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.