Hungarian education in the good old days

Today’s Népszava has a very large picture of Zoltán Pokorni, currently chairman of the parliamentary committee on education and formerly minister of education in the first Orbán government, and Rózsa Hoffmann. The headline claims that “education has become a battlefield.” Pokorni by and large stands for progress and modernity while Rózsa Hoffmann embodies the view that the pinnacle of educational excellence was reached in Hungary in the 1970s and 1980s and since then has been steadily going downhill. In the eyes of the traditionalists the liberals ruined the excellent Hungarian educational system. They claim, for instance, that parents shouldn’t have a say in the education of their children because they are not experts. The experts are the teachers who are the only ones entitled to set the course of education in Hungary.

The model that these conservatives extol is a highly stratified society educationally where the size of the elite is very small and where that elite reproduces itself. As opposed to the policy of the late 1940s to the late 1960s when children of workers and peasants had a privileged status in university admission, in the later years of the Kádár regime this upward mobility slowed. Children of university graduates filled the universities and elite high schools produced some students who did marvelously in student olympics. But the educational attainment of the population as a whole was nothing to boast about.

We don’t have much hard data on those days and we have particularly little to go on when it comes to international comparisons. But on the basis of a survey that was taken in 1996 we can get a feel for Hungarian educational attainment. The purpose of the survey was to discover the level of reading comprehension of those who attended school in Hungary between 1937 and 1980. The results showed that the purported excellence of Hungarian schools during that period is largely imaginary. For instance, the percentage of functional illiterates in this rather large group was 30%. This was very high. Only the adult population of Slovenia, Poland, Portugal, and Chile did worse than that.

But what is even more worrisome is that those privileged few who were admitted to university didn’t shine when it came to understanding texts. They are no better than those in other countries who only finished high school. In fact, in some Scandinavian countries high school graduates can read better than those who finished college in Hungary. Here is an interesting graph to illustrate all that.

An explanation. The highest score that could be attained was 500. ● signifies university graduates, ◊ means high school graduate, and  shows the reading attainment of those who didn’t even finish high school. If you take a good look at this chart you will note that in the Netherlands, in Ireland, or in Denmark a high school graduate who works in a factory may well read better than a Hungarian doctor or engineer. That is pretty frightening. It is also worth comparing Hungarian high school graduates with non-high school graduates in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Australia, Germany, and a score of other countries.

The study also investigated the relationship between reading ability and the parents’ educational attainment. It is not at all surprising that if a child comes from a family of highly educated people he will be able to read better than one who comes from a less privileged background. What is startling, though, is that in Hungary that correlation was the strongest among the countries studied. In Sweden, for example, children of people who didn’t even finish high school scored an average of 290; the score was 340 among children whose parents were university graduates. In Hungary the gap was huge: 220 as opposed to 320.

The researchers also studied the correlation between reading ability and age. The situation here is not exactly rosy. Those people who in 1996 were between the ages of 16 and 25 and thus today are between 31 and 40 did very badly. Hungarian statistics showed that out of 22 countries studied Hungary was second worst after Chile. As one commentator remarked, most members of parliament are in their late thirties or early forties and therefore it is somewhat disturbing to hear them talk about “returning to the good old traditions.” Although Rózsa Hoffmann may not want to recognize it, at least the current 15-year-olds scored in line with the international average at the last survey, and by 2009 they had improved their scores even more.

Returning to the good old days would be a disaster. No wonder that Pokorni is fighting tooth and nail against Hoffmann. But there is the all-important consideration of political dominance. Without the Christian Democrats there is no two-thirds majority and the KDNP members of parliament are squarely behind Hoffmann. It seems that Orbán would rather sacrifice Hungarian education than place his precious two-thirds majority in jeopardy.


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It cannot be emphasized enough that the present pedagogical practice in Hungary has more in common with past practice in Hungary than contemporary practices in other countries. Complaints by conservatives about the present system have continuously frustrated any introduction of real reform in the past 20 years. It is no surprise that Hungarians cannot read well, because Hungarian education remains based on rote learning, memorization of fixed answers, and standardized tests on those answers, with no serious critical reading component. A good system for a static and authoritarian state — be it rightist or leftist — bent on preserving privilege, but hardly the stuff for a dynamic, democratic, and merit-based republic.


there is a divide between budapest and the rest.
the hungarian scores are very good in this survey:

late night

In the centuries when the Hungarian economy was isolated from the world, the education system used to be of importance only as the carrier of cultural superiority(if any). After 1989 suddenly this became a practical subject, being decisive in the competition of Hungarians on the world-manpower market. Now, we grapple with the question, what is the aim, what is the measure of success. We have a muddled view, and as usual we exploit this subject too, shamelessly and unrestrained by national interest, even for pecuniar gains, for the pursue of our ideological hobbyhorse. A sad state of affairs.

Odin's lost eye
The Tunisian revolt began with an out of work young graduate. On the whole the young people of Tunisian are highly educated (to degree level) but were unemployed. The situation in Egypt, who also over threw their government, was similar. The 1956 uprising in Hungary was begun by the two student marches who were demonstrating in solidarity with the Poles. These facts will not have gone unnoticed be the ‘Mighty One’ (OV) and his cronies. He is therefore very suspicious of university graduates and anyone with the ability to read more than 4 letter words. . He does not need lawyers –the law is whatever he and his elite say it is. He does not need artists or authors –who is going to read them anyway? He does not need trained engineers or artificers they can be replaced by CNC machines. Designers not needed, Hungary is to be the workshop of Europe. He knew that less that 10% of the population were members of the Communist Party and they failed to maintain its eternal rule. He needs only about 2% of the population to have university degrees. Entry to this elite band of future rulers will be by birth and… Read more »

Do you have a reference to the study? Basing the conclusions on only one particular survey without providing any details is not convincing.
I’m a foreigner living in Hungary so I don’t have personal experience of the Hungarian education system. My very naive impression is that some high schools offers rather advanced math and science courses but that other subjects are to a large extent based on memorization.
Another observation is that university students are allowed to cheat and consequently do so.
Also seen examples of Computer Science university exams (from Elte), which were according to my standards completely useless. Grasping the general ideas was clearly not a requirement for passing, nor being able to solve any problems by applying the underlying theories.


Joel: Yes, your observations are quite accurate. Students cheat all the time. Instructors makes efforts to prevent them from cheating, but the penalization system is very forgiving (most of the time the student just fails the exam and he can come back next week to try again)