Labor protest and education in an illiberal regime
Despite the crushing defeat of the opposition at the elections in Spring this year, not all is quiet in Orbán’s Hungary. Teachers, students, and parents have organized a series of protest across the country in recent weeks, calling on the government to increase teachers’ salaries, restore teaching autonomy and create a more democratic education governance. The strong participation of high-school students adds a symbolic value to the protests. Hungary is a rapidly aging society, but it is governed by a party that bears “youth” in its name. (Orbán’s FIDESZ was established as the Alliance of Young Democrats in 1988. Orbán is now 59 and FIDESZ – despite its dominance across all age groups – is polled to be relatively unpopular[i] among young voters). Teachers’ salaries are at the center of the current discontent, which however also has much broader implications for the role of education in an illiberal regime.
Strike, civil disobedience, and retaliation
The direct trigger for the present wave of protests was the dismissal of a group of teachers from a Budapest high school (Deu: Gymnasium). The dismissed teachers engaged in civil disobedience by not delivering lessons one day per week– an alternative form of work stoppage that was called into existence due to the near-complete emasculation of the strike weapon by the government.
Strike law had always been restrictive in Hungarian education: picketing is forbidden, and teachers must provide supervision for children even if instruction stops. The Orbán government tightened these rules further in the wake of a relatively successful strike this Spring, prescribing near-normal operation for schools during a strike. While the right to strike is not formally tied to trade union membership, in practice it is further hindered by the low membership of teachers’ unions who are struggling to get the recognition from the government as bargaining partners. Despite the weakness of trade unions and the de facto prohibition of strikes, street demonstrations and alternative forms of protest proliferated in recent years, mostly thanks to a vibrant scene of social movement organization of teachers, students and parents that has emerged since 2016, and that works in cooperation with trade unions.
Teaching out of duty
The protest demands focus on wages as Hungarian teachers’ salaries are very low in international comparison. Teachers in lower secondary education take home 60% of the average earnings of tertiary-educated workers, and this is the lowest figure within the OECD[ii]. Teachers’ wages in Hungary had been subject to government unilateralism and political cycles even before Orbán. During the early 2010s, teachers received a conditional salary increase that was linked to the introduction of a cumbersome promotion system and to increased workload. Since 2015, their salaries have stagnated while the minimum wage and private sector wages increased relatively fast due to labor shortages and an economic boom until the pandemic. Labor shortages have become a critical issue in education too, especially in specializations such as foreign languages or STEM subjects. The age profile of the profession also suggests that without making teaching more attractive, shortages will further increase. In 2019, 45 percent of schoolteachers in Hungary were 50 years or older.
The protests also have a strong gendered dimension as more than 90% of primary and three-quarter of secondary school teachers are women[iii]. At the same time, the government relies on gendered stereotypes to influence public opinion against protesting teachers. Recently, the speaker of the parliament, László Kövér referred to teaching as an activity that decent teachers perform out of duty, irrespective of their salary levels[iv].
Centralization and militarization of public services
Duty also comes up in the context of the increasing centralization and militarization of public services in Hungary. The teachers whose dismissal triggered the current protests received their notice from the district education authority – a bureaucratic management board that is located in a school on the other side of the city, indicative of the centralization of Hungarian education since 2010.
Before 2010, local governments were responsible for the provision of pre-tertiary education in Hungary. Since Orbán took power in 2010, a process of centralization has been taking place. As the most recent and most extreme step in this process, pre-tertiary general education was ordered under the Ministry of the Interior in May 2022, together with health- and social care. The ministry is led by Sándor Pintér, a former police chief, and one of Orbán’s most trusted allies.
Centralization also means the curtailment of decision-making and budgetary autonomy at the lower levels of education. In the vision of the ruling party, the operation of education should resemble the hierarchical structures of public administration, police, and the military. This view is also reflected in the decreasing autonomy of teachers regarding the curriculum. While these hierarchical structures were compatible with the expansion of public education in the 19th and 20th century and eventually proved to be a tool for social mobility, Orbán’s new conservatives have made steps in the opposite direction. They have tightened access to education by lowering the age of compulsory education to sixteen, reduced enrollment in public higher education and disinvested from general skills in favor of vocational training. For the better-off, government-supported religious schools and private education opportunities abroad provide the costly alternative.
Holding teachers hostage
The government now wants to finance the long-term upgrade of teachers’ salaries from EU funds. This decision however also means that the increase of teachers’ salaries is conditional upon an agreement with the European Commission on Hungary’s development funding from the EU’s 2021-2027 budget framework. The agreement has been held up by the dispute between the Hungarian government and the Commission about the rule of law and anti-corruption measures. In this way, teachers have become hostages in a transnational dispute and the Hungarian government can blame Brussels for the lack of progress on the issue.
In the meantime, the jury is out on the persistence
of the protests. Earlier cycles of discontent against the Orbán regime (either
in education or in other areas) fizzled out, and at the moment education
authorities are also holding back from escalating the situation by further
dismissals. The protests have nevertheless spread from competitive,
middle-class-frequented high schools in Budapest to more run-of-the-mill schools
in smaller towns and even to kindergartens. And in any case, it is often the
squeezed middle classes that provide the spark for more fundamental changes.
OECD Education at a Glance 2021, p396