Already yesterday I was toying with the idea of writing in a bit more detail about the situation in Hungarian universities. Then came Lia’s comments, which definitely propelled me in this direction. I must state right at the very beginning that I am a conservative in educational matters. Not in the sense that I believe in rote learning, which was unfortunately fairly typical when I was a student in Hungary. Rather, with a little exaggeration, I don’t believe in courses in basket weaving. I do believe in fewer classroom hours and more independent work and more writing. I don’t believe in textbooks or notes written by the professors and sold to the poor students who simply have to regurgitate their contents. Because this was fairly typical in Hungarian universities, and perhaps to a large extent this is the case still today. I must tell you that I’m simply baffled when I hear about students who hang around the university for close to ten years and somehow manage to finish their studies by repeating the same exams over and over and failing time and time again. Or if the student doesn’t feel like taking the exam at the given time he simply doesn’t show up and there are no consequences. This is simply outrageous. I attended two universities, one in Canada which was not terribly selective in its entrance requirements, but half the enrolled students flunked out by the end of the first year. And flunking out didn’t mean flunking all the courses, or half of them. It meant a certain number of courses, let’s say, three, and that was that. The other university I attended as a grad student was a very selective elite university where few people failed but the students had to work extremely hard.
The first time when I started paying attention to Hungarian universities was when I read a story about a college in a provincial town and found out that most of the students who are not locals and live somewhere else empty the dormitories every weekend. They go home! Many of them in their own cars! How is that possible? At my university, the students worked doubly hard during the weekends: there was uninterrupted study time. If on Friday afternoon the campus is empty, one has a fair idea about the quality of education.
I would like to summarize briefly the current system of getting into university. There are 72 universities and colleges in a country of ten million. Practically anyone who wants to will get into some college or other. However, like so many other things in Hungary, college admission isn’t a simple matter; it hinges on a point system so complicated that most parents and students don’t understand it. Plus, the system seems to change practically every year. Under this point system everything and the kitchen sink can be calculated: grades, matriculation exam results, sports, knowledge of languages, entrance exams, and who knows what else. Unlike in American or Canadian universities one has to declare a major before applying because the application goes to the department not to the university. The necessary number of points varies depending on the number of applicants to a certain department in a certain university. Therefore, a student who applies as an entering student in a popular field will need more points to be admitted. And, of course, the necessary number of points varies from university to university.
Over a certain number of points the students don’t have to pay anything for their education. Let’s say, one needs 123 points in order to get into X department of Y university. Those people who hit that magic number will pay no tuition regardless of their grades in subsequent years. Every second grade maybe a D or an F, he will sail through without paying a penny. It doesn’t seem to matter how long it will take this great student to finish his studies. On the other hand, if the poor fellow received only 122 points he will have to pay lots and lots of money in order to attend the same department in the same university. Again, it doesn’t matter how good a student he will be in his college years. He may have straight A’s but he pays. So, this is the fantastic wonderful system which the Fidesz wants to keep. After all it was during the Orbán government that the tuition which was introduced by Lajos Bokros (finance minister in the Horn government) was abolished. However, the Orbán lead government made sure that the income from tuition will remain about the same. They simply increased the percentages of paying and non-paying places.
The proposal which the Hungarian opposition wants to veto on March 9 would change this unfair system. During the first year there would be no tuition for anyone because students come from different high schools and it wouldn’t fair to judge them on the basis of their grades in high school. However, by the second year there would be tuition, but, in addition, there would also be scholarships depending on the sstudents’ grades. Therefore, the diligent, good students would be rewarded and the louses not. In addition, there would be financial help for those whose parents are not in position to pay all the expenses. The fees the students pay would remain with the institutions. A certain percentage of the income would be spent on scholarship. The rest to raise standards. The presidents of universities would like to hire more and better people. They are talking about inviting foreign professors which would be especially beneficial in departments teaching foreign languages. So, all in all, I am for tuition and so are all the professors, presidents, teachers I heard to talk about the subject.
But, I don’t think that the tuition is quite enough to change the atmosphere at Hungarian universities and colleges. There must be stricter control over the students. I who spent a few years counting credits, making sure that students had enough credit to move from freshman year to sophomore, from sophomore to junior, etc. year I can’t even imagine the chaos which must pervade Hungarian universities. You can’t allow one student to finish the same course work in eight years instead of four. It simply is not fair. The playing field is not even. For years I have been complaining about the incredible number of hours students must spend in the classroom listening to the golden words of their professors. This was the situation in my days: practically all day long we were sitting at lectures. Getting into the library took a real effort. I did go to libraries and even read more than the textbook, but I was an exception to the rule. I was hoping that the number of courses a student has to take are getting closer to the American or Canadian practice. But no! Just the other day I received an e-mail from a proud father who told me that his daughter received 10 A’s and 4 B’s…… What? Are we still here? How can anyone do independent work with this kind of course load?
Sometime I wish the Hungarians would get some advice from American college administrators. I mention the US not because I happen to live here, but because American universities’ reputation is so high internationally. Of course, not all American universities but the best ones. There are many things which should be remedied, including the number of colleges which received accreditation lately and which shouldn’t have been admitted to be a degree giving institution. Another problem of the travelling professors: some of them teach at three different colleges in three different cities. Sometime they don’t make it. Only a video of the lecture is given to the students. There are a lot of problems. I just read that Gyurcsány’s speech tomorrow in parliament will be talking mostly on the government’s plans how to raise educational standards. It is one of the most urgent task of any Hungarian government.