Hungarian higher education and the Orbán government

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.

Magyar egyetemista

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:

http://lapa.princeton.edu/media/itunesu/20120214_hungary.mp4

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Living with it in Hungary
Guest
Living with it in Hungary

I wondered why Orban was said to be congratulating or thanking the head of the student union in a news report on the radio yesterday. This really helps make sense of things.
On another topic (which I do hope you or someone can comment on). My wife was forced to join the chamber of commerce. On the application form she was not only asked for her email address, she was asked for her password! She, of course, didn’t oblige but my father-an-law was quite ready to do so until she stopped him. Worse, I believe (though I’m not sure about this point) that you are legally required to supply your password.

anecdote
Guest

I agree entirely with the comments here about HÖOK, the “students’ union”.(I especially like the comparison with the KISZ.)
Yet, how ironic that labour unions are even more feeble than they were in the previous regime…doing little more than handing out chocolate Santa Claus(es) for their members’ children at Christmas!Pity for Hungary’s “post-industrial” workers (sorry….employees/munkavállaló)as the walls come a tumblin’ down.

anecdote
Guest

OT: Comparative Politics > “German President Christian Wulff resigns over corruption claims involving a dubious home loan”.

Living with it in Hungary
Guest
Living with it in Hungary
Fascinating video. I’m not sure who was the dissenting member of the audience was but I found her choice of issues to comment on quite interesting. Seems like there was nothing to be said about anything until it came to the question of; were people at the pro-government rally paid to be there. Can’t say.. but what I can say is that the rally didn’t look very organic. Even the Jobbik’s rallies never have the synthetic look that this rally had. The other comment regarding the banks was quite interesting. First, it’s not and should not be the EU position to be protecting investors over all other interests. In this case the Forex mortgages were a disaster and I’m glad that some one on the panel pointed out that the whole scheme was foolish and risky at best. That said, the numbers speak for themselves. The bank actuaries did their job and properly assessed for their clients what a proper interest rate, one that reflected risk, should be. That gap should have sent out alarm signals to *anyone* looking to borrow. So, as I stated before, there are 3 victims and 3 guilty parties, the borrowers, the lenders and the… Read more »
late night
Guest

In lean times to expect free higher education is questionable. Probably the educational credit would be the least bad option for now. But the basic tenent should be, to eradicate youth unemployment, so equal effort should be put into vocational training. A society tolerating youth unemployment is dying.
I would be surprised if in O.V.-s land there would be academic freedom, but surpise me if you can!

Member
“Orbán’s Hungary doesn’t need philosophers or literary critics, doesn’t need too many lawyers and economists.” I am not sure that it (Hungary that is) needs or, at least, should pay for anymore philosophers or lawyers, particularly at a time when the education system as a whole is so financially stretched. Of course, there is a strong whiff of dictatorial social planning connected with this plan. However, due to abysmal career advisory services in the schools and (imo) an outdated and snobbish attitude amongst much of the middle-class as to what and what does not qualify as an “acceptable” profession, every year for as long as I can remember the universities have been churning out lawyers and economists who have next to no chance of building a decent career in an already over-crowded market. Why should the taxpayer be coughing up for that state of affairs to continue? Especially, when the state of the qualified manual professions (eg electricians, plumbers) is a joke. What is needed is proper career advice in schools, a thorough tightening of the university fee structure and much, much more emphasis placed on vocational training. In the wider European picture, I think there should be a questioning… Read more »
Odin's Lost Eye
Guest
O’Neill How right you are. What Hungary (and many other countries in Europe) need are skilled artificers. People, who can not only do the ‘job’, but who can as well and think at the same time. I have several aquaintanances who are ‘Graduate Engineers’. The spend all their time working on their lap tops designing things many of which later cannot be actually assembled. None of them can use a spanner without hurting themselves. They say “That is for the ‘monkeys’ to do”. One of showed me something he was designing. I am afraid I said “You cannot actually make it”. The reply was I can make a ‘DFX’ file, so the ‘CAD monkeys’ can program it and the CNC machines can make it. It could not the thing fell in half during machining. All the ‘Holy Joes’ and lawyers in the world are I am afraid are just ‘humpers and heavers’ with a degree. Where I used to live we probably had more D Phils and more idiots per square meter than anywhere else in the land. The problem was which was which? One should remember. A Science Graduate will ask “Why does it work?” A graduate Engineer will… Read more »
Member

oneill: “However, due to abysmal career advisory services in the schools and (imo) an outdated and snobbish attitude amongst much of the middle-class as to what and what does not qualify as an “acceptable” profession, every year for as long as I can remember the universities have been churning out lawyers and economists who have next to no chance of building a decent career in an already over-crowded market.”
Very well put. I think a decent and logical scholarship system should be put in place. THis is what Ms Hoffman should be working about at overdrive, not about nonsenses.
I still find it peculiar how Orban is hissing the law education, while most of his bodies, his wife, and good part of his government chums are from the field of law. I guess maybe he says from experience how unuseful that education provided to be for his country. His attitude against lawyers is the same as against liberals, while he was preparing to be won, it seemed like the best idea, but without talent it leads to change of hart.

An
Guest

Some1: “I still find it peculiar how Orban is hissing the law education, while most of his bodies, his wife, and good part of his government chums are from the field of law. I guess maybe he says from experience how unuseful that education provided to be for his country.”
I think he is just trying to limit competition in his field… he has all the lawyers he needs; his buddies who are loyal to him. No need for lawyers who may challenge his interpretation of law or his ideas. Ditto for economists.
Also, he must have found a law degree pretty useful… no, not for his country, but for his own purposes. Just think of how many times shrewd Fidesz lawyers were able to abuse the legal system; this would not have been possible without understanding how it works.

Guest

Odin’s lost eye,
what you described reminds me very much of the spaceship in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” filled with lawyers, telephone sanitizers and so on …
My wife and I just watched it on DVD – she couldn’t stop laughing …
Maybe this is where “Planet Orbán” is heading.
Really, it’s a sad, sad story …

Kingfisher
Guest
I worked for quite a few years in a Hungarian state institution, and it was an eye-opening experience. There are plenty of extremely clever and capable Hungarians about but I never felt they acquired this from their education. I think it owed more to their parental upbringing that what was taught at school. I met students doing American studies at ELTE, but their course work was a joke … they had great language skills but this had usually been acquired elsewhere. But more worryingly was that Hungarians had no ability to work together, no team skills and also a shocking lack of initiative. And that is surely a failure of the education system. An English friend of mine was posted to Budapest for a computing project with German and Hungarian colleagues. And he left profoundly disillusioned. He found it impossible to have a professional argument over some aspect of the project because the Hungarians would interpret it as a “personal attack” and his abiding memory was of the Hungarian contingent gathering in one corner, grumbling about the non-Hungarians. By the same token, he found the Germans easy to work with because they realised that an argument over how to implement… Read more »
An
Guest

@Kingfisher: “And having seen how incapable Hungarians tend to be in a “team situation”, I don’t think he was exaggerating.”
In the 90s a lot of multinational companies were responding to this “challenge” by hiring young people freshly from universities and then having them go through some corporate training, including team building. At my company this seemed to be working very well.. though it made hiring practices extremely discriminatory against the middle-aged.

Living with it in Hungary
Guest
Living with it in Hungary
@Kingfisher I have two kids in the Hungarian school system and I have to say that the experience is bewildering. On the one hand there are some awesome teachers that toss away the book and really know how to get the kids to learn. But the majority either don’t know how, or don’t care. I guess the same can be said in many places but here, there is an over reliance on memorization. I’m not a fan of the American system where there is no reliance on memorization but the over reliance on testing and memorization seems to be taking the place of actual teaching and learning. Cheating on test is so pervasive that it is not possible that the teachers do *not* know that it’s happening. In fact, in some cases we’ve seen it encouraged by the teacher(s). I could go on but I’ll end with the comment from one teacher that we know. She teaches two private students during the summer so that they can write the Hungarian exams in august. They go to school in Chicago. Her comment was, it was much easier to teach her private students than regular Hungarian kids because they were much less… Read more »
Bowen
Guest

@ Living with it in Hungary: what you’ve just posted has stirred some memories. I used to be a teacher of English in Budapest. I had a lot of great students – intelligent, funny, keen … Some less so. My least pleasant class of all was a group of teachers in a good school in Rozsdomb, Budapest. I think they had to take an English class as professional development, and they were all beginner-level. They were from various disciplines; history some were teachers of other languages.
Anyway, they were pretty lousy, I thought. They would turn up late, chat among themselves, put in minimal effort, and only spoke in Hungarian. The only thing that worked was repeat-after-me drilling. Anything else was a waste of time.
We had to do an end-of-course exam so they could get a certificate of participation. One by one, they came to me after class and encouraged me to pass them. One gave me a bottle of Becherovka.
Perhaps I wasn’t a capable enough teacher – who knows.

Need Democracy
Guest

The real enemies of democracy are the Communists. Unforunately the Communists are allowed into the European Parlaiment, where Communists can even vote on resolutions. And the DINO leftists (Democratic In Name Only) in Hungary are cooperating with Communists in an opposition roundtable:
http://hungariandigest.wordpress.com/2012/02/18/hungarian-communists-form-opposition-roundatble-with-mszp/
In Hungarian about the Socialist – Communist cooperation:
http://index.hu/belfold/2012/02/17/ujra_osszeall_a_kommunista_matrjoska/
This makes it clear that MSZP is willing to spit on Democracy and engage in direct cooperation with the far-left.
Éva Balogh, you should also write about this Communist – Socialist roundtable, I wonder what you think of it, I think it is shameful.

Kirsten
Guest

Kingfisher: “his abiding memory was of the Hungarian contingent gathering in one corner, grumbling about the non-Hungarians.”
and
“Hungarians had no ability to work together, no team skills”
Ii is sad but also a bit difficult to understand that the closing of ranks when confonted with criticism conceived as anti-Hungarian is not extended to cooperation or team-work among Hungarians. Would be quite interesting to have some opinions on that – the closing of ranks appears entirely automatic, but apparently without any implications for what to do with this unity.
Need Democracy: “This makes it clear that MSZP is willing to spit on Democracy”
You need not engage much hopes in MSzP, with or without a cooperation with Communists. Concentrate on the newly founded organisations, these are the way out of the current calamity.

Member
@ Need Democracy, There is nothing scary about communists. They do not lurk in the dark, hiding wrapped up in capes. There is no communist conspiracy in order to take over the Universe or Hungary for that matter. As every political or religious group, communists have their extremists, so does the conservatives, and I am not sure which one is scarier from the two. And there is the third scary category, the extremists of the mislead and misinformed. Calling those who “form an alliance as a strong anti-fascist group, that’s main goal is the protection of democratic rights, the improvement of living conditions and represent the national interests ” (quote from that article you referred us to) makes me question, what is your problem with these goals? Do you have a problem with that they are anti-fascist or that they try to protect democratic rights? The real enemies are those, as I said, who left themselves to be mislead by conspiracy theories, putsch fairy tales, and still “listen to what [Orban] says, dismissing what he does. THe real enemies are, who are mixing up the opponents with enemies. Just like Orban you see enemies on every corner. Well “Need Democracy”,… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Some1: “There is nothing scary about communists. They do not lurk in the dark, hiding wrapped up in capes. There is no communist conspiracy in order to take over the Universe or Hungary for that matter.”
That’s it. The few true communists in Hungary are a fairly harmless lot. A few people for nostalgia for the Kádár regime. One must worry in Hungary about the far right.
As for MSZP’s madcap idea of collaborating with the small Hungarian communist party I consider it a colossal mistake. Today’s MSZP simply can’t find the right strategy and there is a small left-wing whose members are most likely behind this latest scheme. That’s a dead end. It’s not shameful, just stupid.

g.stillt
Guest

i guess this video is here well known. so there shouldn’t be any question about the hungarian future.


I love Hungary
Guest

Hungarians could not forsee the risks attached to taking out a mortgage in Swiss Francs, which clearly shows the country has way too many economists.
Maybe Orban should end all tution subsidy, but require banks to provide tuition loans to students. AND require any such loans MUST be denominated in CHF….
Then in a few years time he could simply rewrite the constitution making all Swiss Franc loans illegal in Hungary. Hence all outstanding loans would become “null and void” – just like he annulled the Constitution on which he derived his mandate for writing a new Constitution.
Great way to finance higher education!
Who needs economists and lawyers?

Petofi
Guest

Corruption is rife: marks are for purchase in the higher grades and university. That is why no Hungarian university is listed in the top 500 in europe. (This, according to Peter Rona, who should know.)

enuff
Guest

@Kingfisher : “this belief (coming from Orbán himself) that English is too easy to be taught … ”
Our niece consistently scores very high marks in her English language exam. ; yet she couldn’t give a simple introduction about herself.
We learned from one of our private students that her teacher goes into class, writes down the day’s lesson on the board and if you have and queries, good luck getting an answer.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

enuff: “Our niece consistently scores very high marks in her English language exam. ; yet she couldn’t give a simple introduction about herself.”
I think I already told the story that during one of my trips to Hungary I asked my cousin, a school principal, whether I could attend an English class. Oh, yes, no problem. They have an excellent young teacher.
Next day I was told that my visiting was not convenient at the moment, too close to the holidays. I guess, the young teacher had his reason to refuse my visit. What would have happened if I asked a few questions in English from his students and then I would mention to my principal cousin that neither he nor the children know any English.

Odin's Lost Eye
Guest
Kingfisher I will agree with you whole heartedly. When I have to employ casual labour I always try to find Romanian of Slovaks. Hungarians will never do what they are asked, will do it wrong, and do their best to break their tools etc. The Romanians are delighted to learn something new. Hungarians know everything! I agree it is very worrying that as you say “Hungarians had no ability to work together, no team skills and also a shocking lack of initiative”, and worse than that they seem to act as a load of pre-Madonna’s with PMT! Their ‘in school’ activities must include team building and team activities. My step grandson spent 9 months in an English Middle School. He was different –for a time- He speaks ‘real English very much better than his class mates. His English teachers refuse to mark his work because he has lived in the U.K. My hobby is making ‘things’ from metal’ – railway locomotive, clocks and other weird things. It was not my trade (that was in computer systems analysis and design). My training in metal (and wood –Shipwright-) work was very long. Grandfather’s hobby was wood carving. I was 4 when he… Read more »
kormos
Guest

Some1: “There is nothing scary about communists. They do not lurk in the dark, hiding wrapped up in capes. There is no communist conspiracy in order to take over the Universe or Hungary for that matter.”
You are absolutely right. Should you belong to the right class or group of people, you have no reason to fear the so called “communists”. They did not have the need to “lurk in dark etc.”, because they were protected opportunists.
As a n example; Many of previous “Arrow Cross” party members became “Communist” party members, and diligently started to clean “the enemies of the people”.
But this is not a Hungaricum; similar things happened all over the Eastern Block.
I guess the political pendulum swings and with it some people swings as well. They usually survive, and the ones who stood steadfast die or suffer.

kormos
Guest

Some may swing on the gallows

kormos
Guest

OOFT
@Paul
Is this true?
“Residential phone calls, text messages, e-mail and visit of websites will be stored for future use due to the British government’s planned tightening of anti-terror plans – wrote in The Sunday Telegraph.

An
Guest
@Odin: “Kingfisher I will agree with you whole heartedly. When I have to employ casual labour I always try to find Romanian of Slovaks. Hungarians will never do what they are asked, will do it wrong, and do their best to break their tools etc.” Interesting, my American husband who works in manufacturing says Hungarian factory workers were one of the best workers he ever had. They did what they were told to do and did it right. He did have problems with their lack of initiative, though. He had no problem finding good factory workers, but complained about finding skilled workers, with a trade. People were either under or overqualified for such jobs. He did not like to work with Hungarian contractors; he said doing business was a lot different in Hungary than in the States. In the States you can trust that what you agreed on with your business partner will happen the way it was agreed… not so in Hungary. He constantly had to watch his back not get shorted on a deal and had to act in a way that would be considered aggressive in the States. But when he did act “aggressive”, suddenly things worked… Read more »
Member
kormos: ” Should you belong to the right class or group of people, you have no reason to fear the so called “communists”. They did not have the need to “lurk in dark etc.”, because they were protected opportunists. As a n example; Many of previous “Arrow Cross” party members became “Communist” party members, and diligently started to clean “the enemies of the people”. But this is not a Hungaricum; similar things happened all over the Eastern Block. I guess the political pendulum swings and with it some people swings as well. They usually survive, and the ones who stood steadfast die or suffer.” Can you provide some samples? I know a few communists who became right wing politicians, like Orban, Csurka, Pozsgay, etc. Arent’ you afraid of them? DId you just shot yourself in the leg kormos? I heard of some nazis who tried to hide in the communist party and they were outed very fast, but I haven’t heard about to many succesfull nazi attempts to became lomg serving communist. Also, if you read the posts even casually, it is very clear that the original comment was referring to the current dangers of the communists. I am sorry… Read more »
kormos
Guest

@Some1
No, I am not going to provide any names. Most of them are dead anyway. Orban and Pozsgay were never right wing politicians.
Csurka? Hm… I always considered him a paid provocative agent.
Whom do you call communist in today’s Hungary?
Some people may call themselves as such, but they are not communist.

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