Most likely I will spend more than one day on this subject because it is a complicated issue. I would also like to give a little historical background that may shed light on the current controversy between Rózsa Hoffmann, who is in charge of education in the Ministry of National Resources, and Zoltán Pokorni, Fidesz chairman of the parliamentary committee on education. I'm not crazy about Pokorni, but I think even less of Rózsa Hoffmann. In Galamus I wrote an article in Hungarian about the woman and a bit of research into her background led me to believe that she is one of those people in Fidesz–and there are quite a few of them–who served the Kádár regime faithfully, became party members, were working in high positions in one of the ministries, but then came the change of regime and suddenly they discovered truth with a capital "T". In Hoffmann's case that also included religion.
Hoffmann graduated from the Faculty of Arts of Eötvös Loránd University as a French-Russian secondary school teacher in 1971, but instead of being assigned to a high school as a teacher she began her career at the National Relations Department and Universities Department of the Ministry of Culture as a senior desk officer. (Whatever that meant.) So, she started rather high on the ladder. After about ten years at the ministry she began her high school career as a vice principal and a few years later she became principal of a high school. Because she badly wanted to be a principal she decided to join the Communist party.
Later she received a doctorate in education and became a lecturer at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University. Her religious views influence her whole approach to education, and she relies heavily on the advice of those members of the clergy who are involved with education. Apparently, this church influence is quite discernible in the proposals she has put on the table since she became undersecretary.
Hoffmann's own university experience can in no way provide guidelines for higher education in today's world. In the 1960s ELTE was not much more than a glorified high school for the privileged few. In her days only about 12-15% of young people attained a college degree. The situation didn't change much even in later years. As someone jokingly said the other day, only Albania had fewer university graduates than Hungary before 1990.
But for Hoffmann that old, very structured university setting is the model she advocates. She is horrified at the "terrible damage" liberals inflicted on Hungarian education. Her sidekick, László Dux, a professor of biochemistry (but otherwise originally a medical doctor), just yesterday said "school is not for fun." So, if the place is really miserable it must be good for the kids. A strange view. In my own experience people learn when they enjoy the subject, not when they hate it. The same sidekick also announced that the whole Bologna Process (bachelor, master, Ph.D.) should be scrapped. No good. The old system was perfect and we should return to it. What does it matter that Hungary is part of the European Union where the new higher education system has already been introduced? Hungary goes its own way.
But the sailing of Hoffmann and Dux may not be so smooth due to the opposition of Zoltán Pokorni, who is after all a rather important man in Fidesz. Everybody thought that he would return to his old post as minister of education, but he was dropped. Education was tossed to the Christian Democrats in the hope of retaining the political support of the Catholic Church. It is an open secret that the churches, especially the Catholic church, would very much like to carve out a greater role in the educational system. And now through Rózsa Hoffmann there is a possibility.
Pokorni has been quite critical of the activities of Hoffmann and Dux. First, it looks as if they want to greatly restrict the number of students who could obtain a college degree. In their view underlying the problem of poor student achievement is simply numbers. Both of them believe in elite education. Only the best should ever get a degree. That would naturally mean that the educational attainment of the Hungarian work force would be even lower than it is now. Hungary today is paying for the sins of the past when so many people finished only eight grades. These undereducated people today represent the vast majority of the permanently unemployed.
In my opinion the real problem is free school choice. There are excellent elementary schools and high schools, called elite schools, and there are the dregs. Better off, better educated people send their children to the so-called elite schools. Students in these schools receive an excellent education. But there are thousands and thousands of inferior schools that naturally produce inferior graduates. In the Finnish school system, which is apparently the best in Europe, there is no choice: kids go to the school in their district. As long as the current school system is in force, I don't think that there can be a general rise in standards. The current system produces a very small tier of top-level students and a huge number of poorly prepared youngsters.
But I see no hope because of the vested interests in the current system of free school choice. There was only one MSZP politician who dared to state that if it depended on her she would return to the old system of regional schools. Naturally, if one doesn't want to send his child to the district school he should certainly be able put the child into private school, but not on public money. As it is now, all taxpayers contribute to the cost of education in elite schools. How unfair.
For how confused politicians are about the whole question of education here is an example from today. Viktor Orbán is absolutely enamored with the idea of hard work as opposed to financial speculation. Today he went so far as to declare: "There is nothing wrong with starting work at the age of fifteen." And what will that fifteen-year-old be doing in ten years? Somehow Hungarians haven't gotten it into their heads that without a certain level of educational attainment modern society cannot function. Turning back to the 70s will not make Hungary competitive in the world economy.