Changing Hungarian higher education again

I think I will devote several posts to this topic, which is close to my heart anyway. There is the annoying practice in Hungarian politics for a new administration to undo everything its predecessors did. That includes education, starting with grade one and ending with colleges. If the Horn government introduced a modest university tuition, the Orbán government immediately abolished it. Of course, the party became extremely popular among university students as a result, although almost all people dealing with higher education know that it would do a world of good if students paid tuition. There are a number of reasons for this. Here I will mention only one: if tuition had to be paid it most likely wouldn't take six or seven years to receive a bachelor's degree.

Another cancer on the body of higher education is the incredible power given to a hierarchy of student unions that have a vote even when it comes to selecting the president of the university. These individual unions have a nationwide umbrella organization that naturally is opposed to any tightening of academic standards. Because, let's face it, the interests of the faculty and of the students are not always aligned. In fact, in many ways they oppose each other. The professor wants his students to be hard-working, to take exams on time, and with a little luck to acquire a certain amount of knowledge. On the other hand, the student unions want the students to have it easy. The rules are so lax that students have six cracks at passing an exam, and the head of the nationwide student union even complained about the fee that must be paid if the student failed the first time and wants to try his luck again. The new Fidesz plan intends to remedy this situation, which I applaud. However, there are other elements in the proposals that take a step backward.

One thing that the new administration doesn't like is the so-called Bologna Process. This is especially interesting because it was during the first Orbán administration that the representatives of twenty-nine countries, including Hungary, signed the Bologna Declaration. The Bologna Process was accepted by these countries in order to standardize degrees across borders. They introduced the credit system that is familiar to those of us who live in North America. They also decided to follow the Anglo-Saxon three-tiered structure, bachelor-master-doctorate. The degrees from different countries, thanks to a unified credit system, would thus be easy to compare.

European countries opted for the Anglo-Saxon system because European universities were falling behind. The best universities in the world can be found in the United States and the United Kingdom, and there are relatively few outstanding universities in Europe. When it comes to the standing of Hungarian universities, the situation is really bad. There are only three Hungarian universities among the top 600 in the world: Budapest University of Technology and Economics (307), ELTE/University of Budapest (316), and the University of Szeged (580). Nothing to brag about. Debrecen, Pécs, and Miskolc are not even in the top 1,000!

So, after 1999 very slowly and very badly the Bologna system was introduced. There was resistance from the faculty and resistance from the students. The professors couldn't imagine how enough could be learned in three years to qualify a student for a bachelor's degree, and when it came to the credit system they acted as if its introduction bordered on the impossible. I find it rather difficult to imagine what can be so complicated. Instead, I have the sneaking suspicion that they made a mountain out of a molehill. They were dragging their heels. Year after year the university presidents announced that they were sorry but they were still not ready. And year after year the ministry gave them another year to try. The students didn't like the new system either, because it was stricter and the student's work could be more easily checked.

Apparently at some institutions the faculty wanted to cram five years' worth of material into three while each department fought for a larger share of the curriculum. Instead of a basic liberal arts education, some of the universities were offering a specialized curriculum to their students. Although I'm all for the Anglo-Saxon model, its Hungarian version didn't quite work out because of the reluctance of faculty and students.

My feeling is that Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary in charge of education, would gladly scrap the whole Bologna Process if she could. She is a very conservative educator with old-fashioned ideas. Her ideal school is the kind I attended in the 1950s. Strict discipline, rote learning, no time or place for thinking, questioning or discussion. Just learn what is in the book and spout it back. Pass the exam and that's it. However, she knows that Hungary can't go against the whole of Europe and abandon the three-tiered system of higher education. So what she is now trying to do is to loosen the system by taking teacher's training out of the Bologna Process. As a student she attended teacher's college, worked in the ministry of education during the Kádár regime, and for a number of years taught in a high school. Thus she has definite ideas about what a good teacher is. Or was thirty years ago in the Kádár regime. An entirely different system, an entirely different world.

Well, I also have a few ideas of my own about training teachers. I don't like the American system of "education majors," where the students learn a lot about "the art of teaching" but mighty little about the subject they are supposed to teach. Thus in the United States we have a lot of very ignorant educators. If I were Rózsa Hoffmann, I would have a two-year master's degree in teaching after a bachelor's degree. However, Rózsa is not going to listen to me and will have a five-year program designed to educate future teachers.

In the near future I will report on the educational ideas of the Christian Democrats because it seems that Fidesz handed over the field of education to the Christian Democratic People's Party, which has close ties to the Catholic Church. And because the Hungarian Catholic Church is very conservative, I'm afraid Hungarian education will follow an outdated model. The question is what students will think of going to the kind of school their mothers and fathers attended thirty years ago.

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Matt L
Guest

Eva, a thought provoking post, but I have a couple of quibbles.
Tuition and completion times are not necessarily connected. American students pay heaps of tuition and plenty of them take six years to graduate! (Ok so technically the average is five for a BA… but still)
The Bologna process is interesting and I’d like to learn more. Its started to pop up in places where I’ve been reading about teaching, pedagogy and higher ed accreditation.
I am not surprised that this throwing Hungarian Higher Ed for a loop. I just don’t think American Universities handle big changes very gracefully either. Consider all the schools who went through the transition from quarters to semesters… loads of foot dragging and whining there… And we just got done with a big fight over reducing our degree requirement from 128 to 120 credit hours… that took three years! So I can see why it would take a while to set up new curriculum…
I suppose the difference is that American Higher ed is so decentralized and autonomous that it doesn’t need that much input from the government. Thats handled indirectly through accreditation.

GW
Guest

Eva,
While there are some local exceptions, in general in the US, an Education major will not qualify one to teach Jr or Sr High School, and indeed most institutions do not offer majors in Education. A major in the subject taught (Math, English, etc.) is required with education courses supplementing this for those planning to enter teaching, which, alongside the practical teaching experience are prerequisite to receive a teaching credential. In addition, the teaching exams introduced in many states are SAT-like exams on knowledge in the areas to be taught, not on pedagogy.

GW
Guest

One more consideration: the introduction of the three year Batchelor’s degree was a reasonable match for the US/UK four year degree in countries like Germany or Austria with their 13 year Abitur or Matura. However, the reduction of these to 12 years, which does necessitate a net reduction in the materials covered, brings the equivalence of the BAs into question, particularly as most of these are not liberal arts degrees with University-wide breadth requirements, but already highly specialized with all required courses coming from within a single faculty.

Paul
Guest
I am far from up-to-date with the university scene in England, but 10 years ago it took just three years to get the average BA or BSc. And many people considered the first year a waste of time (unless of course they were 18 and having their first taste of drink, sex and living away from home!). Some degrees (engineering, I think, is/was one) took 4 years, and I believe this was the normal duration of all degrees in Scotland, where the first year was spent on more general/broader topics (before tuition fees came in, I thought this was a good idea). As to whether UK degrees and universities really are better, I’ve no idea. But I suspect some of this could be down to our history (empire, world language, etc) and a lot to the Anglophilia (if that’s a real word) you get in many parts of the world, especially the USA – if it’s British, it’s got to be good. From my limited recent experience of English universities, I’d say the reality is rather patchy. Many of the students and staff I’ve known were impressive in their knowledge, passion and work ethic, but many also were so limited… Read more »
NECUNOSCUT
Guest
November 4, 2010 EVA B. Inexpicably, this evening prior to reading your daily Article, I had an urge to look at Mark Pittaway’s personal website. It is true that this has been a melancholy day of somber reflection for me, my family and I having buried my sister yesterday here in Toronto. The only thing missing today was an autumnal mist to comfort the moist leaf strewn ground. Maybe it is also because I have been re-reading Roger Gough’s book entitled, A GOOD COMRADE:JANOS KADAR, COMMUNISM AND HUNGARY. On Page ix of the Acknowledgements Roger G. writes,”I am also grateful to Dr. Mark Pittaway of the Open University, who read the text, for his comments and correction of a number of errors on my part.” In any event since you have yet to mention it, I am certain for lack of knowledge, I note that regretfully Mark passed away on Novmeber 3, 2010, where and why his website does not say. I have always been left with the impression that Mark, aside from being an Englishman, also considered himself to be a European in the fuller sense of the word. I recall how often he would tie Hungarian events to… Read more »
Rigó Jancsi
Guest
The Bologna Process is critized not only by the current Hungarian government. It has been under crossfire all the time in Germany, and some universities, which had to abolish the well-known “Dipl.-Ing.” and had to change to “Master”, meanwhile turned 180° and re-introduced the “Dipl.”. The idea of the new structure was comparability, but even within Germany this doesn’t work, because grades don’t tell you about the content of the curriculum. A bachelor from TU Munich is “worth” more than a bachelor from the university of applied sciences in Leer or Clausthal-Zellerfeld. Crossing borders, it might become even more difficult. So while this goal has not really been achieved, the new structure really tightens the curriculum, in some cases too much. I have been active with Aiesec during my university years, I have been on an internship in the USA and I have been Erasmus student in Veszprém. I could do this easily only because of the flexibility of the old system. Now a bachelor degree has to be achieved within a quite strict timeframe, and I have heard that less and less students find the possibility for extra-curriculum-activities like Aiesec. While Bologna manages to push the slackers (?), it… Read more »
whoever
Guest

NECUNOSCUT
Thank you for letting us know.
Mark will be greatly missed.

Sophist
Guest

” The professors couldn’t imagine how enough could be learned in three years to qualify a student for a bachelor’s degree”
Well, they are right here. Hungarian school kids start school two years after their English peers. The exams – the érettségi – they take at 18 are roughly equivalent to the the GCSE which English kids take at 16. ‘A’dvanced levels in England are essentially a two-year university preparation course in the subjects related to universtity course the student intends to follow. If a Hungarian takes an emelt szintű érettségi at all it is one subject not three or four and classes are not timetabled – the study is completed in the student’s own time. In the US a BA is standardly awarded after four years.

Sophist
Guest

Very sad to hear of Mark’s death – for those of us who don’t quite realise what we have lost:
http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/history/pittaway.shtml

Gábor
Guest

I’m truly shocked, it’s an enormous loss of a friend who gave reassurance with his unwavering belief in our shared values and unfaltering love for simple pleasures of life and of a colleauge who induced respect with his devotion to meticulous research work and to the moral standards of our profession.

Headless
Guest

It is very sad news indeed. I always looked forwards to his informed posts, keeping calm no matter how shrill those of opposing views became. His reasoned knowledge will surely be missed.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

About Mark’s death. I’m shocked beyond belief. I lost a friend and Hungary lost a brilliant historian.

Alias3T
Guest

He was brilliant. But even more important than that, he was generous with his brilliance. He was a very good man. I’ll miss him, and so will many others.

Paul
Guest
This is truly awful news. Mark was only young (the same age as my wife, by coincidence), far too young to die. I’ve only ‘known’ Mark for a few months via this blog, so I didn’t really know him at all, but I’m sitting here in shock and close to tears. Mark will be really missed, not just by the readers of this blog, but by all those of us interested in Hungary and the understanding of such a unique country and people. My thoughts go out to Mark’s nearest and dearest and his colleagues at the OU for their sudden loss, but this is a double tragedy – a huge loss for Hungary as well. At this time of upheaval and worry, Hungary really needs friends on the ‘outside’ who understand the country and its people, and especially those very few such as Mark, who can offer such deep knowledge and clear analysis of Hungarian affairs. With no disrespect to the other posters on here who know ‘their’ Hungary, Mark was something special, a sane and clear voice that we all relied upon to throw light on complex subjects and cut to the core of problems. At his young… Read more »
cba
Guest

What a massive loss… the cleverest, shrewdest and most warm-hearted fellow on this blog has left the debate. I never met Mark in person, but I am genuinely sad to think that I will never read his insightful words on these pages ever again… just when Hungary needs it the most… Rest in peace Mark Pittaway xxx

Odin's Lost eye
Guest
I was deeply saddened to read in this blog of the death of Mark and wish to send my deepest condolences to all his family and friends. In many ways he was one of the ‘Sheet Anchors’ of the blog and earned much respect for his incisiveness, presentation and his knowledge of the past and present of Hungary. I shall miss him greatly. When one of our comrades died we would mourn his passing for a few minutes and then splice the ‘Main Brace’ as he would have done for us, but he is always with us. I have always asked myself how many life changing innovations have been made by universities. What do I mean by this? The little, simple things, which improved the human lot, by several orders of magnitude. These things are like the seed drill, the various forms of force multiplier (engines) which gave us the ability to produce more power than that of animal muscle power, the invention of mass production, which allowed us to make the things we needed in quantity and at a cost that could be afforded, and the like. Finally the idea of precision, I work as an amateur machinist to… Read more »
Passing Stranger
Guest

Mark was a good friend, and the most outstanding foreign scholar of Hungary of his generation. This is incredibly sad news.

MP
Guest

I am a simple reader of this blog, who generally writes no comment. Nevertheless, this time I would like to express the grief I feel because of the death of Mark Pittaway. His clever comments which revealed very much about the deeper structure of several problems will be missing from this blog.
Dear Professor Eva Balogh. You seem to know his work more closely. Would you not write an obituary about him where you also could explain what we can learn from his works about Hungary and of his recent history?

Odin's Lost eye
Guest

MP I say Amen to that!

An
Guest

Shocking and incredibly sad news. I only knew him through this blog, but truly enjoyed reading his reasoned and scholarly contributions. He will be greatly missed.

Andras
Guest

A real tragedy. Mark was a brilliant scholar, good friend. Me and my whole family is in shock hearing the sad news.

Pete H
Guest

I am sorry to hear the news about Mark. I really enjoyed his comments. I learned a lot from him about Hungary.
A scholar lives on through their work and I thank Sophist for the link to Mark’s website where I found a list of some of his work. I hope Eva will do a retrospective highlighting his scholarship.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Pete H: “I hope Eva will do a retrospective highlighting his scholarship.”
I certainly will, whenever I recuperate. Right now I’m in no shape to write anything concerning Mark. Maybe tomorrow.

John T
Guest

Very sad news.

Öcsi
Guest

Sorry to hear the news. So sad.

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