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With A Chronic Shortage Of Teachers, Hungary Is Struggling To Replace Them

Tájékoztató a középszintű történelem érettségi vizsgáról a székesfehérvári Teleki Blanka Gimnázium és Általános Iskolában 2022. május 4-én
Tájékoztató a középszintű történelem érettségi vizsgáról a székesfehérvári Teleki Blanka Gimnázium és Általános Iskolában 2022. május 4-én

By Adam Kertesz and Lili Rutai

BUDAPEST -- For high-school teacher Veronika Molnar, it's the last week before the school breaks for the summer holidays in mid-June. It's also her last week at Lovassy Laszlo High School, ranked as the 10th best in Hungary, as she's leaving her job as an English and information-science teacher for good.

Molnar, 44, has been a teacher for 20 years, starting her career at the renowned high school in Veszprem, a city of 60,000 people in western Hungary, right after she got her degree. She spent two years on unpaid leave and lived in Dublin, Ireland, where she worked in the hospitality industry. It was then, she said, that she realized just how badly Hungarian teachers were paid, which has been one of the factors in her decision to quit.

Citing low pay, increasing workload, and burnout, Molnar is one of many Hungarian teachers leaving the profession, which has contributed to a nationwide shortage of teachers and led to country-wide strikes and protests. It isn't just that teachers are leaving and not being replaced, however. Across Hungary, very few recent graduates are choosing to enter the pedagogical profession, only making the problem worse.

Veronika Molnar, a teacher at Lovassy Laszlo High School in Veszprem
Veronika Molnar, a teacher at Lovassy Laszlo High School in Veszprem

In recent months, Hungary's Democratic Trade Union of Teachers (PDSZ) has organized civil disobedience events and demonstrations around the country, with both teachers and students taking part, to protest poor working conditions and the education policies of the government of Hungary's longtime right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Experts have warned that the rapidly shrinking pedagogic population could have serious consequences on Hungarian education. According to PDSZ spokeswoman Erzsebet Nagy, in 2022, the education system was short 16,000 teachers, with many more leaving since then.

Many of those missing teachers have not been replaced. Of the 126,000 Hungarians who applied to universities in 2023, less than 3,400 people applied for pedagogical degrees, according to numbers by the education information platform Eduline, with only 1,595 putting teaching as their primary major.

Education researcher Kriszta Ercse told RFE/RL's Hungarian Service that the number of applicants for teaching degrees has halved over the past few years, and the dropout rate from pedagogical university courses is 40-50 percent. Even among those who graduate with teaching degrees, she said, many don't end up taking the exams to obtain the professional qualification, which come after two years of working as a trainee teacher following graduation.

"A few years ago, 2,300 people passed the professional [teaching] exam from 12,000-13,000 applicants [for a pedagogical degree]," she said. In Hungary previously, she said, many people who applied to do teaching degrees didn't want to be teachers in the first place, they just wanted a diploma and then sought employment in another field.

"If we have 1,600 applicants now, you can imagine how many will actually end up in the profession. This situation is simply catastrophic," she said, referring to the number of people applying with teaching as their primary major.

There could also be a significant knowledge deficit in the future, weighted against math and science in schools. Students in Hungary can apply for up to three university majors. They will automatically be admitted to the first major on their list if they earn enough points from their final exams, grades, and extracurricular activities at high school.

Ercse said the shortage of teachers is most notable in the fields of math and natural sciences. Among the less than 3,400 people who applied for pedagogical degrees at university this year, the most popular major was history-English combined, with 119 applications in total. Much fewer students choose the sciences or math.

In the past, Ercse said, teachers had a higher status in public and were more satisfied with their working conditions. That has now changed, with teachers saying they have to deal with a huge increase in workload, overly large class sizes, and regularly having to substitute for teachers of different subjects: for example, a gym teacher teaching chemistry; or a history teacher teaching physics.

"I haven't taken a holiday in 20 years," Molnar said. In addition to teaching at the high school, she has also been working as a sailing coach at nearby Lake Balaton, which she does on weekends and during the summer holidays. Despite having two jobs, she has had money problems, especially after the 2008 financial crisis, when she was one of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who had taken mortgages in euros or Swiss francs and then found themselves with higher debt payments.

"I ended up in a situation where, after I paid back my loan and settled my bills, I had 5,000 forints ($15) to spend for the entire month," she said. "So, I had to take on extra classes. And I had to ask my parents for financial help, because I didn't even have money for food. With three university degrees, it was embarrassing."

With Hungary's inflation now at around 20 percent, teachers' salaries, which go as low as 312,000 forints ($927) a month before taxes, are now worth even less. The average salary in Hungary is around 500,000 forints a month.

On top of which, a new so-called Status Law, drafted by Orban's government, puts teachers voicing their dissatisfaction into an even more vulnerable position, according to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. While the draft law entails a pay rise, it would also eliminate teachers' status as public employees and increase their workload. Dubbed the Revenge Law by some independent media in Hungary, the law followed the series of demonstrations around the country organized by the PDSZ.

Teachers join a union protest calling for better pay and conditions in the education sector, in Budapest in March 2022.
Teachers join a union protest calling for better pay and conditions in the education sector, in Budapest in March 2022.

The teachers' union has repeatedly warned the Religion and Public Education Ministry that if it sticks to the Status Law, Hungary will not be able to produce 140,000 teachers, the number recommended by the EU's Human Resources Development Operational Program Plus, which partly focuses on improving the quality of public education and accounts for 11 percent of all EU funding for Hungary between 2014-2020.

Nagy, the PDSZ spokeswoman, told RFE/RL's Hungarian Service that in 2022 the number of teachers was already below 140,000. According to the PDSZ, if the Status Law comes into effect, a further 5,000 teachers could leave the profession. And in five years' time, a further 25,000 teachers could quit, the union has warned.

The government has said it can alleviate the shortage with retired teachers, by making it possible for them to receive a full salary in addition to their pensions. According to the PDSZ, however, this won't solve the problem. "For several years, the number of university graduates who actually started a teaching career was close to zero. Practically no new people have entered the system, which could lead to the complete extinction of the profession," Nagy said.

In the Buda Cistercian St. Imre High School where he works, Kristof Szatmari, a 26-year-old sports and psychotherapy teacher, knows only about seven teachers out of around 70 working there who graduated in the past five years. In the Budapest high school's 10-person sports faculty, he said, there are only two people under 30 and another three under 40. "Most young people will do something else for that much money," he says.

Teachers protest in Budapest in December 2022.
Teachers protest in Budapest in December 2022.

Buda Cistercian St. Imre is currently ranked 26th out of all high schools in Hungary. Located in a grandiose building in Budapest's 6th district and receiving funds from the Catholic Church, St. Imre is in a relatively good position. As education researcher Ercse pointed out, the shortage of teachers has hit disadvantaged areas of the country the hardest.

Despite the challenges, Szatmari said he likes teaching and will stick to it. "I enjoy dealing with the kids, building communities," he said. All in all, the positives of the job outweigh the negatives, he said.

Szatmari said he is happy with what he earns, although he has to supplement his income with other activities. "Let's just say, I would [already] have enough work in the school, with being a teacher and a class tutor. I would be busy enough, without having to coach kids in volleyball…and direct a sports club," Szatmari said.

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    Lili Rutai

    Lili Rutai is a freelance journalist based in London and Budapest. She has previously reported for Vice, The Calvert Journal, and about social issues, culture, and politics in Hungary. 

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    Adam Kertesz

    Adam Kertesz has been a journalist in Hungary for more than 20 years, working for InfoRadio, Fuggetlen Hiregyong, Kossuth Radio, TV2, and Hir TV. 

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