Hungarian higher education

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the state of higher education in Hungary. Two members of parliament, Klára Sándor and Bálint Magyar, both SZDSZ, are involved in attempts to improve the quality of education in Hungary. A few days ago I introduced Bálint Magyar who by training is a sociologist but who has spent most of his political life in the area of education. I didn't write about Klára Sándor, but she is one of the three SZDSZ members of parliament who was directly elected by a majority vote from an electoral district in and around Szeged. In civilian life she is an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Szeged. Therefore it is not surprising that she is the vice chairman of the parliamentary committee dealing with educational matters. She and Bálint Magyar are close allies when it comes to women's rights and education. The two of them often co-sponsor legislation.

Their latest proposal is to eliminate the common practice by some students of not finishing their studies within the "given" time frame. Let's assume that getting a bachelor's degree should take four years, but instead 10-20% (38,000-76,000) of Hungarian students finish their course work in six or seven years instead of four. That by itself is unacceptable on educational grounds in my opinion. It is also economically unsound. Lazy, no-good students can have a free ride on the taxpayer's money. Moreover, the universities (all seventy of them) receive money from the government based on the number of students enrolled. So the universities, whose most important duty should be to maintain high standards, are themselves not really interested in changing this unsavory and highly unfair system. The longer the state pays for more and more students the better it is from their point of view.

I don't know all the background negotiations preceding the latest parliamentary move by Klára Sándor, Bálint Magyar, and two of their MSZP colleagues, Zoltán Szabó and Sándor Magda, but my suspicion is that first they tried to convince István Hiller, minister of education and culture, to start negotiations with the universities and the "student unions" about a change in policy. The idea is that, when presenting enrollment figures on the basis of which they receive funding from the state, the university will no longer be able to count the laggards who spend six or seven years finishing their course work when, on paper, it should take only four years. If I am right, Hiller most likely said to them that he understands perfectly what they are talking about. After all, he himself is a professor of history (ELTE) in civilian life, but the universities will never accept this.

The students? Well, one has an idea. One doesn't even have to listen to "chief student" Norbert Miskolczi who heads HÖOK (Hallgatói Önkormányzatok Országos Konfereciája). In Hungary there is a whole hierarchy of student unions. Each university has a student union and all seventy unions are represented in a "conference." Miskolczi, who seems to have been busily studying for the last nine years, stands at the top of this pyramid. He is the president of the presidents. I assume that this organization resembles KISZ (Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség), at least in the sense that the student leaders receive salaries. Just like Ferenc Gyurcsány did after he became KISZ secretary at the University of Pécs. HÖOK is basically a trade union whose job it is to defend the interests of the students. Up to a point that would be fine and dandy, but it seems to me that Mr. Miskolczi and his fellow HÖOK representatives have one task they believe to be of paramount importance: making sure that student life is not too arduous. Too much work, nights in the library, writing essays all weekend–that is not exactly their cup of tea.

Yesterday I had the dubious privilege of listening to a discussion between Klára Sándor and Norbert Miskolczi on József Orosz's program Kontra (KlubRádió). István Hiller must be a saint if he can stand "negotiating" with Norbert Miskolczi at gatherings of the representatives of the universities. He is a very annoying and, let me add, stupid young fellow. And as is often the case, in his great ignorance he thinks that it is all so clever to call a member of parliament in her early forties "Dear Klára." Miskolczi also has a peculiar view of the credit system introduced in Hungary not long ago. According to him, the whole idea behind it is "to make sure that students can decide the pace at which they want to proceed" during their university careers. Of course, this is a huge misunderstanding or, perhaps less charitably, a brazen lie.

So the university presidents are up in arms and the students are standing shoulder to shoulder with them. But in order to raise standards this practice of self-paced learning must change. As it stands, there are only three Hungarian universities among the top 600 universities in the world: Budapest University of Technology and Economics (307), ELTE/University of Budapest (316), and the University of Szeged (480). Nothing to brag about. Debrecen, Pécs, and Miskolc are not even in the top 1,000!

By definition Fidesz is against the proposed legislation because they are against everything the other side suggests. In addition, Fidesz is the favorite party of the younger generation. According to all polls university students are great fans of Fidesz. Fidesz became especially popular among the students when in 1998 the Orbán government abolished tuition that had been introduced as part of the Bokros package in 1995. Fidesz certainly doesn't want to lose its popularity among the student population. Fidesz's excuse for not supporting the bill is also the credit system. Ten years ago this could have been introduced but not today, they say. Well, I who spent quite a few years making sure that students had enough credits to be promoted to the next class could explain to the Fidesz politicians how easily it can be done and that the credit system has nothing to do with it. Or rather it does in the sense that a certain number of credits is necessary for promotion. To give you an idea of the low standards are here is another example: a student gets three cracks at trying to pass the final exam for a course!!! He fails the first time, he fails the second time, and perhaps he is successful the third time around. I hate to think what happens if he fails the third time. I have the sneaking suspicion: nothing. Miskolczi of course sees nothing wrong with the practice. In fact he complains that students must pay for these second and third exams. How unfair! It boggles the mind. That's all I can say. This way Hungarian higher education will not improve.

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Hettie
Guest

“To give you an idea of the low standards are here is another example: a student gets three cracks at trying to pass the final exam for a course!!!”
This may be true, but they don’t get a choice of questions during the exam, which means they have to revise all the material. But the real scandal in Magyar’s and Sandor’s bill is the proposal of abolishing subjects in the first 6 years of primary education focusing instead only on the “3Rs” (this “acronym” itself a product of illiteracy).
Magyar might be promoting higher standards in HE but he is responsible for a lot of the ills of primary and secondary education in Hungary by slavishly promoting the British progressive educational approach.
Living in Britain has been an experience of isolation sometimes where topics of conversation are limited and where you get wide eyed reaction when you mention that the fact it rains a lot in Britain can be explained by its closeness to the Atlantic and where senior HR managers boldly confess that they had never heard about Cassandra until it was mentioned in the 6th episode of the Apprentice. To their credit it seems they looked it up later.

Mark
Guest
“Miskolczi also has a peculiar view of the credit system introduced in Hungary not long ago. According to him, the whole idea behind it is “to make sure that students can decide the pace at which they want to proceed” during their university careers.” I think this explanation is a bit bizarre. Yes, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation is designed to make study patterns more flexible. It is there to enable students to gain credit for study undertaken outside their home institution and to change institutions. It is also there to allow a more flexible study pace for those who study part-time, or who have to take study breaks for work and personal reasons (I don’t agree that study over six to seven years is necessarily “unacceptable on educational grounds” if the student is part-time, or is full-time but must interrupt their study for valid reasons). But, it is based on a norm. A normal full-time student in Hungary is expected to take 60 credits worth of courses. If a student is full-time I would expect that they do the courses expected of them. If they are taking the public subsidy to study full-time when, in practice, they are… Read more »
Mark
Guest
Hettie: “Magyar might be promoting higher standards in HE but he is responsible for a lot of the ills of primary and secondary education in Hungary by slavishly promoting the British progressive educational approach.” This raises an interesting issue – and I declare my own personal interest here, as a product of the “progressive” British state system (which by the way I felt prepared me very well for an academic career). Undoubtedly where Hungary’s system is superior to that of the UK is in providing a good academic education for the elite – the high achievers. The advantage of the UK’s educational reforms over the past forty years, beginning with the abolition of grammar schools across much of England and Wales, has been to ensure that the population generally is better educated and equiped for work in a service, knowledge-based economy. This is born out by the results of the OECD’s PISA surveys on the levels of educational attainment for the two countries. This breadth, or spreading of educational achievement has been achieved at some cost to the depth of educational attainment for the academic elite. I think when we talk about general cultural knowledge, we need to take care.… Read more »
Hettie
Guest
Eva, see this link : http://www.origo.hu/itthon/20090520-megszuntetne-a-nyolcosztalyos-gimnaziumokat-magyar-balint.html Mark, “Undoubtedly where Hungary’s system is superior to that of the UK is in providing a good academic education for the elite – the high achievers.” As far as I can tell this did not used to be the case. An all round, culture and science focused education was the norm for most pupils. As you may be aware there is no “streaming” in Hungary, therefore everyone is exposed to more or less the same curriculum. One might say that high acheivers can make the most of what is on offer, but if the curriculum is dumbed down to “reflect how children spend their time these days” the high achievers will become bored and successful and the low achievers will never hear of things that might actually inspire them. Only so many kids would want to be chefs after they’re taught how to make spaghetti Bolognese. Pupils have a right not just to be able to read, write and count but to receive an education which enriches their life experience and stay with them for the rest of their lives. I met a lot of people in the UK who feel they didn’t get… Read more »
Mark
Guest
Hettie: “As you may be aware there is no “streaming” in Hungary” This is more than a little bit misleading, isn’t it? The key issue is that across most of the UK (with a few exceptions like Kent or Buckinghamshire) there is one kind of secondary school in the state sector – the comprehensive. Except in a small numbers of areas where grammar schools survived the attempts to eliminate them under Anthony Crossland and Margaret Thatcher (the two Education ministers who drove through the reforms), no secondary school is allowed to select its pupils through an entrance exam. Furthermore, all these schools feed their pupils either into the sixth form system or directly into higher education. And in most schools, competitive setting in subjects, not streaming is the norm. In Hungary, the secondary education system effectively streams students because not all secondary schools prepare their pupils for higher education. If you look at the PISA survey results across the OECD not only do UK 15-years old perform consistently better in the subjects survyed than their Hungarian counterparts, but you can also see the effects of this division. The divergence in educational performance between schools in Hungary is way over the… Read more »
Hettie
Guest
Mark “In Hungary, the secondary education system effectively streams students because not all secondary schools prepare their pupils for higher education.” You are absolutely right on this, and I apologise for not taking this fact into account. However, I still don’t understand how watering down the curriculum would help pupils stuck in a weak secondary school. Presumably they will have even fewer opportunities for factual learning. And herein lies the main difference between your and my definition of a good education. You cite PISA data, but I was not talking about reading and reasoning ability (which is essential for success and Hungarian pupils are at a disadvantage), I was talking about building a (factual) knowledge base which enriches people’s life after they leave education beyond gaining skills and competences to become employable. I’m sure you agree that many children come from families where there is no time or committment toward learning, these children I think deserve to have access to the knowledge their parents are unable to provide. In sum, I would like to see a system where there is emphasis on both building employability skills and factual knowledge (here I include knowledge of history, art and literature, history of… Read more »
Tünde
Guest
Hettie is right on target, except that Magyar is not promoting the crappy British but the crappy American one (not so different). And yes, he does wish to dumb down lower education. I saw him after he returned from studying the US system, and he was telling us all how great it was. (By the way Éva, he, as most of SZDSZ’s sexist leadership, couldn’t really give a fig about women’s rights). And he is responsible for the diploma dumping and trade school closing which began under his watch. Mark Hungarian education, as Hettie wrote and Éva can attest her years in school here, was very equitible and far lest elitist even before 1989. As it was very good in what you list: knowledge of history, art and literature, history of ideas, as well as the thorough teaching of the scientific method. You left out music, which is also being phased out in the land of Kodály. PISA data is bad now, but it was not two decades ago. You must have seen this through your research and talking to fellow Hungarian researchers. Even simply talking to different age groups would be enough. Hettie: “You know, if I was stuck… Read more »
Mark
Guest
Hettie: ” I was talking about building a (factual) knowledge base which enriches people’s life after they leave education beyond gaining skills and competences to become employable.” I think our difference is philosophical. I take the view, as both a teacher and a student, that the most sucessful teaching is that which gives the students the ability and the enthusiasm for the subject to acquire knowledge that is broad and deep for themselves. This is certainly what I gained from my own experience. In any subject it will be impossible for even the best teacher to teach every relevant fact or piece of knowledge. I’d certainly say in History teaching an exclusive concentration on the facts and dates, and cramming people with knowledge is a sure fire way of ensuring that people come out with little knowledge of what it is important to know about the past (I think this comment is equally applicable in the UK and Hungary). Hettie: ” I’m sure you agree that many children come from families where there is no time or committment toward learning”. Indeed this is one of the most significant problems that any education system must confront. I think the best way… Read more »
Tünde
Guest

Tünde: “[Bálint Magyar] as most of SZDSZ’s sexist leadership, couldn’t really give a fig about women’s rights”
Where are you getting this? He and Klára Sándor are doing nothing else but trying to defend women’s rights. Not with great success when the president and the Constitutional Court considered the right to ownership more important than the safety of battered women.
I am getting this because I worked with him, and I don’t know what you mean by them doing nothing but try to defend women’s rights. One act does not make a record, and I know Magyar’s attitude. Sándor herself has been absent in any sort of activist field until recently.
Re: your education. I find it very hard to believe that you found the US education system superiour. Having experienced both, before 1989 Hungary’s was far better, certainly 1-12. Americans are functional illiterates. The university system was not great, true, but except for America’s elite, neither is the American one. My father taught at two, not unknown ones, he corrected his students papers, in English, not his native tongue.
Whatever was good in both lower and higher education here is being destroyed rapidly.

Tünde
Guest

“If you say something like that one is not inclined to believe your other assertions either.”
Ditto re: many of your own. And you know full well that 1-12 education here before Magyar Bálint and his gang got to it was far superiour to the US’s. Functional illiteracy here will be his legacy.
“As for your opinions of Magyar or Sándor I find them no more than malicious accusations.”
Malicious? “Sándor herself has been absent in any sort of activist field until recently.” I wrote.
That is a bit strong isn’t it?
Strange replies for a former Dean of a university. An academic would reply with some sort of reasons as to why not. And publish all posts (like Marosy’s, whatever he wrote unless profane, and some of mine).
Don’t worry Éva, I am not expecting you to post this either.

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