29th Sep 2023


Orbán's 'revenge law' is an Orwellian crackdown on education

  • Hungarian riot police attack demonstrators protesting against the law on 4 May (Photo: Katalin Cseh)
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On Tuesday (4 July), the Hungarian parliament passed a troubling piece of legislation known by its critics as the 'revenge law', which aims to punish and intimidate teachers who dare to defy Viktor Orbán's regime. This law is a brutally oppressive tool designed to exert control over the education system, leaving students robbed of their future. European institutions must not remain silent.

For a better part of a year now, teachers and students have been organising major demonstrations across Hungary, raising their voices against the deep crisis of public education. The regime perceives them as a threat, and the new law, passed by Orbán's Fidesz party in a 136-58 vote on Tuesday, is widely seen as a tool to suppress their movement.

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The law aims to coerce critical educators into compliance with a police state apparatus designed to silence them. Tellingly, education has been placed under the jurisdiction of the ministry of interior.

Teachers are stripped of their freedom of speech, even in private settings. Criticizing the education system becomes grounds for disciplinary action, and the law mandates that teachers must "maintain faith in public education."

Spying on teachers

Intruding into teachers' private lives, the law enables the monitoring of their devices, creating a climate of fear. It even allows for the videotaping of classrooms, eroding the privacy of students and fostering a culture of surveillance. This not only harms the psychological well-being of children but also raises concerns about the government's access to sensitive data.

Teachers and high-schoolers face threats from school districts if they dare to organise strikes, attend protests, or speak up. Orbán's powerful propaganda machine targets teenagers with ad-hominem attacks and smear campaigns.

Lili Pankotai, a student protester, was forced out of her high school as punishment for reciting a piece of her slam poetry at a rally. Her classmates were threatened that they would be denied participation in class trips or the prom if Lili attended.

Strikes have been outlawed in Hungary, and teachers face termination if they engage in them. This has already happened to several teachers, including Katalin Törley, a prominent voice in the movement demanding better working conditions and comprehensive reform.

Orbán's governments successively defunded public education, resulting in a 16 percent cut over the past decade, and pushing the system to the brink of collapse. This financial neglect has led to a severe shortage of education professionals, further demoralised by their meagre salaries. A primary school teacher in the early stages of their career earns around €400 per month, which is insufficient to cover basic living expenses, forcing teachers to take on second and third jobs.

The government's proposed solution under the revenge law is to overwork teachers without compensation, even requiring them to work on Sundays or at distant locations, similar to members of the armed forces. If they choose to quit, they can be forced to remain at the school for additional months. Union leaders have called this "slavery."

Unsurprisingly, around 5,000 teachers have already indicated their intention to resign, further exacerbating the crisis.

The protest movement has been met with unprecedented violence by the authorities, with high schoolers and other demonstrators subjected to rough treatment and tear gas. During one protest, Momentum MP Márton Tompos was forcibly removed from the crowd, handcuffed, and detained. When he mentioned his legislative immunity, the policeman responded with "whatever."

Centralisation and control exerted by the government have compounded the crisis, stifling creativity, and resulting in a decline in Hungarian students' performance on international benchmarks. Educational authorities dictate curricula, prescribe politically approved textbooks, and make politically motivated appointments of school directors. Under the discriminative 'anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda law,' sexual education is banished from schools.

Amidst this turmoil, the European Union has a crucial role to play. Teachers and students, feeling unheard and marginalised by their own government, view the European Union as their last beacon of hope.

As MEPs, we have been tirelessly working to amplify their voices. A student expressed her gratitude when given a platform to address EU decision-makers, stating, "It was the first time in my life I felt I had a homeland."

It is essential for the European Commission to recognize that the crisis in Hungary's education system is not merely a domestic issue but a matter of the rule of law and democracy. The denial of the right to quality education, fair labor practices, and freedom of speech, constitutes a violation of fundamental European values.

The European Union must condemn the actions of the Hungarian government and support the demands of teachers and students, incorporating them into the criteria for Hungary to receive EU funds. The time for action is now. Failure to stand by Hungarian citizens in this critical moment risks perpetuating a cycle of oppression and injustice that will undoubtedly extend beyond Hungary's borders.

Author bio

Katalin Cseh is a Hungarian MEP with Renew Europe.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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