By now I really don’t know what to think. Yesterday I talked about the total communication chaos created by the three chief actors in the “tuition fee drama” in Hungary. But today it seems that Viktor Orbán completely reversed himself on the issue. From one extreme to the other. A few months ago he advocated a totally self-financed higher education. Now, out of the blue, it seems that no one will have to pay who receives the minimum 240 points on the entrance examination.
Madness! That’s all I can say. Of course, I have no idea how Matolcsy’s ministry puts together a budget, but one would assume that they included income from tuition fees in their calculations. Although given the incompetence of this crew one never knows. The 2013 budget has been altered twelve times since June and, according to its critics, it most likely will need further revisions because it overstates economic growth and inflates revenues.
According to a chart showing the mix of private and state financing of higher education in various countries, close to 80% of expenses are currently being paid by the state in Hungary. However, if we can believe Viktor Orbán, from here on Hungary will join Norway, Denmark, Finland and Belgium: the state will finance 90-100% of Hungarian higher education. So, if Matolcsy’s infamous 2013 budget doesn’t include that extra expense, the budget will be in even bigger trouble than it is now.
But there are other problems with this announcement. The catch in this “free” university education is that it comes with a hidden price tag: the personal freedom of young Hungarians. This time not only a portion of the students would be “tied to the land” but everyone. Every doctor, every nurse, every philosopher, every historian, everybody. This “serfdom” will not float in Brussels. It is against the laws of the European Union, which grant freedom of movement to all citizens of the European Union.
I have other objections to these proposed changes. Some of them are professional, others philosophical. First, I think a reasonably set tuition fee is absolutely necessary to maintain academic excellence, especially if scholarships are awarded on the strength of individual merit. Second, I have grave objections to the entrance exams in their present form. Back when I used to receive hard copies of Rubicon, the popular history magazine, once a year I also got a list of the exam questions pertaining to history at different universities. I was truly horrified. Facts, facts, and more facts. Nothing else. What are these exams suppose to measure? How good a memory a student has and how long he can retain these facts after he crams for the entrance exams? They certainly don’t measure intelligence, logic, and the comprehension of larger issues. To fill universities with people who reach the minimum requirement of 240 points on examinations like the ones I saw does not ensure the excellence of Hungarian universities. So, the selection process itself is problematic.
Third, and this is a financial problem, higher education according to the 2013 budget will receive considerably less money from the central government. Obviously, or at least I hope it was obvious to the drafters of the budget, these new figures reflected a smaller student body due to the introduction of tuition fees. I’m pretty sure that the government was looking forward to fewer students and therefore fewer professors. A lot of instructors were shaking in their boots already. But if the same number of students will enter college in September as before, what will happen to the financing of the universities?
On the plus side–that is, if we can take Viktor Orbán’s words at face value–at least the state will not play the role of the old communist central planning agency (Tervhivatal). As we know, central planning didn’t work and severe shortages, especially in the early years of the Soviet period, were frequent. In the earlier Orbán scheme the government would in effect decide how many people should study what. We don’t need lawyers, we need engineers. We don’t need economists, we need biologists. In democratic societies people should be free to decide what they want to do with their lives. If I want to waste my time on history no one should prevent me from doing so. And it will be my problem what to do with a B.A. in history. Moreover, no amount of state planning could have turned me into an engineer, a chemist, a mathematician, or a doctor. I had no interest in or talent for these subjects.
Moreover, the whole notion of trying to calculate a country’s future need for engineers or computer scientists is suicidal, especially if the calculations are based on a faulty image of today’s world. Viktor Orbán has this mistaken notion about a “work-based economy,” and for such an economy he envisages the need for a lot of engineers. But Hungary will never be “the country of iron and steel.” That notion pretty well died by the mid-1960s and it will never return. Hungary needs college graduates who can think logically, write clearly, can speak foreign languages, and be adaptable to change. And who love what they do!
*The reference is to János Lázár’s infamous quip about those who don’t manage to become well-off beings are worth nothing.