Teachers and their students: the Hungarian situation

Although the leaders of HÖOK insist that “student unity” is intact, I see it differently. The Orbán government as usual has managed to drive a wedge between the two organizations: HÖOK, the present-day KISZ, and the newly formed HaHa (Hallgatói Hálózat). Just as it managed to divide the trade unions and negotiate only with the ones loyal to the government. And the same thing happened a couple of days ago when out of the four teachers unions, three decided to come to an agreement with the government. The government even managed to divide the Conference of University Presidents by offering more to some and less to others.

The HÖOK leaders seem to be satisfied with the offer the government made for tuition-free places in those sixteen majors that had been previously excluded. They seem to have given up on other very important demands, including the financing of universities and the question of free movement of graduates within the European Union.

My feeling is that even the HÖOK leaders will be mighty surprised when they hear about the new numbers that will determine student eligibility for entering university. If the government is clever, they will postpone that announcement until the summer when students are no longer in school.

There is no question that the newly formed HaHa is far more radical than the official student organization, the pro-Fidesz HÖOK. Without HaHa HÖOK would have crumbled under pressure long ago. The leaders of HaHa managed to move crowds while HÖOK has such a bad reputation among college students that I doubt that the old faces could arouse much enthusiasm. After all, they are the representatives of officialdom.

It looks to me as if Zoltán Balog, who leads the mega-ministry called Emberi Erőforrások Minisztériuma or Emmi, and Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary in charge of education within the ministry, no longer consider the “student revolt” dangerous from the Orbán government’s point of view. Rózsa Hoffmann had disappeared from the public eye for weeks, but now she has returned with a gusto, making the same mistakes she normally makes. Her latest was that if, because of the changes introduced by the government there is a shortage of school supplies, like no chalk in the classrooms, the teachers should go out and buy supplies at their own expense.

She also appeared at a yearly event called “Exhibition Educatio.” (Hungarians like using Latin words. The latest is that Nézőpont Institute, a think-tank slavishly serving Fidesz political interests, renamed itself “Bonum semen.” 😀 ) Unfortunately for her, HaHa activists also appeared, and after Hoffmann refused to answer their questions all hell broke loose. The student activists went up to the podium and delivered their opinions of the educational policies of the government, including the authorities’ “bullshitting.”

The pro-government teachers were outraged. Some of them whistled, an expression of disapproval in Hungary. Others said that the students, instead of getting involved in politics, should be quiet and attend their classes. One woman announced that she came to the event to listen “to the responsible leaders of the country.” A man suggested to one of the activists that he go home and slap his father around, since he didn’t teach him “how to behave.” These teachers are obviously not accustomed to having a dialogue, especially not with their “subordinates.” The video can be seen here.

And that brings me to something that may help us understand the attitude of the majority of teachers. The Hungarian school system, regardless of what Rózsa Hoffmann claims, is still based on nineteenth-century educational principles. Hoffmann may talk about those awful liberals who “ruined” the formerly perfect Hungarian school system, but it looks to me as if practically nothing has happened since my own school days, many years ago.

19th century schoolSnap4

Let me add here the story of a young women who had the opportunity to visit one of the best Budapest high schools a few days ago. She reported that classes are still conducted in the old-fashioned way: the teacher talks, the students take notes. No discussion but a lot of dates in a history class. The students still have to get up when the teacher enters the room and I assume that if asked a question, he/she will have stand just as we had to. No interaction, no discussion.

Yet, she added, the students whom she met were “just like us,” and she predicted that one day there will be a rift between students and school authorities, especially if Hoffmann’s “reforms” take hold. For the time being student protests are being stifled. In a number of schools the more conservative principals are putting pressure on students to prevent them from expressing their dissatisfaction with the state of chaos caused by the abrupt nationalization of schools and their worries about getting into college.

The situation is particularly bad in parochial schools that are generously financed by the Hungarian state. In a Pécs parochial gymnasium (Nagy Lajos Gymnasium) the students were herded into a prayer session to seek a presumably divine solution to the present problem even as students in Leövey Klára Gymnasium (my alma mater) were striking and organizing student forums.

But parochial schools are not the only ones to repress student activism. Atlatszo.hu reported that students of the Xántus János Gymnasium (District V, Budapest) organized a Facebook page and managed to get 300 signatures but a student “loyal to the school authorities” removed the page. The organizers were called in by the principal who made it clear that “students have no right to protest.” The principal lied. Student governments do have the right to protest according to the constitution.

So, the question is how long the Orbán government can keep the lid on a boiling pot of water. These students are not like the ones Rózsa Hoffmann could frighten to death in the 1980s when she was a principal. This is a different breed. Or, at least I hope so.


  1. Unfortunately nothing surprising here -‘Divide et Impera’ is the standard operating procedure of the Fidesz – only the kids too young to have a historical perspective.

    I guess, even if there is a significant Jobbik support, their wallet feel the changes too, for the worse, in spite of the ideology.

  2. Teachers in state funded schools are demoralized and too afraid for their jobs to mount any real objections to increasingly worsening working conditions. Translation, dictate to kids, have them memorize a ton of useless facts that they’ll soon forget… it’s easy, requires no effort, no one has to think, no imagination involved and it looks like teaching.

    Spent the day exploring alternate arrangements. It’s amazing what a school looks like when the teachers aren’t worried for their jobs, don’t have to face over-crowding and under-funding and are motivated to teach!

  3. Thank you rearly very much for this blog. It´s the most objective I know.
    But the text is very, very and very long. If the message should reach more people and papers and TV it could be a good idea at the beginning af the text to make a very short summery.
    Thank you

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