Bulgaria: Education on Strike, Education at Stake

SOFIA, Bulgaria | Many high school students were in the front lines of the January protests in Sofia, when a peaceful rally against government corruption and the slow pace of reforms erupted into a violent clash between marchers and police. Several 16-year olds were arrested in the riots. Though many were impressed with the civic consciousness of high school students taking to the streets, others found themselves asking a simple question: Why were Bulgarian students standing at the barricades instead of sitting in classrooms?

Part of the answer might be found in a seemingly unrelated study.  In 2006, Bulgaria was among the worst performing countries participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international test that measures academic performance among 15-year-old students.  The main focus of the 2006 test was science literacy.  With an average score of 434 points, well below the OECD average of 500 points, Bulgaria ranked 44th among 57 countries participating in the program.  Bulgarian students had great difficulty answering relatively easy questions such as “What is acid rain?” or “What is the greenhouse effect?”

Both cases are symptomatic of the ailing Bulgarian education system, which simultaneously fails to keep students in the classroom and provide them with the knowledge that they need to succeed outside of school. According to a report by the Bulgarian National Audit Office, 18,347 children, or a striking 2.12 percent of the total number of students in the country, dropped out of school in 2006-2007. And at least a portion of those that remain feel disgruntled enough with the current system to protest in the dead of winter against government inefficiency.

A Plovdiv high school. Photo by Boyan Yurukov. Creative Commons licensed.

A Plovdiv high school. Photo by Boyan Yurukov. Creative Commons licensed.

Disaffected Teachers

Massive teachers’ strikes in the fall of 2007 left Bulgarian classrooms empty for more than a month. Teachers, then earning an average salary of 215 euros (279 USD) per month, were not only protesting for higher salaries, but also for systematic reforms.  Increased funding was not the only solution to the problem in many teachers’ eyes; in fact, many argued it was nonsensical to pour money into a badly broken system.

Though reform has been the mantra of virtually every government over the past 15 years, without the political will to carry it out, “reform” has become almost a dirty word and, simultaneously, an excuse for inaction.  The teachers’ strike came as a clear sign that immediate changes were needed. The government and teachers’ unions eventually settled on a cumulative raise of nearly 50 percent over a span of 10 months for teachers, as well as an increased allocation of the country’s GDP for education in the 2008 budget.  The 50 percent pay raise was well below the 100 percent raise initially demanded, but was viewed by many as a significant victory at the time.

Over a year later, it is clear that the strike accomplished very little.

Salary differentiation based upon qualifications, another one of the teachers’ demands, came into effect at the beginning of 2008. Teachers were also offered additional bonuses for introducing interactive teaching methods into the classroom, organizing extracurricular activities, and encouraging their students’ participation in Olympiads and academic challenges.

But the average teacher’s salary has yet to reach the 325 euro level that was demanded by striking teachers in the fall of 2007.  The current minister of education, Daniel Valchev, recently stated at a conference on secondary education in the city of Plovdiv that the figure is approximately 300 euros at the moment.  However, many teachers report that they receive much less.

Marinela Gospodinova—a middle-school, German-language teacher in Sofia—says her net salary is 195 euros per month.  A teacher with 15 years’ experience, she was among those striking in the square in front of parliament in 2007, and has been disappointed with developments in the education sphere ever since.

“They have been trying to reform the education system for years now, and every minister starts different reforms.  Not a single one, however, has been brought to its conclusion,” Gospodinova said.

“I think it’s high time to consider education as an investment,” said Kameliya Todorova, a French teacher at the prestigious First French Language School in Sofia.

At the end of the 2006/2007 academic year, the teachers at Todorova’s school decided to express their protest in a peculiar way: They gave excellent marks (six out of six in the Bulgarian system) to all their students.  The protest was an expression of their lack of faith in the current state of education and a way to “fine” the ministry, since the state pays a monetary award to every student with a cumulative grade average of at least 5.50.

“We have protested many times, and achieved no results so far. That’s why we decided to use an unusual form of protest this time around,” explained Todorova.

Some teachers also argue that their low salaries prevent them from staying ahead of the game when it comes to new teaching methods.  Marinela Chilikova, who also works at the First French Language School, said: “Every teacher has to be able to afford to pay for their Internet at home and buy new books. With the money we are getting right now, most of us cannot.”

Worthless Grades?

Remarkably, Education Minister Valchev survived the strike of 2007 and managed to implement a reform that many of his predecessors had failed at numerous times in the past.  In May 2008, high school students across the country sat two new standardized final exams at the end of the academic year, called the “matura”—one in Bulgarian language and literature, and another on a subject of their choice.

The exams are structured along the lines of the A-Levels in Britain or the French Baccalaureat, and are prerequisites for those wishing to pursue higher education or other professional qualifications after high school. The standardized exams mean that students’ results across the country are now comparable and every student is judged by the same criteria.  Supporters of the exams say the new system will also facilitate the comparison of schools and teachers and create an environment of healthy competition among them.

Others are skeptical. Until the new exams were introduced, higher education applicants were judged on their performance during the four or five years they spent in high school.  Critics argue that the “matura” exams make those grades redundant and do not motivate students to perform well during their entire secondary school careers.

Moreover, most universities still have their own entrance exams, making the grades on one’s own diploma even less valuable. If a student wants to study law or medicine or computer science, he or she still has to take the exam of the corresponding university. However, in 2009, more universities are expected to recognize the standardized exams as entrance exams when assessing in-coming candidates.

Decentralizing school budgets and delegating rights to school principals to manage their own money are other reforms attempted by the current minister of education.  They were put in force at the beginning of 2008 under the banner of “The Money Follows the Student.”

But decentralizing school budgets has led to tensions in many schools, as principals have tried to save on electricity bills, heating, water, repair works, work trips, and other budget items so that they have enough to pay the salaries of teachers and personnel. “Almost 70 percent of the budget still goes to salaries,” admits the principal of a mathematics and natural sciences high school, who chose not to be named.

Yet the new financing system also has the potential to change this bleak picture by increasing competition among schools, says the principal. Since the state provides an allowance per pupil, the more students a school has, the more money will be injected into its budget.

“Our school is one of the best in the region, so I hope that by attracting more students, we will have more money to meet our expenses and offer better salaries to our teachers,” the principal explained.

Higher Education, Lower Quality

The situation in Bulgarian universities does not seem any brighter than in its basic schools. In recent years, more and more young Bulgarians have chosen to pursue higher education abroad. In 2008, twice as many Bulgarians went to study in the United Kingdom as compared to 2007, according to British Council data.

Some of the less popular majors in Bulgarian universities – such as physics, chemistry, and pedagogy – received scarcely enough applicants last fall. And some physics laboratories are at risk of being virtually empty again next academic year, if the situation does not improve. Intelligent young people wishing to engage in significant research and advance in the sciences prefer to do so abroad and increase their chances of receiving more than a 400-500 euro monthly salary at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences upon graduation.

The lack of an objective ranking of Bulgarian universities is a major obstacle when it comes to choosing the right place to study. Many young people pay considerable amounts of money for tuition at foreign schools in the belief that they will receive a quality education and improve their future prospects.

Some Bulgarian businesses have partnered up with higher educational institutions to sponsor laboratories or other facilities on campus, with the intention of recruiting future employees straight out of the classroom.  This is especially common in technical universities where IT and telecommunications companies offer access to their latest technologies, software, and other resources. Some of them even sponsor joint programs with foreign establishments and provide scholarships for students and professors who want to spend a semester or a year abroad.

This practice, however, is limited to certain fields, and is considered by some as an indirect encouragement of the brain drain. “Our students are not for sale, they are human capital,” argues Georgi Chobanov, head of the Economics Department of Sofia University. He says that is his answer every time an employer asks him to recommend one of his students for a job.

At the state level, there is no common effort to reform the system and make it more flexible and closer to the contemporary needs of the market. Many university programs and majors are out-of-date, especially in the natural sciences and technical subjects such as engineering, and professors use one-way teaching methods that have long since disappeared in most European universities.


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