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Fact check: Is there a link between teachers’ salaries and GDP in Bulgaria, as Ursula von der Leyen claims?

By Krassen NIkolov

European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen unexpectedly visited Bulgaria last week. She discussed the future portfolio of Bulgarian Commissioner Mariya Gabriel with Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. Sofia insists that the Bulgarian Commissioner woud be responsible for digitalisation and innovation. But the European Commission President praised the Bulgarian government’s efforts to invest in another sphere: education.

Von der Leyen linked the investments made by the third Borissov’s government to the sustained growth of the Bulgarian economy over the last five years. She said:

“If you want to build the future, let me take up what you just said, Boyko, that it is very important to invest in digitalisation, that we invest in education. It’s the young people who are building our future, that we invest in research, innovation. If I look at Bulgaria, I have seen over time how many investments have been made in universities and schools and teachers’ salaries, for example. And I have seen now how much the economy is picking up and I see the country that has the highest GDP ever.“

The Commission President-elect linked the investments in education to the historically lowest unemployment in Bulgaria (4.2%).

A fact-check by this website however shows that Ursula von der Leyen’s statement is incorrect.

Indeed, increasing the salaries of secondary school teachers is a priority of the government. The aim is that in 2021 the average salary of Bulgarian teachers will be around 900 euros. This will still be the lowest level in the EU, but it is significantly better than the situation before 2017 when teachers received 450 euro. Now the salary of a teacher with 25 years of experience is between 750 and 800 euros, which is below the average salary in Sofia (860 euros). By comparison, the average salary in education in Romania, which is the second poorest EU country, is around 1,400 euros.

The effort of increasing teachers’ salaries in Bulgaria started two and a half years ago. Actually it could not have had an impact on the economy (except through consumption), because most of the students are still out of the economic process.

The wage increase did not even affect the state examination scores. The data show that the quality of education has not changed and in some segments has even decreased. In 2019 the students had the lowest scores at the graduation exams in Bulgarian language for the last 11 years. Grades in mathematics have not changed a lot.

Against this background the budget for education has been increased by nearly 500 million euros over the last three years. The increase served for financing the teachers’ salaries raise. This amount is important for a country with an economy producing a total of 60 billion euros a year.

And while teachers’ salaries in secondary education are really increasing, public investment in higher education is increasing only with the rate of inflation. The only hope for fresh money for universities is the Operational Programme “Science and education for smart growth” 2014-2020, which has a 230 million euro budget. The government intends to use this money for the universities. However, this has not happened yet.

Contracts for creation and development of centres of excellence were only signed in 2018, although the program began in 2014. Payments by the EU have been suspended for more than a year because of problems with the evaluation of Bulgarian projects. So far, contracts for 182 million euros have been signed, and only about 16% of European money for science has been used.

In terms of business innovation, Bulgaria keeps one of the last places in the EU. Recent Eurostat analyzes show that only 27% of companies are innovative. The average in EU is 51%. Only Poland and Romania are behind Bulgaria in the field of innovation.

All this proves that Ursula von der Leyen’s statement is just a political flattery for the Bulgarian Prime Minister. And her focus on education may suggest that this will be the portfolio of the Bulgarian commissioner. Currently this low-profile portfolio is held by the most invisible of all commissioners – Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics.

Von der Leyen’s visit to Sofia will be remembered also with a very symptomatic action of the executive power – the microphones from the press room at the Council of Ministers were removed, so that journalists could not ask questions. Regarding media freedom, Bulgaria is ‘stable’ at the bottom of Europe, say Reporters without Borders in their 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

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