Hungary's Education ‘Reforms’

Oscar Webb

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.’


  • 19 December 2014 at 10:11pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    First Orban, then the trickier issue of the proper balance between “purely academic” education and vocational education.

    Orban is: authoritarian – he has restructured the constitution and numerous public institutions to ensure the longevity of himself and his cronies as the controllers of Hungary’s political life and its future; chauvinistic - he has little regard for anyone he does not regard as a “real Magyar”; a hypocrite - he is highly critical of numerous EU “cultural” policies and provisos, while pocketing every penny he can get from the EU; backward-looking - raising the themes of millennial Hungary, the glories of the good old days, when 5% of the population was “political Hungary”, the Horthy regime, etc.; flirtatious with anti-Semitism – he blames it all on Jobbik while seeking Jobbik electoral support; ridiculous – many of his public pronouncements are intellectually barren or idiotic, but play faithfully on “patriotic sentiments”; and, he has always been a supreme political opportunist/careerist – had the communist government never fallen, he would be jockeying for position at its top right now (his fundamental principle being: Orban).

    All that having been said, and taking his probably nasty motives into account, it doesn’t mean that his proposed changes in the balance of education at the university level between academic and vocational training is not a very open question. Certainly teachers’ salaries should be better and local control allowed to some extent. But the question of having too many people with advanced degrees and “no place to put them” is an old one in Central Europe (it’s also an obvious one in the US today in several disciplines, especially various branches of the humanities). Joseph Rothschild’s survey of the Central and Eastern European during the interwar era (“East Central Europe between the Two World Wars”, Univ. of Washington Press, 1974) is both heavily data-based with respect to demographics and economic factors, but also very shrewd in its analysis of how these factors affected education policies in basically conservative societies. One thing he noted was the overproduction of university graduates (often with law degrees), the excess of whom were usually absorbed by government bureaucracies. Bureaucracies should be streamlined in order to be effective, but when they are used as a sponge to soak up a large number of potentially discontented degree-holders, they become unsustainable (too many salaries coupled with no positive economic effects: the intelligentsia, like the earlier religious clergy, as “social parasites”). Had all of these governments encouraged vocational and technical training, perhaps moving half of the people in “academic tracks” over to the practical side of things, the economic (and social) results might have been far better.

    Part of the problem stems back to the cultural prestige of Greek and Roman ideas about the elevated status of “theoretical” thinking, or high-level familiarity with their own outstanding works of literary art and philosophy, while having a negative evaluation of any “banausic” studies or activities (which would include applied mathematics and technology). In other words, if an area of study (and empirical research) was useful, it was not intellectually respectable. It just wasn’t “higher knowledge”. This attitude proved costly in the long run, but it was one that was purveyed to university students (and whole societies) throughout the middle-ages and up until the recent past. Of course many people throughout the ages have realized that this was arrant nonsense, and that much of “traditional wisdom” was nothing of the sort. In certain quarters the distinction remains in place today, with knowledge deriving from the sciences held to be somehow inferior to that derived from the humanities. (And, there are holders of just the opposite opinion, which is an equally lopsided position).

    Another highly questionable implication of Webb’s piece is that better-educated people will be more thoughtful, tolerant, and liberal citizens. The most powerful counter-argument to this is the social history of the Third Reich, where a good number of intellectuals, and whole professionally educated sectors of the population (law, medicine, education, the scientific and technical professions) went over to the regime’s side, and hardly raised a murmur of dissent about its inhuman policies. So much for the alleged correlation between formal education (which is always biased) and the formation of critical attitudes about how one is being governed. The “dirty secret” underlying this is that people in general, including well-educated people, respect power and gravitate toward its manifestation whenever it appears to be successful.

    Whatever Hungary’s future political and economic prospects in the near future are (they appear to be very dim at present), and whatever ludicrous policies Orban adopts or enforces, the debate about just how much governments should invest in one versus another kind of education is still entirely open to rational debate and discussion.