Joel wrote a comment the other day in which he mentioned that in Hungary "university students are allowed to cheat and consequently do so." He seems to be talking from personal experience. Hungarians don't like to talk about this "problem" or, if the topic comes up, they usually make light of it. Because after all cheating is a universal game that is being played by students and teachers all over the country. The teachers are trying to catch the cheaters and the "clever" students do everything in their power to fool them. But there are times when the teacher actually closes his/her eyes to the fact of cheating.
Cheating in school is part and parcel of Hungarian culture, and some people in Hungary simply cannot understand why cheating or plagiarism is taken so seriously in other countries. I can speak only about the situation in Canada and in the United States, but the attitude in these two countries would most likely be incomprehensible to the majority of Hungarians who completed their studies in Hungary. Or at least this was my experience. For years I was a member of an internet Hungarian-language political discussion group where those of us who lived in Canada and the United States made the mistake of expressing our disapproval of student cheating. The discussion between those who had been socialized in the West and those who lived in Hungary became very heated. One member actually left the list in disgust because the "westerners" labelled cheating a crime. Surely, she didn't consider herself a criminal just because she spent hours plotting how she could outfox the teachers. Her leaving didn't change my mind.
Hungarian students who engage in this widespread cheating are generous boys and girls. They are quite ready to help each other out. Individual achievement doesn't seem to play such an important role in Hungarian schools as it does here. Actually there were several studies that tried to measure Hungarians' competitive spirit and the results were disappointing. Individual achievement within the class or the department should matter, but I was astonished to learn that once someone has finished university and has a diploma in hand, future employers don't seem to be terribly interested in the particulars of his or her university career. But it does matter, doesn't it, whether someone received a bachelors degree in three years or in six? Or let's say you want to hire a university graduate to be part of a chemical research team. Wouldn't you prefer someone who got decent grades in chemistry as opposed to one who barely squeaked by?
Sometimes the teachers actually look the other way. I suspect most often when it comes to final examinations at matriculation time. The tests are the same all over the country, and imagine a bad high school somewhere in a small town where the students learned very little math. And now comes a fairly tough test from Budapest. If no help came from the teachers most likely the whole class would flunk. Well, that wouldn't look very good. But whom do they fool? Only themselves and their students.
One of my most shocking experiences during this heated debate was the attitude of a university professor who taught at a well known Hungarian university before he settled in the United States. I was outlining to the members of the group the very severe consequences that ensue when a Yale student is caught cheating or plagiarizing. Upon entrance, the incoming students are warned of the consequences, yet every year a case or two comes to light. And the punishment is severe. If a student is found plagiarizing he/she will have to leave the university, normally for a year. Moreover, it can easily happen that years later, when the student is applying for example to law school, an inquiry will come to the student's undergraduate college asking whether there was any disciplinary action against him. I can speak from personal experience. I received a telephone call from a very prestigious law school years after a former student of mine was found cheating and left Yale for good. They were inquiring whether there was any disciplinary action against the student who was applying for admission. Naturally, I told them the truth. Our Hungarian professor was outraged. According to him I was supposed to lie on behalf of the student. I who at this point was representing Yale College to another academic institution! Unimaginable, isn't it? Absolutely twisted morality. And it doesn't do any good for the standards either. Moreover, how can we demand honesty outside of the school if in school cheating is treated as child's play? Obviously we can't.