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.