I must say that last night, after reading some of the early reports on the results of the “negotiations” at the roundtable discussion convened by the ministry of human resources, I was certain that the Orbán government had again managed to quell the widespread dissatisfaction of teachers, parents, and students over the dismal state of Hungarian education.
A few days before the planned mass demonstration of teachers, bus drivers, and railroad workers Zoltán Balog, the minister in charge of education, hastily called together the representatives of diverse organizations. In addition to those with skin in the game, like representatives of the teachers’ unions and the organizers of the current protest, members of civic groups that either have nothing to do with education, like the Hungarian Academy of Artists, or are unknown entities, like the Nemzeti Iskolai Tanács (National School Council), which doesn’t even have a website, also attended. Representatives of organizations that are known to be staunch supporters of the present government, like the parents’ association representing large families, got invitations. But no one from the Diákparlament (Student Parliament), which stands by the teachers in the present conflict, was invited. In brief, Balog made sure that supporters of the government’s position were in the majority around the table.
Those familiar with the Hungarian educational scene were surprised to learn that László Mendrey of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete, which is normally highly critical of the government, decided to attend. By contrast, Piroska Galló of the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ) announced her union’s boycott of the first meeting of the roundtable. A last minute invitee was Péter Madarász, principal of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium in Miskolc, where the movement to change the current educational system had its roots.
After the meeting Balog tried to give the impression that the representatives invited to the roundtable discussion could actually make decisions. But, as Piroska Galló of PSZ pointed out, she received an invitation to “a talk” and not to “negotiations.” The government’s plan is to listen to the complaints and then change as little as possible in the current flawed system. Balog also wants to avoid dealing with scholars whose field is education because he knows that most of them are against the educational philosophy espoused by the Orbán government. So, he made sure that only those experts would be welcome “who have something worthwhile to add to the topic.” That in Fidesz parlance means: only those who agree with us.
László Mendrey made a huge mistake by attending the conversations initiated by the government. Members of his union are now demanding his resignation, and some of them have already quit. Their dissatisfaction stemmed from his comments after the meeting that “the conversations were encouraging” because the government officials were ready to discuss even the most sensitive issues, which means that in the next round they will be able to talk about the role of the state, the autonomy of the institutions, and their economic independence. After the upheaval on Facebook and elsewhere by PDSZ members and teachers in general, the other leader of PDSZ who was present tried to explain what went wrong. The union’s original idea was to leave the meeting immediately after the first negative answer to one of their key demands. The government, however, outfoxed them and was ready to talk about anything. Therefore, they had no occasion to get up and leave. Well, talk is cheap, and it should have been clear to Mendrey that convening the roundtable a few days before the planned demonstration had only one purpose: to prevent the demonstration and a possible strike. With the passage of time and the promise of a few bones perhaps the teachers will calm down.
Another clever move was to invite Péter Madarász, principal of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium. The ministry officials must have known that he doesn’t fully share the opinions of his teachers and that, after a little sweet talk, he would support the government’s position of very limited changes to the current system. (The principal of the Blanka Teleki Gymnasium in Budapest, who appeared in several television discussions and who stands squarely behind the teachers’ demands, was not invited.) Madarász got the royal treatment. He sat at the head table alongside Zoltán Balog, Péter Horváth of the National Teachers’ Corps, and László Palkovics, the new undersecretary. Balog had a little tête-à-tête with the principal, and the rest is history. He expressed his total satisfaction with what transpired at the meeting. Balog asked Madarász to convince the teachers in and around Miskolc to participate in the forthcoming negotiations. Afterward, in an interview with Olga Kálmán, he expressed his ambivalence about attending the demonstration after such a successful conversation with Balog and Palkovics.
So, although last night it seemed that the government had won this round, then came today. The original organizers of the movement in the name of the 737 schools which supported them published a statement in which they succinctly presented their demands. At the same time they disavowed the principal of Ottó Herman Gymnasium who, they claimed, spoke only in his own name.
- The government should declare that it considers the present law on education temporary and immediately should begin talks with the proper representatives of public education to create a new law on education.
- We demand that the discussions on the new law on public education should deal with the professional basics.
- We demand that the government spends 6% of the GDP on education.
- We demand immediate changes in the rules and regulations that make the situation of students and teachers unbearable.
It was signed by Katalin Törley, Ferenc Kölcsey Gymnasium, Budapest; Olivér Pilz, Ottó Herman Gymnasium, Miskolc; and István Pukli, principal, Blanka Teleki Gymnasium.
Meanwhile Piroska Galló explained why her union decided not to attend the meeting called together by Zoltán Balog. At the moment there exists a strike committee in which both PSZ and PDSZ participate. It is Zoltán Balog who represents the government in these negotiations, but during many meetings the minister’s position has been entirely negative with regard to the teachers’ demands. Therefore she can’t imagine what use such a roundtable discussion could be unless it is to pacify the teachers and pull the wool over their eyes. On Friday the strike committee is scheduled to meet Balog, and Galló is curious whether Balog’s “rigid position” changed or not as a result of his conversations with the invited representatives. In my opinion, there will be a change in the government’s position only if the demonstration turns out to be a real show of force.