How Hungary’s teachers are taking on Viktor Orban

How Hungary's teachers are taking on Viktor Orban |

One group that has been caught in the crosshairs of Viktor Orban's attacks on public education, is Tanítanék ['I Want to Teach'], a grassroots movement of teachers (Photo: European Parliament)

How can you fight for what you believe in when doing so risks your livelihood and personal safety? This is a question that some Hungarians must now grapple with against a backdrop of democratic decline under Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz Party.

For Hungary’s teachers, who have been protesting on the streets for the past eight years, this question is particularly acute. Since 2010, they have witnessed far-reaching nationalistic changes to the country’s education system, including a rewrite of the curriculum to make it “more patriotic” and family-orientated; little uplift in remuneration, despite stubbornly high inflation, staff shortages, and already depressed conditions that rank their profession one of the worst for pay in the OECD and EU-27; wholesale budget cuts to, and the abolition of, courses that don’t align with government’s ideology; and a series of laws, which have eroded not only the workplace rights of teachers, but their ability to provide quality education to young Hungarians.

  • How Hungary's teachers are taking on Viktor Orban |

    Sacked French teacher in Hungary Katalin Törley is now running to be an MEP in the June elections (Photo: Katalin Torley/Facebook)

Ostensibly, this may look like a bug in the system. But in reality it is a feature.

Orban and his administration are pursuing a strategy of running-down public education in Hungary. They have been explicit in their aims and how their assault on the teachers outside of Christian school settings is a small price to pay for the cultural shift they want to exercise in the country.

The prime minister has spoken openly about the significance of “collective beliefs and social customs”, and his government, despite facing crippling waves of protests — including recent demonstrations in response to a major corruption scandal — has stood firm, transferred control of a number of public universities to foundations whose boards include high-ranking party officials, and sought reprisals against individuals that have spoken out. It is not uncommon for government-backed media to smear those that speak out at the state of the country as part of the “dollar left” or “foreign agents”, akin to the narratives of autocracies such as Russia.


One group that has been caught in the crosshairs of the government’s attacks, with respect to public education, is Tanítanék [pronounced Tany-ta-neck, which, roughly translated, means ‘I Want to Teach’], a grassroots movement that coordinated months-long protests in Hungary, that boasts 90,000 active members, and that last year received the 2023 European Citizen’s Prize in recognition of its work.

It’s co-founder, Katalin Törley, has become a political force, given her central role in the waves of protests that gripped the country in 2022 and 2023, together with the fact that she plans to stand against Fidesz at the upcoming European Parliament elections

A French teacher by profession, Törley was abruptly sacked in 2022, along with four colleagues, for striking in opposition to government efforts to revoke her status as a public employee, increase her allowable weekly working hours, and limit her ability to speak out against the education system, even in private.

The legislation behind this, which she and other critics dubbed the ‘Revenge Law’, sparked enormous and lengthy protests in a number of Hungarian cities.

In Budapest, tens of thousands of students and teachers took to the streets in successive waves of defence for their teachers and to support Törley, who, until this point, had been on staff at the same Budapest school for two decades.

Many of these protestors were creative, with one group spelling out the word ‘future’ (JÖVŐ) in ice, on the steps of the parliament building, as a visual representation to show that the opportunities for Hungary’s youth are melting away. Others, including many young students, engaged in acts of peaceful obstruction, only to be met with a heavy-handed police response which included the use of teargas.

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The government, in response, dug in, and as the protests continued, week after week, began to target and strip away the livelihoods of teachers in attendance. Like Torley, they were deemed to be violating the conditions of their profession, as laid down by Fidesz, and, in turn, lost their jobs.

Törley’s brave and enduring commitment to these movements, which continue to this day, has seen her become a key target of the Fidesz party machine.

Since 2022, she has faced a near-daily barrage of insults, smears and negative profiling from pro-government news outlets, which now account for over 80 percent of public media in the country, and faced physical attacks — together with her Tanítanék colleagues — from some of those allied to Orban’s party. Seemingly not content with depriving Törley of her profession, Hungary’s Fidesz-controlled government has habitually subjected her to a series of fines for ‘civil disobedience’.

These attacks, though, have failed to stunt her rise.

Today, Torley, and the wider Tanítanék movement, are continuing to grow, thanks to their development of a conscious and professional digital outreach plan. Unlike other movements in Hungary, Tanítanék operates beyond social and traditional media and meets its supporters via email, SMS, phone numbers, in person, and online meetings.

By diversifying the way ordinary Hungarians have been able to get involved — including via grassroots donations — the movement gained strength and supporters — to the point that it now boasts tens of thousands of active members, and a funding stream, which helps support striking teachers, of over €1m in two years.

This is some feat, given the increasingly limited space in which Tanítanék can publicly operate, and suggests that there is still hope, and fight, among Hungary’s civil society to push back at Orban and his pursuit of a one-party state.

For Törley, and her community of teachers, students and parents, their determination has always been led by an ambition to give young people the education they need and deserve. If they will prevail remains to be seen, but, certainly, the movement — and Törley’s own growing popularity — offers optimism that there could be a brighter future ahead.


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