Fidesz vs. Freedom of Education
On 6 July, the Hungarian President Katalin Novák signed the so-called "Status Law". This law affects all teachers and changes their working conditions fundamentally.
The situation of education in Hungary is very concerning. For a long time, wages in this sector count among the lowest in Europe. Ever since 2014, salaries for teachers have been derived from the minimum wage at that time: these days, inflation therefore plays no role in the calculation of the salaries and thus the net income of teachers is diminishing every year. Currently, the average monthly gross salary of teachers is about 500 euros, which is far below the usual level of salaries in academic positions in Hungary. As a result, Hungary stands next to the bottom in the OECD rankings.
In addition, teachers are under constant political pressure. In a rather conservative Hungarian environment, they have to be very careful when talking to their students about controversial topics such as LGBT+ or sex education in class. The reason for this is the so-called "Child Protection Act" by the autocratic Fidesz government from 2021, which prevents minors from being informed about LGBT+ issues.
Protests against the Education Law on the Rise
As a result of their poor working conditions and later also in anticipation of the upcoming new law, many teachers went on strike or participated in large protests together with their fellow citizens.
However, the protests did not go unnoticed by the government. Many protesters lost their jobs in retaliation for their disobedience. An example that describes the situation well is the dismissal of the founder of the Tanítanék movement (which means "I would like to teach" in English) Katalin Törley, who later became the main figure of the protests.
Since 2020 alone, 10.000 teachers have already resigned. As a result, there is now a shortage of around 16.000 teachers in the education system in Hungary. Moreover, the number of pedagogy students is constantly sinking, whereas the average age of teachers is rising: It now stands at 53 years.
As the vote on the controversial "status law" moved closer, the Hungarian liberal opposition party Momentum Mozgalom was becoming more active in the protests. For example, the party installed 5.000 black flags in front of the parliament building symbolising their fear of dismissals of teachers in the future.
At the beginning of June, the Hungarian government passed this "revenge bill" (as called by the opposition) into the parliament. After a long 18-hour debate, the parliament (where Orbán's Fidesz party dominates) voted with 136 votes in favour and 58 against the law.
A Threat to the Future Education System
The law changes the status of all schoolteachers, who thus lose their classification as public employees. Furthermore, the law opens up the possibility for the government-influenced Regional Education Centres to transfer teachers within the region, whenever they decide under the pretext of local shortages of teachers. This will affect especially young teachers without children. Furthermore, the law introduces more teaching hours, additional work on Sundays and an extension of the school year.
Although the law affects the working conditions and wages of teachers in a fundamental way, the government did not engage in any debate with the teacher's unions during its development.
One can already estimate some of the consequences of the new law. Many teachers will leave their jobs, the number of students of pedagogy will further decrease, many educators will retire soon, and schools will be experiencing more and more financial problems (some schools have already set up foundations in order to keep their heads above water).
Freedom of education in Hungary is under serious threat. In the country that already stood at the European Court of Justice multiple times for several violations of EU law, another central pillar of democracy is beginning to wobble. This time, the education of children is at stake, which ultimately threatens the creation and preservation of democracy and freedom in Hungary.
Daniela Matoušová is a project manager in the Central European and Baltic States Office in Prague at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.