On 13 February, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest. The protest was organised by school teachers, but a number of other unions joined the initiative to express their solidarity.
The plight of Hungarian teachers is nothing new. Even before Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won the elections in 2010, it was well known that the Hungarian education system faced serious problems. The deficiencies were obvious from Hungarian students’ consistently poor performance. Teacher training at both the elementary and secondary levels was in crisis, with older teachers approaching retirement and fewer and fewer young people pursuing careers in education. Immediate reforms were needed, but Orbán’s predecessors were not concerned about schools and cut funding for the education system.
Hungarian education was criticised for not providing equal opportunities to students with less affluent backgrounds and for marginalising vulnerable minority groups. The curriculum was difficult, and was based purely on rote knowledge. This overwhelmed students with facts, but did not expose them to critical thinking, which led in turn to poorer results in international education rankings. At the time, educational institutions were run by indebted local governments, which produced a fragmented system in which schools were operated by some 3,000 individual providers, almost all of whom were sinking ever deeper into debt.
And then came Fidesz
It was against this backdrop that education reforms were introduced by incoming Prime Minister Orbán in 2010. The Fidesz party announced that it would push through systemic changes in order to improve the state of Hungarian education, but there was no real substance behind the rhetoric. Fidesz prepared a rough-and-ready concept without consulting a single professional organisation (neither trade unions nor teachers’ organisations were contacted). In the end, a general education law was passed in 2012, but the changes introduced found no support inside the profession.
The new education law served only to worsen some of the existing problems: the segregation of minorities became even more prevalent, and it became impossible to provide the opportunity of a quality education to marginalised children. In addition, the minimum age for compulsory school attendance was lowered to 16, thus depriving many students of the opportunity to complete their secondary education. This has further exacerbated poverty and unemployment, especially in the most underprivileged strata of society.
The takeover of the textbook market
Another change under Fidesz is that the government has become increasingly involved in the textbook market, and has even started producing its own experimental textbooks. Frequently containing incorrect information, many of these books have been deemed professionally unacceptable by teachers. In the meantime, the government has limited teachers’ ability to choose which textbooks they are allowed to use in their classrooms. This system has made it possible for the government’s “sweetheart enterprises” to profit from writing textbooks, even if they fail to meet required standards.
During the same period, the National Basic Syllabus and the additional curriculum have become more difficult, and now even more rote knowledge is required of students. Accordingly, the number of mandatory classes has increased (students must now attend 40 hours of classes each week at some secondary schools), and student performance has deteriorated even further.
The new required classes have also meant longer teaching hours and increased administrative duties for teachers, as well as more mandatory hours at school. At the same time, funds for overtime pay have been cut, and a new evaluation system has been introduced that links teachers’ salaries to their professional achievements. This idea was not bad in theory, but it took too long to be correctly implemented, affording ample opportunity for abuse along the way, which further infuriated teachers.
When outlining the new so-called “teacher career model”, the government promised that it would finally resolve teachers’ salary concerns. This has not happened so far, however, and Hungarian teachers currently have the lowest salaries among the OECD countries. Moreover, whereas in 2003 Hungary spent 5.7 per cent of GDP on education, by 2013 this figure had declined to a mere 3.93 per cent of GDP.
Another layer of bureaucracy
Since 2010, the government has taken only one step in a direction counter to that of the previous trend – it brought the schools under state ownership. This centralisation of education was poorly implemented, however. The government set up the central Klebelsberg Institution Maintenance Centre (KLIK) with a budget in the billions of Forints. Its primary task is to make life easier for other educational institutions, but in reality its existence only adds an extra administrative layer to the existing education system. Despite the KLIK’s role, individual educational institutions are still chronically in debt with teachers’ salaries and bills for general consumption not being paid on time and basic educational materials in short supply. So it appears that no progress has been made since the pre-KLIK period when the schools were funded by their local governments. What has changed, however, is that there is less local control: headmasters’ decisions regarding their own schools must now be approved by the KLIK, and this has paralysed day-to-day operations.
These are only the basic deficiencies of the system – there are many more. Taken together, they have triggered a backlash from teachers, who have been voicing their discontent for many years. There was palpable frustration even before the general education law was passed, and by 2013 it seemed that this would culminate in a strike. Despite this situation, Fidesz did not bother to negotiate with the teachers. Each time a strike seemed imminent, the government would placate the discontented groups with empty promises, while showing no inclination to implement real changes.
Finally, an open letter from the Herman Otto academic secondary school in Miskolc broke the ice. The institution had tried to communicate to the Ministry of Human Resources and the education secretary that there were major problems in the educational system which required immediate attention, but it received no response. In their open letter, the school’s administration requested changes and educational reforms that would improve transparency and overcome the above-mentioned difficulties. Their endeavour was soon supported by thousands – individuals as well as whole educational institutions. On 3 February, demonstrations were held all over the country in support of the Herman Otto school, and it soon became clear that the initiative also enjoyed the support of public-sector employees in other fields, such as health care, who joined the demonstrations to express their solidarity.
The government’s response
The government tried to calm down the furore by organising a so-called “round table for education”, but once again this was no more than theatre. No real deals could have emerged from such a dialogue, as most of the invited organisations had been established by the current government, and thus it was obvious where their loyalties lay.
It was no surprise that the pedagogical community rejected the round table’s conclusions one by one. The government then tried to ease tensions by replacing the education secretary, Judit Czunyi-Bertalan (whose predecessor, Rozsa Hoffmann, had been dismissed under similar circumstances), but this move was also insufficient.
On 13 February, almost 30,000 people demonstrated on Budapest’s central Kossuth Square in front of the Parliament Building. About 50 other unions marched side by side with the educators showing their support for teachers, students, parents, and for everyone trying to raise attention about the current education system’s unsustainability. The crowd demanded that the education reform legislation be rewritten and that schools’ autonomy be restored, and the unions raised the possibility of a future strike if their demands are not met.
So far, however, it seems that the Orbán government is not considering these demands. Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog has stated previously that the state would not give in, and the government has tried to discredit the teachers’ grievances by characterising their protest as merely a struggle for higher salaries.
To combat the government’s intransigence, professional groups working in education have created the Civic Education Platform, a joint initiative tasked with persuading the government to make meaningful changes in the country’s overall education policy.
More developments are expected in the coming weeks, but it is also becoming clear that the teachers are prepared to strike if necessary – for the first time since 1995. It remains to be seen whether they will reach an agreement with a government that refuses to negotiate, but one thing is clear: never before has there been such widespread support in Hungary for school teachers’ demands.
Nóra Diószegi-Horváth is a journalist who writes mostly on education, health and social issues. She is the editor of the Budapest-based independent platform Kettős Mérce and received her MA in Russian Language and Literature and in Aesthetics from the Faculty of Humanities, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), in 2009.