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CRITICS SAY THE STATE HAS NEITHER THE MONEY NOR THE RIGHT TO SINGLE OUT SOME PUBLIC EMPLOYEES FOR SPECIAL TREATMENT

MPs offer teachers housing loans to boost profession

A NEW LAW offering cheap loans to beginning teachers has been rapped as populist and unconstitutional, for all that its critics have admitted the need to find ways of attracting university graduates to the low-paid teaching profession.
The law, approved by parliament July 9, is designed to give underpaid young Slovak teachers the means to afford housing and further education now beyond their budgets.
Statistics office data show that while the average Slovak monthly wage in the first quarter of 2002 was Sk12,287 ($290), teachers made an average of Sk9,630 ($214). The low pay has long been a turn-off for university graduates facing more lucrative chances in non-state sectors.

A NEW LAW offering cheap loans to beginning teachers has been rapped as populist and unconstitutional, for all that its critics have admitted the need to find ways of attracting university graduates to the low-paid teaching profession.

The law, approved by parliament July 9, is designed to give underpaid young Slovak teachers the means to afford housing and further education now beyond their budgets.

Statistics office data show that while the average Slovak monthly wage in the first quarter of 2002 was Sk12,287 ($290), teachers made an average of Sk9,630 ($214). The low pay has long been a turn-off for university graduates facing more lucrative chances in non-state sectors.

Backers hope to slow the greying of staffs at Slovak schools by offering new teachers loans of up to Sk250,000 ($5,600), provided they agree to teach for at least five years. The interest rate is fixed at four per cent per annum, with maturities up to 15 years. Married couples will have priority over other applicants, and the principal will be reduced for teachers who stay in their jobs for the entire 15 years.

"The main aim is to have qualified pedagogues in our schools, because such teachers now tend to leave, with only unqualified teachers and retirement-age staff staying," said Eva Slavkovská, former education minister during the 1994 to 1998 cabinet. Slavkovská is now a member of parliament (MP) for the opposition Slovak National Party (SNS), which proposed the law.

But the plan has found little approval among those it was designed to help.

Lena Lenická, 21, a teacher's college student in Bratislava, said the chance of getting a loan would not influence her choice of profession. "If I decide to teach, it will not be because of money," she said.

She added that the loan money would not be sufficient to afford even the cheapest flat in Bratislava, where bachelor apartments start at over Sk500,000 ($11,000).

Peter Ošváth, from the ruling coalition Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) party, was the only MP who voted against the law. His two main objections, he said, were that the state had not set aside funds to back the loan programme, and that such selective state loans violated the constitutional principle of equality.

"It's a good and well-meant measure, but it's still populist because we have no money for this, and it also discriminates against other college graduates," said Ošváth.

Lenická said she too considered the law "unfair towards other students and state employees."

Ošváth said he nevertheless expected some voters to welcome the move, with September elections two months away: "I'm convinced that this is a pre-election gesture by those who proposed the law."

But Slavkovská denied that the law was a pre-election gesture, noting that the plan of establishing such a fund had even been a part of the current government's 1998 programme declaration.

"The law was prepared back when I was minister," she said, adding that she had waited four years to see whether the cabinet would move ahead with the plan before deciding she couldn't wait any longer.

Education Ministry spokesperson Michaela Bolečková admitted that Ošváth was right to worry about funding. "The funds are missing and the new government will have to find them," she said.

Slavkovská, however, argued that "the state's participation is not expected", explaining that money from the National Property Fund (FNM) privatisation agency should be the main source of income for the non-state loan fund. The FNM's main source of income is from the privatisation of state property.

"It's positive discrimination with a positive social goal," agreed Eva Rusnáková, an SDK MP and head of the parliamentary education committee.

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