The Orbán government wants to reform higher education so that it will advance the material well-being of the Hungarian nation. Its primary purpose should be to contribute to areas such as manufacturing and agriculture, to the production of physical products.
Last November I wrote about László Palkovics, the latest undersecretary in charge of higher education, who announced early in his career as a member of the government that “the state will not finance useless diplomas.” After reading a long interview with the man, I came to the conclusion that Palkovics was planning to transform Hungarian higher education into one “huge engineering school.”
It seems that the presidents of Hungarian universities had the same misgivings about Palkovics’s “reforms” as I did. The Hungarian Conference of University Presidents (Magyar Rektori Konferencia) pointed out “the flaws of a concept that concentrates exclusively on economic matters.” As usual, the presidents’ objections were ignored. By mid-April rumors circulated that a large number of subjects taught at the bachelor’s level would be eliminated from the course offerings. “Communication” and “international studies” were prime targets; the government wanted to get rid of them as undergraduate majors. Vh.hu seemed to know that the ministry of foreign affairs and trade wasn’t happy about the proposed elimination of the study of international relations, which usually attracts very bright students. After all, some of these young people contemplate a diplomatic career.
On the afternoon of April 17 the government at last made its new plans for higher education public. Isn’t it interesting that momentous decisions that the government suspects will meet with resistance are usually released late on Friday afternoon? The hope, I assume, is that by Monday the outrage will subside. Well, it didn’t work out that way this time, especially since the document indicated that not only would certain social science fields, like international relations, no longer be available for B.A. students but that the very survival of the faculty of social sciences was at stake.
Today students and faculty members of several universities met in “forums” to discuss the government document. First I heard about the forum held by Eötvös Lóránd Tudományegyetem (ELTE) students and professors of the Faculty of Social Sciences. A few minutes later I learned that other universities were joining the “revolt.” The revolt continued on to the Budapest Műszaki Egyetem (MBE/Budapest Engineering School), where László Palkovics was holding the fort against irate students who accused him of not knowing what he was talking about.
Given the centralized nature of Hungarian higher education, I suspect that this decision would affect all universities and colleges, although at the moment the talk is only about ELTE, Corvinus, and the Catholic University. The government’s plans, by the way, are not based on financial considerations. As it now stands, students who want to major in international relations must pay their own way, so the government saves no money whatsoever by getting rid of the discipline. The reason for the decision is most likely political. The Orbán government doesn’t like the way ELTE and other universities teach the subject. Fidesz has no problem with offering a major in international relations at the undergraduate level at the new Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem (NKE/National Civil Service University), where the regime educates its own elite. By the way, some people call NKE “the university for future janissaries.”
Not that I’m keeping fingers crossed for Viktor Orbán and his government, but I thought that perhaps in the last few months they had learned a thing or two, that they would tamp down their zeal for reform and stop annoying people at every turn. I can assure Mr. Orbán that it is dangerous to push students too far. Look at what happened in 1956 when forums were held at ELTE, BME, and Szeged and a few days later Mátyás Rákosi was gone. Orbán’s government is teetering at the moment. In his place I wouldn’t tempt God.
The protest at ELTE’s faculty of social sciences began on Facebook, and thousands signed up to attend a meeting today at 6 p.m. A list of five demands was ready by mid-morning.
1. We demand the autonomy of universities. We demand free choice of university and majors.
2. There is a need for specialists with a knowledge of the social sciences, of the European Union and international relations.
3. In the 21st century it is not the state that decides the future professions of people. It is not the state that decides what specialty exists and what doesn’t. The state cannot forbid any specialty or monopolize it for the university of the government.
4. The impact studies behind the decisions should be made public. We demand transparency, discussion, and professionalism.
5. With the elimination of these majors the government goes against international and European trends, undermines our future, and completely ruins the possibility of Hungary’s success in the world.
At this point the Ministry of Human Resources tried to calm the situation and claimed that nothing has been decided yet, that it was the opposition parties who were responsible for whipping up emotions against the government. The ministry insisted that “before the May introduction of the decisions there will be an opportunity for all affected by the new system to express their opinions.” Unfortunately past experience teaches us that such promises are not worth the paper they are written on. The ministry explained that the changes to be introduced “serve the interest of the students” and “strengthen the effectiveness of teaching.” The students not surprisingly don’t seem to agree.
This morning at ELTE the professors, instead of giving their scheduled lectures, used class time for a discussion of the planned changes. It was during these student-teacher discussions that they came up with their five demands. Moreover, the university administration is on their side. Both the president and the dean of the social science faculty were present and made speeches at the “forum” held this afternoon.
The engineering students also gathered for a discussion, and again they seem to be backed by the faculty and the administration. The government, though generally pro-engineering, wants to abolish the teaching of design engineering. László Palkovics, who is an engineer and who actually taught at BME, was present and the students gave him a hard time. One student point blank asked him whether he has any idea what design engineering is all about. The students wanted to know why he thinks that the work of design engineers is superfluous. The best he could come up with was that design engineers earn 100,000 a month less than other engineers. As usual, the claim is not true, or at least a company manager who was present said that in fact on average they are more highly paid than their colleagues.
After the forums were over the ELTE students marched to BME, and from there a fairly large crowd proceeded to the building of the ministry of human resources with the promise of returning if the ministry doesn’t withdraw the plans by Wednesday. I have the feeling that in the interim other universities will join the ELTE and BME crowd, but I doubt that a complete withdrawal of the “concept” is in the offing. In his speech at the forum the president of ELTE expressed a modest expectation. He said that he is hopeful that the international relations major might be saved. But, let’s face it, this is not enough. Indeed, the autonomy of the universities should be restored. That will not happen as long as the Orbán regime is in power, but I very much hope that a total overhaul of Hungarian higher education will take place after the fall of Viktor Orbán.
Yesterday there was an interview with Péter Tölgyessy, a jurist and political scientist who with László Solyóm, former chief justice of the constitutional court and president of the republic, crafted the constitution that functioned well until in 2012 the second Orbán government replaced it with its own. In the interview Tölgyessy said something that caught my imagination. The Hungarian people are rarely aroused to revolt. They are fine with practically any regime so long as it leaves their private spheres alone. But when the government forces itself upon them by wanting to change their lives, then Hungarians stand up and say no to their overlords. János Kádár knew that. Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, wants to change everything, including his subjects. Tölgyessy is sure that in the long run Orbán’s plans will fail.