The cost of war leaves Ukraine struggling to pay its teachers

Ukraine has been forced to cut school grants and local authorities are now scrambling to fund teachers’ wages

Russia’s invasion is forcing the Ukrainian government to implement austerity measures in the education sector – as the country’s teachers express concerns about a cost of living crisis.

Interviews with local officials, teachers and trade union activists in Ukraine reveal the extent of the cuts instituted by the Ukrainian government.

More than a year after the invasion, Ukraine’s public finances are under huge pressure as defence spending increases and almost all other funding is cut back.

This has translated into cuts at the local level, leaving local authorities scrambling to find the money to make up a shortfall on teachers’ wages, which are usually covered by central government grants.

“Wages are a very big burden for local budgets,” Serhiy Romaniuk, deputy chairman of Ukraine’s education workers trade union, told openDemocracy. Local government pays “for the maintenance of educational institutions, all the service personnel, and now they still need to pay a part of the teachers' salaries.”

In its 2023 budget, Ukraine planned to spend a total of £56.6bn on state expenditures, while its shortfall is £27.8bn – almost equal to its planned revenues of £28.5bn.

“This budget is the most difficult in our history,” said Ukrainian finance minister Serhiy Marchenko as he put the 2023 spending plan to parliament last November and he pointed to the “criminal actions of the Russian Federation”.

Pressure on Ukraine’s public finances has already led to austerity measures in healthcare and soldiers’ pay.

But invasion-linked inflation, higher housing costs and economic disruption have also made the country a more expensive place to live since February 2022, when Russia invaded. Accordingly, teachers are concerned that cuts to their wages are going to make it even harder to get by.

openDemocracy approached Ukraine’s education ministry for comment.

Too many schools

Schools and education workers have always been underfunded in Ukraine, which retains an extended Soviet-era network of nearly 15,300 educational institutions. Lots of schools, especially in rural areas, have relatively small numbers of pupils – between 10 and 30 – but are still fully staffed.

Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine had implemented large-scale reform of local authorities’ powers and the education system. They were meant to improve management of local public services, by creating new, enlarged local authorities, as well as “optimise” government spending on education.

Central funding for teachers’ salaries at individual schools is now calculated using a formula that includes population and other factors. This often means that schools in sparsely populated rural areas get shortchanged.

But the sheer economic pressure of fighting back against the Russian military has forced the Ukrainian government to cut central grants for teachers’ salaries.

As a result, the Ukrainian government allocated 87.5 billion hryvnias (£1.92bn) for teachers’ salaries in 2023, almost 20% less than in 2022. The entire budget of Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Culture is 156 billion (£3.4bn) hryvnias for this year, financed using project money from the World Bank.

No layoffs yet

So far, the feared large-scale layoffs of teachers have not materialised, with local authorities absorbing the cost of the salaries shortfall.

But local officials across the country are using various loopholes to save money. These include measures such as cutting bonuses, payment for extra work – a significant proportion of teachers’ pay – as well as pressing teachers to sign up for unpaid holidays.

Geography teacher Volodymyr Paraphin told openDemocracy that teachers in his village – Kozliv in the Volyn region in northwestern Ukraine – were recently asked to take three to five days of unpaid leave during the spring holidays due to a shortfall on teachers’ salaries. Part of an enlarged local authority of nearby Lokachi town, Kozliv does not have the money to pay its teachers for two months of the next year, hence the “forced unpaid holiday”.

Iryna Borys, head of the local government finance department in another town, Khyriv, near the border with Poland, told openDemocracy that “if our teachers don’t apply for unpaid leave for at least two weeks this summer, then we won’t have money for their wages in November”.

She added: “And this is what we say to them: please take unpaid leave – to avoid closing the school and losing jobs.”

The local authority in Khyriv came into being as a result of Ukraine’s decentralisation drive in 2021. The Khyriv authority is responsible for 15 schools and 1,700 pupils.

Under the financing formula, Khyriv authority currently does not have the funds to pay for 30 of its 356 teaching staff. Borys told openDemocracy that after wartime cuts to the central government grant, Khyriv faces a budget deficit of 11.5 million hryvnia (£250,000) on teachers’ salaries.

“The issue of the education grant is very painful [...] We added six million hryvnia from the local budget [for teachers’ salaries], but we still lack five and a half million,” Borys said.

Several additional payments to teachers, such as the ‘prestige’ bonus, have already been cut as a result, Borys added.

Borys said two nearby communities have closed several schools with a small student body but this hasn’t resolved the problem of a deficit of education grant for them. The Khyriv authority has not done so because “there’s no transport, no roads to transport those children to the nearest school”.

Soft landing

So far, Ukraine’s cuts on education have had a ‘soft landing’ for two reasons.

First, though two-thirds of local authorities outside combat zones have reported a decrease in tax income over the past year, some have been able to plug the gap in teachers’ salaries from their budgets.

For example, Mukachevo, the second biggest city in the western region of Zakarpattia, has not had to deal with Russia’s attacks on civilian and military targets.

The city authorities have covered the cuts to central government grants with almost 33 mln hryvnias (£716,000) from its own budget and are able to pay teachers their full salaries. At the same time, prior to this year the city has also let go employees who have reached retirement age.

Second, the complex salary structure for teachers in Ukraine has also cushioned the blow somewhat. Rather than wholesale layoffs, cuts to wages have been applied gradually because by law, certain bonuses cannot be removed.

How are Ukrainian teachers paid?

A teacher’s salary starts at a base rate that depends on the category they are in, depending on experience and qualifications. There are four main categories and the difference in pay between each category is roughly 10%.

Teachers are also paid for any additional work. For instance, a class teacher is paid an extra 25% of the base rate and marking exercise books means an additional sum.

An additional ‘prestige’ payment – designed to raise teachers’ basic pay – varies between 5% and 30% of the base rate. Paid from the local budget, it was one of the first to be trimmed.

But the ‘prestige’ payment has triggered some debate. Member of parliament Inna Sovsun, who favours a single pay rate for teachers, said: “If teaching work is equally prestigious everywhere, then it should be a part of the salary, not an allowance”.

She is against “making up salaries from a bunch of small additional payments”.

Physics teacher Ihor Shylo in Poltava, central Ukraine, told openDemocracy that the ‘prestige’ bonus used to make up 20% of his salary.

But now, he gets just 5% as a bonus on account of cuts to the central government grant. The result, Shylo said, is that he takes home 1,500 hryvnias (£30) a month less than before, leaving him with a monthly wage of 10,000 hryvnias (£217).

“It is difficult to survive on the salary that a teacher receives now,” Shylo said. “If you are a family with a child or do not have your own housing, this is not possible at all,” he added, pointing to the fact that housing costs have risen 30% in Poltava since it took in so many displaced families after the Russian invasion.

While there have been no layoffs at Shylo’s school, he said several colleagues are considering other professions.

A member of Ukraine’s Free Trade Union of Education and Science, Shylo has done the grim maths: “Renting an apartment [in Poltava] now costs between 8,000 and 10,000 hryvnia [£173-£217]. And a teacher who has started work without experience and a high category [of pay], or a young specialist, will receive about 7,000 hryvnia [£150].”

The future of Ukrainian education

As the costs of Russia’s invasion keep on piling up, there’s a sense that the future of Ukrainian education is at stake. Millions of children have had to flee their homes, often abroad, and hundreds of schools have been destroyed by Russian rocket and artillery attacks.

The future also seems bleak in terms of the Ukrainian government’s ability to plan and pay for high quality education. For the first time in six years, there is no money ring-fenced in the government budget for the high-profile New Ukrainian School (NUS) reform.

NUS envisaged the overhaul of all branches of education, including teacher training and the modernisation of schools, as well as a new thrust on science. The first stage of primary school reform was completed in 2018-2019. Middle school was next but the pandemic forced a gradual slowdown.

Iryna Kohut, an associate analyst at Ukrainian think tank Cedos, said there were problems with the implementation of the reform even before the challenges of war or the pandemic.

“The reform lost its momentum even before Covid,” she said, referencing a planned teacher training scheme that didn’t happen. She added that the education ministry’s “inaction” suggests there is “no vision for reform, nor any desire to do it”.

It will be up to Ukraine’s new education minister Oksen Lisovyi to address the system’s future as well as its funding shortfall. In post since 21 March, Lisovyi has called for a rethink of the country’s “way of instilling values” in the face of the Russian invasion, and claimed the “biggest problem in our education system is tolerance for corruption”.

MP Inna Sovsun, a former deputy education minister, said Lisovyi should start by assessing the extent to which Ukrainian children’s education has suffered as a result of the Russian invasion. He should also ensure that bomb shelters are available in all schools and deal with the complex salary structure that governs teachers’ pay.

Kohut, of the think tank Cedos, said: “The [education] reform must not stop. We need at least some effort to review, to re-plan now, to stop, to see what was done well or not, to evaluate the effectiveness and to think about what we can do [...] so after the war we can ‘build back better’.”