Hungary's Education ‘Reforms’
Last month Hungary’s teachers were out on the streets of Budapest. Thousands marched, demanding the government reduce child poverty and increase their wages: they earn 53 per cent of the average pay for university educated workers, the second lowest among OECD countries. Teachers’ salaries have decreased drastically since 2005 and government spending on primary and secondary education has dropped 14 per cent since 2008.
The protesting teachers also demanded that the government consult them before making any further reforms to the education system. There are three main types of secondary school in Hungary: academic only (gymnasiums), mixed academic and vocational, and vocational only. The government has said it wants more children to go to vocational schools and fewer to gymnasiums. Details of the reforms will be made clear in the next few months, according to Péter Medgyes, an emeritus professor at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (ELTE). At the moment it’s ‘just a threat’, he told me. ‘Secondary schools are extremely worried about it.’
In 2010 there were around 600 church-run schools in Hungary; there are now over 1000, teaching more than 10 per cent of children. ‘In addition to knowledge the public education system should also provide identity,’ a press release from the education minister said in August. Under Fidesz, a number of ultranationalist and anti-Semitic writers, including the Arrow Cross supporter József Nyírő (1889-1953) and Albert Wass (1908-98), have been rehabilitated and introduced into the national curriculum, despite protests from teachers.
The government is also trying to repeal laws designed to prevent the segregation of Roma children in schools. Aladár Horváth, a Roma rights campaigner, says there are currently 300 Roma-only schools in Hungary. Writing to the European Commission in early December, the Chance for Children Foundation said that the proposed reforms will 'legalise segregated education of Romani children', allowing the operation of 'Roma-only schools which provide undefined "social catch up"'. Adél Kegye, who works for the foundation, told me that segregation in church schools is more prevalent because they are under less government control. 'There has been a trend in the last few years of churches taking over segregated schools.' She said that the government was trying to wash its hands of the segregation problem by giving control to the church.
Earlier this year Fidesz nationalised the textbook industry in Hungary, buying up or putting out of business most private textbook publishing houses. The government centralised the running of schools in 2013, taking control away from local authorities. The Klebelsberg Institution Maintenance Centre, under the oversight of the ministry of education, now employs all of Hungary’s 130,000 teachers, with the direct power to hire and fire them. ‘The schools have been deprived of all autonomy, from financial autonomy, from the autonomy to affect the curriculum and from the autonomy to choose the textbooks they use,’ Bálint Magyar, a former liberal education minister, told me.
Universities are affected too. Visiting a car factory in November, the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said the education system was creating a ‘lopsided society’, with too much emphasis on academic subjects rather than vocational ones. He’s doing his best to change that. The number of students enrolled in higher education has dropped from 424,000 in 2005 to 320,000 this year. Government funding for higher education institutions has decreased by nearly a quarter since 2007; the figure in real terms is much higher. ‘Universities are financially so badly off,’ Medgyes told me, ‘that, for example, I haven’t got a computer – the one I had was produced in 1995 and was useless. I have to buy my own paper. We don’t have a photocopier. We don’t have anything.’ ELTE is admitting ‘basically anybody’ who can pay, Medgyes says. ‘We need the money.’
Earlier this year, the government introduced a new administrative university post, which roughly translates into English as ‘chancellor’. They control spending and are appointed directly by the prime minister. The education ministry said that ‘the new system will not affect either the autonomy of instruction and research or the self-government of universities,’ but Medgyes is doubtful. ‘It’s a very powerful position,’ he said. ‘If you’ve got the purse, you can have your say in academic matters.’ University rectors are also now appointed by parliament.
Bálint Magyar, who has described Hungary under Fidesz as a ‘mafia state’, told me their education policy wasn’t worthy of the name: ‘The bombing of a city can’t be called architecture.’
‘We don’t want an educated country,’ Medgyes said. ‘Educated people tend to protest, they voice dissent, they ask critical questions. We are trying to dumb down the population.’