Last Saturday, thousands of teachers have protested against the inane centralisation and the resulting mismanagement of primary and secondary education in Hungary.
Images of peaceful protesters with umbrellas against the pouring rain, videos of thoughtful and heartfelt speeches and five minutes of silence for the future of the youth have been posted all over the internet. It was uplifting and gave hope.
A few things to watch out for:
This is not the first time we see protests for the future of youth. In 2012 students were similarly protesting against the higher education reforms curtailing the autonomy of universities and affecting their rights to free movement if they participate in state-funded education. The resistance then fizzled out in a series of negotiations between the representatives of students and government. – They may still be negotiating for all we know. Not much had changed and Fidesz kept things under control.
Fidesz has a history of sending negotiators that have no power to make concessions – only to find the weak links among the protesters. Filling up these round tables with their own people is one way to send the message: no matter what you do, you cannot change things with protesting.
It engraves the lesson of helplessness and puts out future protests better than any water cannon would do.
The major difference between the 2012 protests and today’s teachers’ protests is that students were protesting against planned reforms – whereas teachers today are protesting the malfunctions of a system that was put in place in 2012. As PM Orbán has cynically said
“Let’s face it, there is no such thing as Olivér Pilz 〈leader of the protesters〉 waking up one fine morning and finding himself immensely dissatisfied, writing open letters, and protesting”.
Orbán meant an international cabal of Soros’ Army pulling the teachers’ strings. (One can only hope he didn’t at least really mean it.) What really happened is a slow suffocation of the teachers and dumbing down of the curriculum to the point where even the most subservient people feel they have the right to fearfully raise their voices – because it is about the children’s future now. Even if they would never dare to protest for themselves.
Make no mistake, this is not a protest of proud citizens. This protest is born out of desperation and the sense of nothing to lose.
Whose round table will prevail? The teachers’ or the government’s?
The negotiations are the tricky part. The chief negotiator on the teachers’ side has been quickly enchanted by the government’s delegation and came out smiling and shaking hands happily – only to retract his words later. Teachers are not well-versed in politics and empty promises and an understanding nod from a representative of the mighty government can sooth an inexperienced negotiator. It almost worked this time.
The usual reactions from Orbán are:
- Blaming an international cabal – meaning George “Bogeyman” Soros
- Blaming the “left-wing” (i.e. whoever is against him is of the wrong religion and must not be acknowledged)
- Blaming Brussels
- Divide and conquer – He had already pointed out that teachers earned better than other groups of public workers – setting them against each other. Look, healthcare workers are starved to death and they don’t protest like you. Never mind that teachers are not out there for money.
- Administrative reminders of what could happen if they keep up the protests. It has also started – schools that have participated in the protests have received warnings from above and are threatened by legal action. It may well be just the action of overzealous government-supporters (basically everyone at these supervising institutions) but it was also the way the system is supposed to work. They will take it upon themselves to protect their masters – by kicking the teachers.
- Any combination of the above.
What Orbán wanted with centralisation was the ability to transmit his personal will at a day’s notice and micromanage even to the lowest level of the system.
It was sold as “savings” on centralised procurement (didn’t happen) and “equality of opportunity” for the worst schools. In a way, he achieved the latter. They best schools are now suffering under the reform. In the meantime, his hobby horses are dutifully executed, such as daily PE and football education. Even without the necessary facilities.
Teachers on the ground level had been greatly humiliated in recent years. When the new, centralised system was born, they had to be politically loyal to be re-employed. They had to keep up with it to stay employed – or risk being fired not just by their local school, but by the sole employer of the 130 thousand teachers in the country. And as it usually works, petty personal abuses of power colour these appointments – and there is no way pupils would not learn about it. It is hard to respect a teacher we know had to bend for keeping his job.
The government can also put a wedge between groups of teachers. Some of them were elevated in the new system to”master teachers” – an appointment that has to be confirmed every year – and earn marginally better. They will never protest or join the planned strikes.
The teachers’ protest is now threatening to turn into a strike – and other disgruntled public service employees may join. This is when Orbán’s policies to intimidate and set groups against each other will be tested. Do they dare to act? For how long? Can they be paid off or soothed? And most importantly:
Will any opposition political formation be able to piggyback on the events? It would probably not help the teachers cause – but that’s not what stops these parties. It is their own farcical incompetence and being divided and conquered. Either by Orbán – or by their own unfounded vanity.
PM Orbán is famous for his never-retreat approach to everything. Not losing face and not changing absolutely anything about the government’s conduct trumps everything. Even the future of the children. He uses stooges (insignificant, weightless politicians) to execute his centralisation ideas – but even these people can not be let go to soothe protesters. This time, however, the second (female) head have rolled in education policy. But Orbán still sticks to his gun and claims that the centralisation is perfect and must stay.
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Featured photo: Teachers at a high school in Szolnok protesting in checked shirts – as a reference to the patronising remarks of a former state secretary that he had had enough of unshaven teachers in their checked shirts having a bad influence on pupils. The countries high schools are now pooling their stocks of checked shirts for similar photos in solidarity.