Hungarian public education: 1956-1990

Because I have no personal experience to rely on, I have to turn to historians dealing with this period. I chose Ignác Romsics's Magyarország története–A XX. században (Budapest: Osiris, 1999) mostly because Romsics spends a fair amount of his book on educational and cultural matters. I learned from him about the educational changes introduced, what worked and what didn't. It seems that the ministry of education and the experts came up with new ideas about every ten years.

Romsics considers the expansion of kindergartens a real success. In 1938 there were only 1,140 kindergartens, most of them private, but between 1960 and 1980 the regime built 2,000 new ones. With this expansion the number of children who could enjoy the benefits of early education tripled. By 1986 92% of children between the ages of four and six attended kindergarten. The number of kindergarten teachers also grew enormously–to 33,500. While in 1950 one teacher had to look after 44 children, that number was only 13 by 1985.

During this period the quality of education improved substantially in the lower grades (that is, the first eight grades in the 8 + 4 model). I mentioned earlier that the reform of 1945 establishing a uniform school system was slow to take hold due to the huge discrepancies inherent in the old system. It took a couple of decades to close the old one-room village schools. In their place the government established larger district schools to which children were bused from a number of smaller villages. Just to give you some idea of the changes. In 1960 there were 6,300 "general schools" but by 1980 there were only 3,500. Seventy-five thousand children under the age of fourteen were bused while 10,000 lived in boarding schools. In 1955 98% of children attended elementary schools, but 37% of them never finished the compulsory eight grades. By 1980 the dropout rate was under 5%. You may recall that in earlier years the teacher-student ratio was 1:44. By the 1980s it was 1:15. The quality of education was further improved in 1978 when new textbooks were issued, and in some better schools the teaching of a foreign language (in addition to Russian) was introduced, occasionally starting with grade three.

Unfortunately high schools didn't participate in this improvement in educational standards. According to Romsics the problem lay with the regime's failed attempts to extend the duration of compulsory education to ten or twelve years. Between 1960 and 1965 the number of high schools grew by 50%. There were about 200 new high schools, mostly in small towns and larger villages. The number of high school students also mushroomed. In 1955-56 there were 119,000 students attending high schools (gymnasiums, technical high schools, or teachers' high schools); by 1965 their number had reached 236,000. Moreover, over time the classroom size decreased. In 1960 there were 35-40 students per class, but by the 1980s that number was only 28-32. The teacher-student ratio during the same period changed from 1:18 to 1:13. These statistics may sound impressive, but they gloss over the huge differences among high schools. On the one hand there were the elite gymnasiums, mostly in Budapest; on the other, the mediocre to outright inadequate high schools in the small towns. (This is still the case, and that's why on international educational olympics a small number of Hungarian students excel while on general tests [PISA for example] Hungarian high school students as a whole perform miserably.)

The last time I wrote about education I neglected to mention a new type of high school that was introduced in 1949. These schools were called "technikums" or technical schools; they were designed  to produce "middle cadres." I remember their beginnings. In Pécs, a city with coal reserves nearby, the first "technikum" trained middle cadres in mining. These "technikums" were not a great success and by 1968-69 they were discontinued. Instead a new technical high school (szakközépiskola) appeared on the scene. It was supposed to prepare students to become well educated workers with specialized skills. Since relatively few students could enter university and the gymnasiums with their matriculation examinations prepared students only to enter college, these technical high schools became more and more popular. Between 1970 when they were first introduced and 1980, 367 such technical schools were established; by contrast, the number of gymnasiums shrank from 258 to 165. About 30,000 more students studied in technical high schools than in gymnasiums.

During the 1956-90 period higher education was also expanded greatly. According to Romsich the changes were in fact injurious to the quality of education in these institutions. Between 1960 and 1965 the number of institutions of higher learning more than doubled. From 43 to 92. This expansion was mostly due to changes in name only. Educational facilities training teachers for kindergartens or lower grades were upgraded to universities. That move further lowered the quality of higher education. (A similar situation occurred in this country as well when rather inferior teachers' colleges were transformed into universities offering both undergraduate and advanced degrees, mostly in education.) Out of these 92 there were only 24 bona fide universities. The rest were colleges training future teachers or nurses. (I would like to mention here that, unlike in English, Hungarian has two words for teacher: "tanító" and "tanár." The former can teach only in the first four grades while the latter is qualified to teach in the higher grades. Even in that second category one normally distinguishes between "általános iskolai tanár" and "középiskolai tanár." I.e. the general school teacher and the high school teacher.)

In the 1960s only 18% of students who finished high school entered college or university. By the 1980s 35%, though many more would have liked to enroll. In 1962 the regime gave up the idea of strict quotas based on social origin, so the percentage of students coming from a working-class or peasant background slowly dropped. In 1956-57 it was 55% but by 1984 only 37%.

Acceptance to college was based on a point system. The formula combined high school grades and  entrance examination results, with more weight given to grades. I never considered this fair because, after all, grades vary greatly from school to school. An "A" from an elite school simply can't be compared to an "A" from a substandard school. I also found it strange that after the centrally administered matriculation exams students still had to take entrance exams.

Prior to the war the favorite course of study was law. That changed after 1948. Who wanted to be a lawyer, a judge, or a prosecutor in a dictatorship? Even at the end of the Kádár regime only 4-6% of university graduates got law degrees. (Note that there are no separate law schools in Hungary. Law is essentially an undergraduate "major.") Engineering students, on the other hand, were in great abundance: 27-30% of the undergraduate population. Eleven to fourteen percent chose teaching.

At the universities the teacher-student ratio was outstanding by any standard–1:4. However, the quality of the professors was uneven. According to Romsics "it was way below international standards." One problem was the cultural isolation of the country. Another was linguistic isolation. To help alleviate the latter problem by the mid-1980s some bilingual high schools were established. And among well-off families many children attended private language classes. Slowly but surely more people took higher-level foreign language examinations.

The main indicators showed progress. By the 1980s 18.5% of the population had high school degrees (still very low) but that was a marked improvement over 1960 when it was only 6.2%. Those with college or university degrees grew during the same period from 2.3% to 7%, though in comparison to other western countries anemic. The problem is that statistics don't lend themselves to qualitative analysis. What do students learn (to analyze, to be creative, or to spout back)? How do they spend their free time? What is their relationship to their college or university (as alums or potential contributors, for instance)? Of course, I realize that this is not part of the Hungarian model, but it can have a powerful influence on the quality of the institutions.

I was talking to a university professor the other day who attended one of the better universities in the second half of the 1980s. She told me that "quality was bad when I was a student but today it is is even worse." And one hears the same thing over and over again. The student body grew tremendously but the teaching staff didn't. New colleges and universities were established some of which, according to their critics, don't even deserve accreditation. But that is another topic.

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