Hungarian education: Back to state schools?

Let's face it, Hungarian education is in shambles. There are too many colleges and universities. Because there is no tuition for about half of the students and because there are no strict limits within which a student must complete requirements for a bachelor's program, a lot of students look upon higher education as a pleasant way to spend six years or so doing practically nothing. When it comes to elementary education, most of the village schools with only a handful of students are not only very expensive to maintain but also of poor quality. On tests comparing educational achievement in different countries Hungary is lagging behind. Researchers claim that about 25% of the adult population is functionally illiterate. And then there are the huge masses of mostly Roma adults who didn't even finish eight grades and who have no marketable skills.

Those who try to convince the world that there is no problem with Hungarian education point to the impressive results of Student Olympics in Mathematics or Physics, where Hungarian students excel. Well, both descriptions of the Hungarian situation are correct, because there are huge differences between so-called elite schools and the ordinary run of the mill schools.

Here is a very brief account of the history of public education in Hungary. Until 1948 there were basically two kinds of schools: parochial schools and schools run by the government. Most of the lower grades were in state hands while most of the high schools belonged to the Catholic or Protestant churches. That changed with the nationalization of schools: 99% of schools became state schools. After 1990 an entirely new system was introduced. Some of the schools were given back to the churches, but the rest were handed over to local governments. This is a hybrid system where the central government contributes a certain amount of money per student, but otherwise the local governments are responsible for maintaining the schools in their jurisdiction. This is not a very good system especially in the case of smaller villages. There are so few students and thus the head quota brings in so little money that it is impossible to maintain the school. But who will take it over? Yes, one could suggest that the children of village P could be bussed to the next village. Ah, but it's not that simple if the next village refuses to accept the children from outside. As happened not long ago when it turned out that the children of village P were mostly Gypsies. No way the next village would take them. Unfortunately, I don't remember what happened exactly, but at the end the children of the village were not left without a school.

But it happens left and right that even larger towns are unable to keep up their schools. Some time ago I wrote about Tatabánya where the last non-parochial school was to be taken over by the Catholic church because the town was unable to maintain it. I felt then as I feel now that not giving parents a choice between a public and a parochial school is wrong. Whether the parent wants it or not, he/she will forced to send the child to a parochial school.

And now comes the surprise. The government came to the conclusion that it should reestablish schools under the direct jurisdiction of the state and thus limit the discrimination rampant in the current system. Also, I assume, the state would like to prevent situations like that which occurred in Tatabánya. What will come of it? Perhaps nothing, although I think it might be a good idea to take some steps in this direction. Local governments are strapped for cash, small villages are unable to maintain their schools. A chain of state schools could solve a lot of problems and might improve standards. I'm not a great fan of centralization but what's going on right now cannot and should not be perpetuated.