Last year I devoted a post to the question of “tuition” at Hungarian universities. Today I would like address more generally some of the things I find wrong with Hungarian universities.
First, I think I should say that, in principle, Rózsa Hoffmann’s idea to tighten up the requirements at Hungarian colleges and universities has merit. I read somewhere that the average number of years spent acquiring a first degree is six years, not only in Hungary but in most European countries. It is also somewhat worrisome that students can fail subjects right and left, without limit. So, students appear at exams absolutely unprepared, perhaps even knowing ahead of time that they could not pass. If in the United States a graduate’s transcript were full of F’s this person’s chances of getting a decent job would be rather slim. After all, most employers would be inclined to think that if this person was an irresponsible student, he might not be the most responsible employee.
I also have philosophical objections to a system where a diligent student acquires a certain number of credits in three years while the “distracted” takes six years. It is not fair. If a fixed number of credits is required for a bachelor’s or master’s degree the time allowed to amass these credits should also be fixed. Although Hoffmann talks a lot about discipline and industry I don’t know whether any serious changes are contemplated in this area.
I also don’t know whether the higher education reform package includes constraints on the power of the student unions, but there is something very wrong with these “professional” student politicians. The current president of HÖOK (Hallgatói Önkormányzatok Országos Konferenciája) looks at least 35 years old. I’m sure the politicians of the 1989-1990 period who decided to give unheard-of power–at least in this country–to these student leaders had the best of intentions. Unfortunately, their decision didn’t promote academic excellence at Hungarian institutions of higher learning. Because, let’s face it, the student politicians’ aim is to make academic life as easy as possible.They fight and fight for all sorts of changes that, in the long run, don’t benefit the students. As long as students have as much power as the Hungarian student unions have (for example, at the University of Szeged at least, they can actually block the election of the university president or the promotion of professors) it is very difficult to aim at academic excellence.
Just to give a couple of examples. Let’s assume that Professor X has the reputation of being a tough grader or a boring lecturer and thus might not be the students’ favorite. However, let’s also assume that Professor X is internationally known in his field and it is terribly important for the university to keep him as a contented member of its faculty. Here, obviously, the interests of the students and the university are at loggerheads.
These student union representatives not only can sit on committees but more importantly they are given a fair amount of money to handle. They are supposed to be in charge of monetary assistance to needy students. I heard, however, that some of these characters “invest” the money and make a pretty good living for themselves. As far as I know, some of the positions in HÖOK are paid jobs. That reminds me of KISZ (Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség) during the Kádár regime, where the KISZ secretary of the university received a regular salary. Ferenc Gyurcsány said in one of his interviews what a deal it was to be asked to be KISZ secretary at the University of Pécs because he made more money than his mother. By that time no one gave a damn about ideology, the important consideration was salary.
By the 1980s KISZ as a functioning youth organization was dead and it seems to me that HÖOK may be heading in this direction. After all, the latest demonstrations were organized not by HÖOK but by a new student group that calls itself Hallgatói Hálózat (Net of University Students). Moreover, there seems to be some tension between the two student organizations. HÖOK became the Orbán government’s KISZ.
Now, let’s see what kinds of devilishly clever plans Fidesz leaders cooked up to split the university students and thus prevent a united front against the government. For years university students were known to be solid Fidesz supporters. One reason for the attachment was Fidesz’s steadfast opposition to universal tuition. Instead they came up with a scheme by which about half of the students could study free. The category into which a student fell depended on the results of his entrance examination. Once a student was granted free tuition he never had to pay a penny even if his grade point average was unspeakably low. The unfortunates who didn’t make the cut could work their tails off in college and get straight A’s, they and their parents still had to pay fairly high tuition fees.
This same awful scheme is being continued by the Orbán government because, after all, it was Fidesz that initiated a referendum on the question of universally applied tuition. Its introduction was roundly defeated by 82.49% of the voters. But, of course, Fidesz knows as well as everybody else that the amount of money available to maintain Hungary’s universities is insufficient and that tuition is necessary to supplement the meager budgetary resources. So, this government has severely restricted the number of free places. Viktor Orbán especially seems to dislike lawyers and economists. Rózsa Hoffmann could allocate only 100 free places for students entering law school. Fifty for ELTE and fifty for the Catholic University. Other well known law schools such as Pécs, Szeged, and Debrecen will get nothing.
The current student body is not affected by the changes. So, the government managed to turn the current students against the incoming ones. For example, HÖOK at ELTE’s law school condemned those students who occupied one of the lecture halls of the university the other day.
The divisive, unfair, unhealthy system continues apace, burdened even more by the government’s serious attempts at social engineering. Orbán’s Hungary doesn’t need philosophers or literary critics, doesn’t need too many lawyers and economists. But for the Hungarian manufacturing sector to flourish it has to produce lots of engineers. If a student’s parents are not particularly wealthy the choice may be engineering school or nothing. If the student has no interest in or talent for engineering tough luck! It reminds me a certain period in Hungarian history. The 1950s.
You may be interested in seeing a video of a panel discussion on the Hungarian economy and constitution at Princeton University. Kim Scheppele is the moderator, Paul Krugman talks about the Hungarian economic situation, Miklós Haraszti about the media, Gábor Halmai and Miklós Bánkuti about constitutional issues and finally Jan-Werner Müller about the political situation. Here is the link: