Hungarian Education System, 12 Years Later: From Government Change to University Protests, Teacher Strikes

Jan Steen "A School for Boys and Girls" // Public Domain
Jan Steen "A School for Boys and Girls" // Public Domain

The Hungarian education system is in an alarming state. Since the regime change in 1990, many both left-wing and right-wing governments tried to reform education; however, neither of those were successful.

In 2010, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition won the general elections with a 2/3 majority. Since then, they have used this power several times to implement changes in the education system, which, as the current situation shows have not affected the system positively.

There is a massive shortage of teachers, the curriculum has been reformed according to the governing parties’ ideology and most recently the government essentially decided to cease the autonomy of universities to just name a few of the most worrying problems.

Fidesz have started the restructuring of the education system at the very top. The Ministry of Education (alongside the former Ministry of Health) has been integrated into the Ministry of (National) Human Resources. Thus, the until then separate ministry ceased and became the part of a “super-ministry” that first was led by a pastor then from 2018 by a cardiologist. Overall, education gets far less attention than it should, and its improvement is not a priority for the government.

Until 2013, public schools in Hungary were maintained by local governments. In that year, the government decided that the state would take over this duty and for that purpose a state agency has been created. This was the first step towards a state-controlled education system, in which the autonomy of schools and teachers does not exist.

During the following years, Fidesz had initiated a number of reforms, with which, in theory, their aim was to provide equal opportunities and equal standard of education for every student. In practice, with these reforms Fidesz tried to target the so called “elite schools,” that is the top schools in Hungary that usually provide high quality education. The government implemented the reforms without consulting professionals of the field.

Even though professional bodies as well as the Teachers’ Union had indicated their concerns and made suggestions for improvement, the government continuously ignored them. A process had been started, in which the curriculum was rewritten, and new, “innovative” education materials were published. The new curriculum, called National Core Curriculum (NAT) contains more lexical knowledge than ever before, and practical skills got little to no attention.

At the same time, teachers were stripped of their right of choosing the books they want to use for education, they are forced to use the government approved materials that are of lower quality. Since these new books contain all the topics prescribed by NAT, teachers have less and less time to deepen the knowledge through exercises, therefore, the knowledge gained by the students during classes is quite superficial most of the time.

However, probably the most burning issue the Hungarian school system faces nowadays is the shortage of teachers. It is a problem not only in rural areas but in the central region and in the capital city, Budapest as well. The government policies do not have a positive effect here either.

One of the reasons behind the lack of teachers is the low wages they earn. Since 2014, their wages do not rise together with the minimum wage. From time to time the government does increase their salaries but it is still nowhere near to what it should be. As it stands, a beginner teacher, after 5 years of university education earns just a little bit more than the minimum wage. Of course, this amount is barely enough to cover living expenses.

Since there are less and less teachers, the government decided to increase the required hours of teaching from 22 to 26 to cover the lessons that would not be held because of the shortage of teachers. Furthermore, up to 30 times a month they can be required to hold classes overtime without being paid for them. With all the out-of-class tasks, the working hours of teachers amounts to more than 40 hours a week.

This is just the tip of the iceberg regarding primary and secondary education. Since the Fidesz-KDNP government came into power with a two-third majority, it has been attempting to restructure higher education. A number of laws have been passed that targeted the academic and the scientific sphere.

In 2017, the “Lex CEU” which forced the Central European University out of the country, in 2019, a law detached research institutes from the Hungarian Academy of Science. From 2019, higher education was targeted even more fiercely, and a drastic restructuring begun. The so called ‘shift of university governance model’ meant basically a financial restructuring.

Almost all previously state-founded universities were transformed that seriously violates university autonomy. Instead of the state, each institution is now maintained by a separate non-profit foundation, which controls everything in the university. At the top of each foundation there is a board of 5 trustees, who are in close relationship with the government, for example former ministers, current government officials and leaders of state enterprises just to name a few.

The reasoning behind the restructuring is quite similar to the one behind the reforms of compulsory education. They want to raise the standard of education and they want to have a more competitive education system; thus, they act only in the interest of the universities. In reality, the restructuring meant that formerly publicly held assets became private and that even though, in theory the government lost its direct involvement in funding, it seized control through the people sitting in the boards of the foundations.

The reforms both in tertiary education and in primary and secondary education triggered nationwide protests and strikes. The protest of the students and professors at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in September 2020 got attention worldwide. They organized a number of protests in Budapest with the participation of thousands of people and occupied the university building for seventy days, when it had to end due to COVID-restrictions that prohibited in-person education.

The government itself and the pro-government media both claimed the protest to be politically motivated and sponsored by “left-liberal” figures.

Most recently, the Teachers’ Union became active by organizing strikes, since the negotiations with the government about wage raise and other matters have failed. On January 31, the Teachers’ Union organized a two-hour long “warning strike”, in which approximately one-fifth of the teachers took part.

The reason for the low number is that in the days leading up to the strike the government started spreading the narrative that the strike is illegal since the teachers does not provide the “adequate services,” meaning that they should hold 75% of their classes and provide supervision of the children.

Many teachers feared that they will have to face consequences, a narrative spread by many principals, if they participate and decided not to take part all. Just after a few days, taking advantage of the state of emergency declared due to the pandemic, the government issued a decree. It states that due to the pandemic children must be supervised at all times, half of the classes must be held, and all Matura exam related classes must be held for senior year students.

Basically, this means that if the teachers comply with the regulation their strike would go almost unnoticed, thus losing the very meaning of a strike. Currently the Union tries to fight the government decree in court, while teachers decided to express their objection to the decree by organizing civil disobedience.

Every day, a number of schools took part and expressed their objections by not working and sharing their protest online. If we look at the numbers, just over 100 schools participated up until the elections in the beginning of April, which is not a lot.

However, there are a number of top or “elite” schools among the protesting schools. This is important, because a movement has started, and the more schools participate the more courage they can give to others to act. Needless to say, a country-wide strike just two weeks prior to the general elections did not look great for the government, but Fidesz still ended up winning the elections with a 2/3 majority on April 3.

Fidesz had successfully spread the narrative that the strike has only political motives and is a creation of the liberal left. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Continue exploring:

Let’s Not Be Intimidated by Private Schools but Take Them as Opportunity

Including People with Migration and Refugee Experience in Educational Activities

Adam Gulyas
Republikon Institute