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Education Protests in Hungary Rock the Orbán Government

Civil disobedience and demonstrations by teachers are creating difficulties for Viktor Orbán—but can they be sustained?
November 1, 2022
Education Protests in Hungary Rock the Orbán Government
A protester holds a banner reading "Don't threaten our teachers!" (C) during a demonstration by Hungarian primary and secondary school students, teachers and parents forming a "human chain" on Margit Bridge in front of the Hungarian parliament building in Budapest on October 27, 2022. - People took to the streets in the Hungarian capital to demand better living, working, and financial conditions for teaching staff. (Photo by ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP) (Photo by ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images)

“History contains surprises for the victor too, and the most unpleasant ones are often just for him”—an astute observation from historian Golo Mann that Viktor Orbán, were he really the thoughtful statesman with capacious vision his Western apologists make him out to be, might do well to ponder.

Since cementing his hold on power in a landslide election last April, Orbán has been buffeted by a wave of economic and social problems largely beyond his control. A combination of profligate social spending before the election (intended to shore up his base), skyrocketing energy prices, and a dispute with the European Union which hasn’t released subsidies he needs, has forced Orbán to introduce austerity measures that undercut his populist playbook. In July his government announced what amounted to a major tax increase on small entrepreneurs, effective immediately. Shortly afterwards, the government rolled back its marquee program of subsidized energy prices, something Orbán had claimed the opposition would do if it were elected. Meanwhile, inflation in Hungary has reached 20.7 percent, well above the rate in neighboring Slovakia, Romania, and Czechia.

Yet the greatest political challenge Orbán faces at the moment arises not from the economic fallout of the real war in Ukraine and his fake war with Brussels, but from a domestic crisis purely of his own making. Viktor Orbán, the broad-minded, insatiably curious leader who allegedly devotes his Thursdays to reading and study, has driven Hungary’s educational system into the ground with twelve years of ideologically motivated autocratic mismanagement. Having ignored signs of trouble for years, Orbán must now contend with a growing wave of nationwide teachers’ strikes. His efforts to suppress them have provoked demonstrations across the country on a scale not seen since he drove Central European University out of Hungary in 2018.

The problem starts with teachers’ salaries, which are abysmal. A beginning teacher in Hungary takes home about $500 a month, which is the national minimum wage—or the price one has to pay a butcher to arrange a traditional Christian conservative Hungarian pig killing. Things don’t improve much for teachers with experience. Even after working for 10-15 years, their salaries remain flat. An industrious low-skilled worker can earn as much as a teacher in Hungary, which raises the question: Why would anyone choose a career in education?

In fact, hardly anyone does, a longstanding trend that is now placing Hungary’s educational system under serious strain. Hungarian teachers are a gray-haired lot; a 2018 OECD analysis found that about half of them are over the age of 50. According to Tamás Totyik, vice president of the Teachers Trade Union, around 7,000 teachers retire every year while only 1,500 new teachers fill their spots. That’s an annual deficit of 5,500, and the number is about to balloon as a wave of teachers moves into retirement.

In total, some 140,000 teachers work in Hungary’s preschool, elementary, and high schools. According to Totyik, these schools currently suffer from a shortage of 12,000 teachers. But in 2026 the difference between retiring and incoming teachers will reach 22,000. High schools are already suffering from an acute shortage of teachers in the natural sciences. Totyik says there is also a severe shortage of preschool teachers.

Many countries face challenges with their educational systems, and in some ways Hungary’s problems are only more severe expressions of problems found elsewhere. What has driven Hungary’s system to acute crisis, however, is Orbán’s autocratic statism.

In 2012 Orbán nationalized Hungarian education by taking schools away from local governments and reorganizing them in a giant state bureau directly under his government’s supervision. He also introduced an inflexible, uniform national curriculum that places unrealistic demands on students. Teachers complain they must cover an unreasonable amount of material in a short amount of time. The overstuffed curriculum leads to an emphasis on rote memorization and prevents students from developing creative and critical thinking skills. (As a parent whose children attended Hungarian schools for a time under Orbán’s regime, I concur with these criticisms.) Additionally, Orbán nationalized the distribution of textbooks, allowing their content to be determined by a handful of political cronies, many with dubious right-wing credentials. And he lowered the mandatory age of school attendance from 18 to 16.

Convinced that teachers weren’t working hard enough, Orbán extended their workday and increased obligatory course loads. Hungarian teachers spend between 26-30 hours a week in the classroom (5 to 6 hours a day) in addition to out-of-class preparation and grading. On the European continent, according to Totyik, only Russia burdens its teachers with more classes per week than Hungary. Adding insult to injury, the government introduced an elaborate, cumbersome, and time-consuming system for evaluating teachers, but did nothing to alleviate the fact that many teachers have to take on secondary work to supplement their criminally low salaries.

In general, Hungarian schools are underfunded. Since Orbán came to power, Hungary’s expenditures on education as a share of GDP have decreased. Teachers and parents not only supply students with basic supplies like paper and pencils at their own expense, but also they often supply schools with desks, chairs, and light bulbs. A high school in Gödöllő, a middle class city just east of Budapest, was recently forced to close down temporarily after being flooded with rain that came through an unrepaired roof. A few years ago in the city of Eger, an elementary school was forced to hold classes without turning on the lights on days when it rained, because electrical current running through the wet walls constituted a safety hazard.

Measured by student achievement, Orbán’s restructuring of Hungary’s education has been an abject failure. On PISA tests, part of the OECD’s program for student assessment, Hungarian students perform significantly worse in reading, math, and science than they did in 2009, the year before Orbán came to power. Even more distressing, the percentage of Hungarian students who are functionally illiterate (capable of reading basic texts but without understanding them) has jumped under Orbán to 25 percent.

In a country where civil society is healthy, intermediary institutions such as teachers’ unions, parents’ associations, and local governments can bring pressure to bear on the state by calling attention to local problems. But in Viktor Orbán’s highly centralized national conservative fiefdom, evidence of a looming crisis could simply be ignored until, like a medieval peasants revolt, the serfs suddenly took up arms.

Back in 2015 the entire teaching staff at a high school in the city of Miskolc sent a letter to the local school district objecting to the government’s educational reforms. “Every change to the education system is an experiment on the children,” they said, and asked that, “the current so-called reform measures be immediately suspended until we can arrive at common views built on social and expert consensus.” When their letter was ignored, they made it public. Teachers in other cities added their names to the letter, as did a parents’ organization and even a trade union for steelworkers, meat processors, and policemen. The government ignored these obvious signs of serious trouble.

Things reached a breaking point last year. The two major teachers’ unions announced they were forming a strike committee and demanded immediate negotiations with the government. In January of this year teachers held a warning strike, walking out of school for two hours. On March 16 they held another strike. According to estimates, 40,000 teachers participated—about 30 percent of Hungary’s primary and secondary school teachers.

The size of the strike is more impressive when one considers the extraordinary steps the government took to prevent it. In February Orbán employed COVID emergency powers granted to him by Parliament to render the strike illegal. Hungarian labor law stipulates that employees in essential public sectors must provide for “sufficient services” even while striking. The meaning of sufficient services—e.g., the scope of the services that cannot be interrupted—is to be negotiated before the strike begins. In the event that labor and the employer cannot come to an agreement, a court determines the extent of sufficient services.

Education is considered an essential sector, which means a legal teachers’ strike must provide for sufficient services. The teachers, for example, might cancel a few classes on one day and make them up later in the week. Generally, instruction in Hungarian schools only lasts until early afternoon. The latter part of the day is filled with “free-time” or “daycare” (napközi), in which students do homework or spend time on the playground. Thus, if teachers strike in the afternoon, they are not likely to need to cancel essential classes.

To no one’s surprise, the Orbán government was unwilling to negotiate in good faith about the nature of sufficient services. The matter went to court, and when the teachers had some legal success, Orbán issued an emergency decree that unilaterally defined the meaning of sufficient services. According to Orbán’s decree, which was codified into law a month after the elections, students must be supervised from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day by a qualified instructor, and cannot be grouped together with other classrooms. These conditions, plus a few others, make any kind of teachers’ strike legally impossible.

But instead of backing down, the teachers announced they would strike anyway, and began preparing a “civil disobedience” campaign. Already in September some teachers held strikes at individual schools. A national strike was called for October 5, followed by demonstrations. Another strike was called on October 14, again followed by demonstrations. Yet another demonstration was held on October 23, which was a national holiday. At another strike, on October 27, student groups organized a human chain in Budapest which extended several miles. And another strike has been announced for November 18.

Although reliable estimates of crowd size are hard to come by, all three October demonstrations in Budapest were very large (perhaps between 40,000 and 80,000 people). The demonstration on October 23 seems to have rivaled in size the pro-Orbán “peace marches,” which are well-financed operations that bus supporters into Budapest to increase their numbers. And the education protests were not limited to Budapest; they took place throughout the country.

So far Orbán’s strategy for dealing with the spreading teachers’ strikes has centered on threats and intimidation. Throughout September teachers received letters from school districts informing them that they could be fired for participating in illegal strikes. A few days before the national strike on October 5, the government fired five teachers in Budapest. The strikes continued anyway. In Budapest 300 teachers sent a letter to their school districts stating they would immediately cease working if the government took any more retaliatory measures against striking teachers.

The day before the strike on October 14, Orbán tried a different tack. His spokesman announced that the government planned to raise teachers’ salaries by 21 percent next year and 25 percent the following year—if the European Union released the funds it is currently holding from Hungary. The teachers unions replied that they had received no concrete proposal from the government, that the numbers in the statement to the press did not add up, and that, in any case, the government had broken many verbal promises before. Indeed, given that the proposal was announced only on TV, it was probably only intended for the public. Sympathy for the teachers is quite broad, and the government would like to undercut that support by making the teachers appear unreasonable.

Orbán has faced large social protests before, but never something quite like this. In 2014, for example, his government introduced a plan to tax internet usage that sparked enormous demonstrations (so huge, in fact, that they made it to the front page of the New York Times). Orbán was forced to retreat and drop the plan, which has been the clearest defeat his government has ever suffered.

But in the case of the internet tax, public anger could be dissipated simply by scrapping the plan. The teachers’ strikes, by contrast, grow out of years of frustration over government mismanagement and alarm about Hungary’s collapsing education system. Orbán can’t fix this problem with the stroke of a pen.

Among teachers, who feel the crisis in Hungarian education in their bones, a widespread perception exists that the educational system is in a state analogous to early sepsis. Many believe this is literally the last chance to avert total catastrophe. That gives their movement a sense of urgency, clarity, and moral purpose unlike anything seen before in Orbán’s Hungary.

The evidence for this is the willingness of teachers to shoulder the risks of civil disobedience. To undertake civil disobedience is to break the law openly at personal risk because one believes one’s cause bears upon the common good with a moral urgency that transcends the written law. “Action from principle,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, “changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary.”

Yet the demands the teachers have enunciated are hardly revolutionary. They do not aim to topple the regime or even to change the current government. Rather, they raise quotidian issues of education. The teachers want improved salaries, better financing of infrastructure, a reduction in superfluous bureaucratic work, and a less centralized educational system that gives teachers the flexibility to respond to students’ needs. But they cannot bring these matters forward in Orbán’s Hungary without breaking the law. To represent the cause of public education they must become political dissidents. Hence, by implication, their acts of civil disobedience threaten the regime.

The political philosopher Michael Walzer once observed that often individuals who shoulder the burdens of civil disobedience are driven not by a notion of rights, but by a sense of duty. Dissidents feel bound by their moral obligations to a secondary community, smaller and under the state. Their acts of disobedience originate as acts of obligation, an unavoidable consequence of the duties they owe to their fellow men, women, and, in this case, children.

For Viktor Orbán, that means he’s got a mess on his hands. Ignoring warning signs for years, he left teachers no option but to strike. Once the strikes began, he arbitrarily changed the rules, placing the teachers in a catch-22: Either submit to my will or break the law. Confronted with these bad options, the teachers chose—or rather they were compelled—to disobey.

As Thoreau noted, only a handful of heroes and patriots, “serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it . . . and they are commonly treated as enemies.” Hungary’s teachers have certainly found this to be true. But what Thoreau forgot to mention was that only a handful of those who engage in civil disobedience meet with success—at least right away.

Predicting the course of the teachers’ civil disobedience campaign is impossible. On the one hand, Orbán is unlikely to back down. To address the problems seriously he would need to dissolve his incompetent bureau for education, decentralize the education system to give more influence to people with practical experience in teaching, and develop a well-informed, carefully considered program of comprehensive reform. A paradigm shift of such magnitude would require a degree of humility, flexibility, and intellectual suppleness—hardly qualities for which Orbán is known. A good clue of what he plans to do can be gleaned from the fact that he recently placed the education portfolio within the Department of the Interior. Sándor Pintér, a dark and shadowy former police chief whom many suspect of having connections to organized crime, has been entrusted with fixing things up.

On the other hand, people earning minimum wage are hard to intimidate with threats of being fired, and firing teachers in large numbers when your school system suffers from a severe lack of them is poorly advised. Hungary’s teachers have little left to lose, but to succeed they will need to sustain a campaign of civil disobedience that is both unprecedented and unlikely to produce immediate results. That will require patience, discipline, vision, and good leadership. Little about the condition of Hungarian civil society would lend one to believe they can prevail.

This, after all, is Eastern Europe. Contemplating the state of affairs in Hungary brings to mind the story of a Russian who, when asked for an opinion about what appeared to be a national emergency, is reported to have said, “The situation in this country has been untenable for 400 years.” One plausible scenario for Hungary is that the crisis drags on without resolution, continuing to fester and deepen.

But another law of East European politics is that nothing lasts forever. In the Hungarian opera Bánk Bán, a tragedy about the misfortunes the Hungarian people must suffer at the hands of a wicked and self-indulgent ruler, the characters propose a toast that goes loosely like this, “Take heart, the world won’t last forever, and as long as it’s here, whether things get better or worse, it won’t stop turning.” The wheel of fortune is turning for Orbán, too, and when it stops, the national Christian conservative regime he has created, like the wicked queen in Bánk Bán, may be unable to escape its day of judgment.

H. David Baer

H. David Baer is the Pastor Gerhard A. and Marion Poehlmann Professor in Theology at Texas Lutheran University. Twitter: @h_david_baer.