This past weekend Hungarian students found out whether they got into college. Great excitement preceded the announcement that was made public on the internet; students could also inquire about their fate via SMS. Well, they didn’t have to worry too much: five out of six students were admitted to a college or university of their choice.
There is a new point system. Its introduction was so successful (at least this is how the ministry of education interpreted the results) that while last year only 75% and two years ago only 70% of applicants gained entrance to university, this year it was 83%! Thus although this year 12,000 fewer students applied than last year, the number of new freshmen will be almost the same: 80,924. Moreover, this is not even the final figure; for those who didn’t manage to get in this time there is a second chance, “pótfelvételi.” If the results on this second try are somewhat similar to those in the last few years then another 8,000-10,000 students may gain entrance to college. So of the 16,006 students who didn’t manage to get admitted in the first cut, probably fewer than half will find themselves outside the walls of academe. The large majority of those accepted don’t have to pay tuition, 52,618 of the already admitted 80,924 to be precise. So the cost of the undertaking is substantial.
If we compare the current situation with that of 1898, the last year of the Kádár regime, one realizes the enormous changes that have taken place in Hungarian education in the last twenty years. Then only 69,000 students matriculated and thus became eligible to enter college. The number of those who obtained university degrees that year was a mere 25,000. Here are a couple of other figures that might be of some interest for the sake of comparison. In 1990, 46,767 students applied and 16,818 were admitted. After the change of regime the number of those who applied went up, reaching 79,419 in 1994, but only 29,787 were accepted. The percentage of people with university degrees was very low in Hungary–about 12% of the adult population (age twenty-five and over) and that number certainly had to be increased. However, some people who teach in Hungarian colleges and universities complain bitterly about the preparation of the students. Moreover, in many cases neither the size of the faculty nor the physical infrastructure has kept up with the sudden growth in the student population. Another problem I see is the appearance of newly established colleges that receive prompt and not well deserved accreditation. Apparently the level of these new institutions is very, very low.
Looking at the Hungarian point system, past and present, it seems to me that the emphasis is on educational achievement on the high school level. Out of the 480 points, a maximum of 200 can be obtained from grades received in high school, while another 200 come from the results of the matriculation exam in two subjects. This seems to me a very bad way of adding up those points: after all there are some fantastically good high schools, a lot of mediocre, and many outright poor ones. Yet an A (a five in the Hungarian system) is worth the same regardless of the quality of the high school the student attended. Maybe Hungary is a potential market for a firm such as Educational Testing Service, creator of the SAT (scholastic aptitude test) in the U.S.
It seems that it is very, very easy to get into college in Hungary. That is certainly one way of organizing things. There are places where a C average is enough to gain entrance to a state university in the United States and elsewhere, but then the student knows that his chance of flunking out is great. The other way of organizing college admission is to be very selective; then almost everybody graduates. In Hungary, it seems to be that there is easy admission and a practically endless possibility of trying to pass the necessary subjects while no one is paying the slightest attention to how long it takes to finish the course of study. Thus the average time spent in college in Hungary is about seven years. Well, this is the worst possible outcome. I wouldn’t mind if it were easy to get in and difficult to get out, but the current Hungarian practice is the worst possible scenario that can only result in a lot of graduates with diplomas that are worth nothing.
When Károly Manherz, undersecretary of the Ministry of Education and Culture in charge of higher education, was asked whether this easy admission to college will not result in a lowering of standards, he answered: “It is one thing that we accept everybody, the question is how many will finish.” But he added, the requirements must be raised and “that depends on the teaching staff and the university leadership.” Well, that is the crux of the matter and I’m not at all hopeful. Being accustomed to a well structured four-year study program at my alma mater in Canada I’m aghast at the laxity of Hungarian universities. Moreover, even if the university were to tighten the reins there is the all powerful student associations who do everything in their power to make sure that the educational demands on the students are minimal. So I’m not at all optimistic about the future of Hungarian education, even if 27 billion forints are going to be spent in the next few years at seven universities. Yes, you can change the walls, but you cannot change either the faculty or the students so easily. And that’s the problem.