Hungary’s new school system: A built-in failure

We’d better learn the name of another Hungarian historical figure: Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922 and 1931. His odd given name, Kuno, is a nickname for Konrad. Klebelsberg, like the majority of Hungarian politicians between the two world wars, had a title–he was a count–but judging from his short biography money didn’t come with it. His father was a professional soldier who died early and he was brought up in the upper middle class milieu of his mother’s family.

Almost his entire adult life was spent in government service. In 1914 he became undersecretary in the Ministry of  Religion and Education. As an admirer of Prime Minister István Tisza he was certainly no friend of Mihály Károlyi, and in January 1919 together with István Bethlen he began organizing a Christian national opposition party. As a close political ally of Bethlen, he received an invitation to join the new prime minister’s cabinet in 1921. For a short while Klebelsberg was Minister of Interior, but then he moved on to head the Ministry of Religion and Education (Vallás- és Közoktatatásügyi Minisztérium).

Klebelsberg was a man of vision, but without the Bethlen government’s decision to spend a considerable amount of money on education Klebelsberg could have done nothing. His ministry received sufficient funds–funds that couldn’t be spent on defense–to expand and improve Hungarian education across the board, from elementary schools to universities.

Kuno Klebelsberg, first on the left, 1927
Historical Photo Collection of the Hungarian National Museum

I find it ironic that the Orbán government, which at the moment is busily restricting educational opportunities, decided to use the Klebelsberg name to set up a monster of a government office that is supposed oversee the running of the newly nationalized school system.

After 1990 schools, elementary as well as high schools, became the property and responsibility of localities. At the same time, especially during the liberal Bálint Magyar’s tenure as minister, teachers’ freedom to choose textbooks and methods of teaching was greatly expanded, and newer educational ideas were introduced to replace some of the nineteenth-century Prussian methods adopted by Hungary about 150 years ago.

To Viktor Orbán all that sounded like chaos. He found the whole concept alien and could envisage only a school system where there was such a thing as “a national minimum.” National minimum in this context means that there is a core curriculum that is compulsory for everyone. Same textbooks, same curriculum, same methods of teaching. And that can be achieved only by re-nationalizing public schools. First, Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP), undersecretary in charge of education in the Ministry of Human Resources, laid out plans to nationalize schools that were until now under the jurisdiction of the counties. One of her first decisions was to force all current principals to resign. They had to reapply and they either got rehired or nor. Mostly not.

In the second stage of the operation 4,169 schools will be taken over by the state by January 1, 2013. The method of nationalization is peculiar because the real estate and the maintenance of the physical plants will remain with the localities. So, while they will have to bear a considerable financial burden, the management of the educational process within the schools, including decisions on hiring and firing, will be moved over to the state. The local governments will suffer all of the pain and reap none of the gain.

Critics of nationalization just couldn’t imagine how this new system will work. How can the minister in Budapest decide who would be the best choice for principal in a village school somewhere in the provinces?

At the end of June all became clear. As Rózsa Hoffmann announced at a press conference, the government is not nationalizing schools. This is an entirely unfair description of what’s happening. According to the undersecretary, the real aim is “the harmonization of the goals of the central authority that is responsible for education with the needs of the local authorities.” How will that harmonization be achieved? By setting up an office to serve as a liaison between the ministry and the school administrations.

The new office will be called Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (Klebelsberg Institution Maintenance Center, KIK), which may be the largest state-run organization in the history of Hungary. Over 4,000 schools, 1.2 million students, and 120,000 teachers. The Center will have 200 regional offices. Why 200? Because the Orbán government just restored a century-old administrative unit called járás (in German Bezirk) that was abolished in 1983. The restoration of this administrative unit was the idea of Lajos Bokros, one of the authors of the 2010 campaign program of MDF. Obviously, the idea appealed to the Fidesz politicians and the Orbán government created 200 járások. So, it seems, every járás will have a regional KIK office.

The Center will have 2,300 employees, but Rózsa Hoffmann assured everybody that it will not involve further government expansion, which is hard to imagine. KIK is supposed to open its doors on September 1, 2012.  So far the local governments are in the dark about their relationship with KIK’s regional offices. And most educational experts are skeptical about the viability of this whole highly centralized educational system.

Zoltán Pokorni, minister of education in the first Orbán government, is among the skeptics. He can’t quite imagine a huge enterprise whose management consists of several thousand people, with 160,000 employees, and a 700-800 billion forint budget. MÁV, the largest Hungarian company, has 35,000-38,000 employees, so KIK will be four times larger than MÁV. I might add that MÁV is perhaps the worst run company in the country. Pokorni, by the way, considers the fate of Hungarian public education to be extremely important from the point of view of the current government. According to him, the success or failure of the new system may decide the outcome of the 2014 elections.

Well, I think Pokorni is naive. The fate of the 2014 elections is in the hands of those who have been busily changing the electoral laws. The state of Hungarian education is irrelevant from the point of view of Fidesz. In fact, the more ignorant and the more lethargic the voters the better.


  1. Louis Kovach :
    Some1: No wonder you are against anything left. Your thinking is right there with Orban. Did you play some sports too before becoming a scientist? I guess your math was better than his.”
    Yes, target shooting in 1956. Your point is???

    Who was the target?

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  2. Dr Balogh: “Titles of nobility, Prince, Count, Baron, cannot be officially used in Hungary. Moreover, the use of such titles tells a lot about the person. Péter Esterházy doesn’t call himself prince, or Tibor Dessewffy does call himself count, or Ágnes Széchenyi is just simply Ágnes Széchenyi. But I guess they don’t need to point out their titles. Each of them did enough on their own.”

    So now in Hungary it is only Sacha Noam Cohen?

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