How underpaid are Hungarian teachers really in comparison with other tertiary graduates?

October 06. 2022. – 12:12 PM


How underpaid are Hungarian teachers really in comparison with other tertiary graduates?
Part of the human chain formed in support of Hungarian teachers in Budapest on 5 October 2022 – Photo: Lujza Hevesi-Szabó / Telex


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Rotating strikes, vigils, demonstrations – protests in various forms have been ongoing since early September over the state of Hungary's massively underfunded education system and the degradingly low pay and high workloads of teachers. The Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for education, has been trying to counter these with sackings and issuing warnings, which seem to be adding fuel to the fire. In this article, we will show exactly what it means that teachers earn very little, and how this compares with other professions and with salaries in other developed countries.

Everybody knows that teachers earn very little, and although the government has denied this for years, recently, even Fidesz politicians have started admitting it one by one: raising teacher's wages is necessary, but there is no money for it. For example, in 2020, after many years of delay, it was decided to double the wages of doctors, and from September this year, law enforcement workers have also received an increase of around 20-40%.

There is money for everything else but this

Teachers, on the other hand, have been asking for a pay raise for years, but their salaries are still based on the 2014 minimum wage of 101 500 forints. Since then, only their wage supplements have been increased, but not significantly. This wage gap has now reached such dramatic proportions that

the salary of a teacher facing retirement with over 40 years of experience is significantly below the average wage.

The fact that teachers have to make do with modest salaries compared to other graduates is nothing new. According to a 2015 study by István Polónyi, "the salary level of Hungarian teachers in primary education has historically always been among the lowest in the intellectual field compared to other intellectual careers".

The last attempt to change this was the new teachers' pay scale, which came into force in 2014, but it was not linked to inflation, the average wage or the minimum wage, and as a result has lost much of its value over the past eight years (unlike, for example, the salaries of MPs, which are linked to the average wage).

Accordingly, the latest figures for 2021 show that salaries in education are far below those of other professions requiring similar qualifications, and the difference is sometimes several-fold:

The graph clearly shows that in 2021, a primary school teacher earned on average half as much as a lawyer and a quarter as much as a Member of Parliament, State Secretary or Minister in the government. But secondary school teachers are not much better off, earning almost half as much as an economic analyst and just over a quarter of what a medical specialist makes.

We are the second worst off

International comparisons do not show a more favourable picture of teacher esteem in Hungary either. We rank second worst among the OECD countries when it comes to the salary of a primary school teacher with 15 years' experience. In this respect, only neighbouring Slovakia is behind Hungary.

According to the figures of OECD, the situation of earnings relative to the average university graduate salary is even worse, Hungary being the worst performer with 60 percent. This is not surprising, given that teachers' wages were linked to the minimum wage of 2014, thus essentially cutting teachers off from the general trend of wage increases which has characterised Hungary in its recent years of growth.

The last time the guaranteed minimum wage was increased, it actually caught up with the salaries of teachers with a college degree and 10-12 years of experience.

This should be no surprise, since while the guaranteed minimum wage increased by 228 percent between 2013 and 2022, teachers' pay only rose by 180 percent. Teachers' salaries are so low that earlier this year a government analysis estimated that one in five of those working in education would be affected by an increase in the minimum wage or the guaranteed minimum wage in 2022.

One doesn't necessarily have to look to the West to see a better situation in education. "The salaries of Hungarian teachers and their overall workload is devastating even compared to Romania. Romanian teachers' salaries are about €150 net more per month, while the number of hours they spend teaching per week is 18, compared to 25.5 in Hungary," Tamás Totyik, vice-president of the Teachers' Union told Telex this spring. He added that the real number of teaching hours is even higher, 27 hours, so if that is taken into account, the hourly wage of a Romanian teacher is nominally higher than that of a Hungarian educator.

Regarding this, Tamás Totyik pointed out:

it is not just a matter of teachers living in conditions unworthy of an intellectual, but also of the fact that with such low salaries and high demands, it is gradually becoming impossible to maintain the necessary number of teachers in the country.

"The competitive sector is siphoning off newly graduated teachers. Just a few years ago, 6,000 new teachers were starting their careers annually, but only about 2,000 of them actually took the qualifying exams once they were faced with the humiliating salaries. This year, only 2,000 started in the profession, and about 600 of them are expected to take the trainee exam. This means that the number of those retiring is almost 10 times higher than the number of those joining the profession," he said. As a result of this trend, Hungary has one of the lowest ratios of teachers under 30 in Europe: below 5 percent, and the average age of Hungarian teachers is 53.

Intimidation instead of increasing their wages

Looking at these figures, it is not at all surprising that the constantly overworked teachers went on strike at the beginning of the year and continued to do so after the new school year started – despite all the bans. But there is a significant difference in the response of the authorities: whereas in the spring the ministry responsible mostly ignored the protests, this time they felt they had to use force to quell the teachers' strike.

As part of this, after repeated warnings, several teachers of Kölcsey Ferenc High School in Budapest were sacked at the end of September, followed by Katalin Törley, founder of the "I'd like to teach" (Tanítanék) movement, at the beginning of October. At the same time, in several schools, the heads of the school districts started personally distributing final warning letters to teachers (preceding their dismissals), and according to teachers, the purpose of this is clearly intimidation.

Policy makers responsible for education therefore seem committed to solving the problems of a chronically underfunded education system suffering from teacher shortages, not by raising wages and reducing burdens, but by removing protesting teachers. The events of the last few days suggest that this will lead to a further series of protests and strikes, and is less likely to improve the conditions in Hungary's education system.

In case you missed our video interview (with English subtitles) with some of the teachers recently fired from Kölcsey Ferenc High School, it may be viewed here:

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The translation of this article was made possible by our cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.