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Hungarian bill punishing dissent threatens country's struggling education sector

People gather in Budapest to demonstrate in solidarity with students and teachers demanding higher wages and better working conditions. 23 October 2022
People gather in Budapest to demonstrate in solidarity with students and teachers demanding higher wages and better working conditions. 23 October 2022 Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Una Hajdari
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In the wake of several decrees that gradually undermined Hungarian educators' freedom to demand better wages and working conditions, a new law may spur an exodus of teachers from schools across the country.

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Employees in the education sector protested in at least 15 cities and towns in Hungary this week against a law that could severely curtail their freedom of speech and undermine their quality of life.

Set to be voted on by the parliament in Budapest on Friday, the law has widely been deemed a blow to educators, one that could threaten their right to protest while freezing low salaries in place and imposing unfavourable working conditions.

“One of the most pressing problems in Hungarian education is the shortage of teachers," Zsófia Moldova, program director at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, told Euronews. "Thousands have already announced their intention to resign because of the planned status law.”

On two occasions in the past month, student demonstration in front of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s office have seen protesters breaking through police barricades and being dispersed by tear gas.

At one protest on 19 May, demonstrators gathered in front of the headquarters of Orban's party Fidesz, who have cracked down on dissent among public servants and institutions in Hungary since coming to power over a decade ago. Protesters were forcefully removed by law enforcement.

AP/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
Hungarian students protest in solidarity with their teachers in front of the St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, Hungary. 2 September 2022AP/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

“Dissatisfaction with and within the public education system has been mounting for years in Hungary," Moldova explained. "In early 2022, teachers’ unions began organising a strike to protest, among other things, heavy centralisation, shrinking autonomy, low wages and growing workload."

Orban’s government has often blamed outside forces for Hungary’s domestic problems. His list of usual suspects includes the EU, western liberals and international NGOs, among others.

The same is playing out in the row over teacher’s salaries: Orban's government claim that they can only offer pay rises once the EU releases funds for Hungary that have been frozen due to violations of rule-of-law and judicial independence principles.

Protesters argue that the government should be able to finance its own education system from the national budget. Eurostat figures indicate that public expenditure on education in Hungary has been steadily dipping for years, and currently consists of around 3.8% of the country’s GDP.

After the early signs of dissatisfaction from educators, the government passed a decree establishing necessary minimum services and effectively ridding teachers of right to strike for their rights.

As Moldova explained, it was at this point that “teachers turned to civil disobedience, resulting in retaliatory dismissals throughout the autumn of 2022."

And as protests continue around the country, the crackdown on dissent continues.

In January 2023, the government passed a new decree that would make it impossible for teachers to know the consequences of their actions until the end of the academic year, further increasing the likelihood of arbitrary and retaliatory dismissals.

This is why many independent Hungarian media outlets refer to the bill as the “revenge law”.

On Friday, parliament will consider a new set of restrctions, which Moldova said will “further weaken of professional autonomy, increase employees’ vulnerability vis-à-vis the school districts, and add additional obstacles to the already illusionary possibility to strike.

“If the Government submits its proposal to the Parliament in its current format, without duly considering the concerns raised by teachers’ unions, it will violate its commitments made to the EU,” she concluded.

Tourists and parliamentary guests are banned from Friday’s parliament session, after an activist group appeared during a session with t-shirts emblazoned with the word “teach” on their backs. It is unclear whether journalists will be able to attend.

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