On Tuesday July 4, the Hungarian parliament passed a disturbing law known to its critics as the “law of revenge”, which aims to punish and intimidate teachers who dare to challenge the regime of Viktor Orbán. This law is a brutally oppressive tool designed to exert control over the education system, leaving students deprived of their future. The European institutions must not remain silent.
For nearly a year now, teachers and students have been staging large protests across Hungary, raising their voices against the deep crisis in public education. The regime sees them as a threat, and the new law, passed by Orbán’s Fidesz party in a vote of 136 to 58 on Tuesday, is widely seen as a tool to suppress their movement.
The law aims to compel critical educators to conform to a police state apparatus designed to silence them. Tellingly, education has been placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior.
Teachers are deprived of their freedom of expression, even in private. Criticizing the education system becomes grounds for disciplinary action, and the law states that teachers must “maintain faith in public education”.
Spy on teachers
Interfering in the private life of teachers, the law allows the monitoring of their devices, creating a climate of fear. It even enables videotaping of classrooms, eroding student privacy and fostering a culture of surveillance. This not only harms the psychological well-being of children, but also raises concerns about government access to sensitive data.
Teachers and high school students are threatened by school districts if they dare to organize strikes, attend demonstrations or speak out. Orbán’s powerful propaganda machine targets teenagers with ad hominem attacks and smear campaigns.
Lili Pankotai, a student protester, was expelled from her high school as punishment for reciting a piece of her slam poetry at a rally. Her classmates were threatened with being denied participation in class trips or prom if Lili attended.
Strikes have been banned in Hungary and teachers risk being fired if they engage in them. It has already happened to several teachers, including Katalin Törley, a prominent voice in the movement calling for better working conditions and comprehensive reform.
Successive Orbán governments have cut funding for public education, leading to a 16% reduction over the past decade and pushing the system to the brink of collapse. This financial neglect has resulted in a severe shortage of education professionals, further demoralized by their meager salaries. An early career primary school teacher earns around €400 per month, which is insufficient to cover basic living costs, forcing teachers to take on second and third jobs.
The government’s proposed solution under the Revenge Act is to overwork teachers without compensation, even forcing them to work on Sundays or in remote locations, like members of the armed forces. If they choose to quit, they may be forced to stay in school for additional months. Union leaders called it “slavery”.
Unsurprisingly, around 5,000 teachers have already announced their intention to quit, further deepening the crisis.
The protest movement has been met with unprecedented violence from authorities, with high school students and other protesters subjected to brutal treatment and tear gas. During a protest, Momentum MP Márton Tompos was forcibly removed from the crowd, handcuffed and detained. When he mentioned his legislative immunity, the policeman replied with “it doesn’t matter”.
Centralization and government control deepened the crisis, stifling creativity and causing Hungarian students to perform less well against international standards. Education authorities dictate curricula, prescribe politically approved textbooks, and appoint school principals for political reasons. Under the discriminatory “anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda law”, sex education is banned from schools.
In the midst of this turmoil, the European Union has a crucial role to play. Teachers and students, feeling ignored and marginalized by their own government, see the European Union as their last beacon of hope.
As MEPs, we have worked tirelessly to amplify their voices. A student expressed her gratitude when given a platform to address EU decision makers, saying: ‘It was the first time in my life that I felt like I had a homeland’ .
It is essential that the European Commission recognizes that the crisis in the Hungarian education system is not just a national issue, but a question of the rule of law and democracy. The denial of the right to quality education, fair working practices and freedom of expression is a violation of fundamental European values.
The European Union must condemn the actions of the Hungarian government and support the teachers’ and students’ demands, including them in the criteria for Hungary to receive EU funds. The time to act is now. Failure to support Hungarian citizens at this critical time risks perpetuating a cycle of oppression and injustice that will undoubtedly extend beyond Hungary’s borders.