slovakia's secondary and grammer schools, which increases the age gap even more.
Thinking about tuition
While most students have to pay for their books, and some for their lodging in dormitories, they don't pay tuition. The right to a free education is actually spelled out in the Slovak Constitution, and was reiterated by the current government last November.
The strongest supporters of free schooling in the current ruling coalition are the members of the SDĽ, the left-wing former communist party which holds the Education Ministry post.
"The government will guarantee the right to free education for every citizen at the level of his abilities until he becomes a sovereign subject, able to find work in the labour market," reads the programme declaration of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's cabinet.
Since tuition is clearly out of the question, the current government is searching for other forms of financing. At the March 4 meeting of Slovak teachers, Education Minister Ftáčnik said that one source of money could be the sale of the Czechoslovak Commercial Bank (ČSOB) or Slovak Telecom (ST), which are both due to go on the block this year.
"We could use this money to raise salaries for teachers," he said, adding that "this is only a temporary solution."
But among teachers and students, ground-level support for some kind of tuition system appears to be growing. And according to a study done by the Center for Social Analysis, 46% of parents want their children to graduate from university, even if that means a financial "sacrifice" on the part of the family.
"I believe that we will apply at least some fees, which will motivate students on the one hand and the universities on the other," said STU Rector Hudoba, and added that fees could come in such forms as cash for exams that students have to re-sit, for duplicates of various documents and so on. "I have already spoken with students, and they aren't against the idea," said Hudoba.
Fronc said he couldn't officially support the idea of paying tuition, as that would set him at odds with the government programme. But he conceded that he was not completely opposed to the idea.
"I believe that if students paid tuition, they would value their education far more highly," he said. He did express concern, however, that if tuition were introduced, some universities might swell their enrolments just to make more money.