Viktor Orbán’s interviews, scheduled for every second Friday, usually portend some important announcements. The one held on February 4 began with this sentence by the reporter: “Let’s start with a domestic issue, specifically with the hottest one, education.” Indeed, it is an issue that might have far-reaching consequences for Fidesz’s long-term political future. Since that conversation took place, Mrs. Judit Czunyi, undersecretary responsible for public education, has been removed from her position, and all attempts at appeasing the restless teachers who have had enough of the humiliation they suffer at the hands of the government agency, the Klebelsberg School Maintenance Center (KLIK), have failed. It is also unlikely that the roundtable discussions initiated by the ministry of human resources will yield the kinds of results Zoltán Balog, the minister, was instructed by Viktor Orbán to achieve. The government hopes that with some minimal concessions and a promise of improvements in the functioning of KLIK the protesting voices can be silenced. Or at least this is what Viktor Orbán, who is the mastermind behind the overcentralized, conservative educational system introduced in 2010-2011, hopes. He is thoroughly satisfied with the current state of affairs, and he claims or pretends that the newly introduced system is a vast improvement over the former one.
Just as János Lázár’s statements on the size of Hungary’s public sector were full of untrue claims, Viktor Orbán’s assertions about the state of education in 2010 are equally unfounded. He made three claims: (1) “the Hungarian educational system was financially bankrupt, accumulating hundreds of billions of debt” prior to 2010; (2) “all international assessments showed that Hungarian children’s performance was continually deteriorating”; (3) since 2010 the government “has invested 700 billion forints in education,” which included 450 billion in development and the rest in raising salaries.
No one, not even the most critical opponent of the Orbán regime, maintains that all was well with Hungarian education before 2010, but today teachers as well as students would be happy if they could just return to those days. Critics were vocal then too, especially after 2008 when the government was forced to tighten its belt and education, like everything else, received less money than before. But let’s take a look at a graph that shows government expenditures on education in several countries in the region between 2004 and 2013. Hungary (red) currently spends the smallest percentage of its GDP on education. The decline in expenditures for the sector after 2010 is spectacular. Less and less money has been spent on education, and some of that most likely ended up in the pockets of swindlers hanging around Fidesz. It is enough to read about Árpád Hadházy’s (LMP) February 4 press conference, “Corruption Info,” in which he told details of the incredible corruption around European Union subsidies earmarked for education. The money spent on “development” that Orbán was talking about didn’t do much to improve the quality of Hungarian education.
I don’t know which international assessment of student performance Orbán had in mind when he talked about the steadily deteriorating student performance because there are several. I decided to take a look at the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of 15-year-old school children’s scholastic performance in mathematics, science, and reading. The first such survey was taken in 2000 and since then it has been repeated every three years. The last one is from 2012. Given the drop in Hungarian student achievement between 2009 and 2012, I dread the results of 2015, which will be released soon.
While in mathematics Hungarian students didn’t improve between 2000 and 2009 with a score hovering around 490, there was a slight improvement in science and a significant improvement in reading during the same period. In this last category in 2000 Hungarian students’ average was 480, but by 2009 it was 494. But then came 2012. Hungarian scores dropped in all three categories. In math from 490 to 477, in science from 503 to 494, in reading from 494 to 488. That meant that in math Hungary dropped from 29th to 39th place, for example. Hungarian students scored lower in all three categories than the mean scores. Moreover, they scored just a little lower than U.S. fifteen-year-olds. I bring this fact up because Hungarians like to think that their education is vastly superior to that of the despised Yankees.
If one takes a look at ministers of education appointed by Fidesz governments, one has the distinct feeling that education was not a priority for Viktor Orbán. Among the Fidesz holders of the office it is only Zoltán Pokorni (July 8, 1998-July 15, 2001) who is considered by everybody, even the socialists and the liberals, to have done a professional job. He started his career as a teacher and was one of the founding members of Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ). But after he became chairman of Fidesz he resigned his post. The short tenure of his successor, József Pálinkás, was undistinguished. By 2010 Orbán found education and healthcare so unimportant that he abolished their separate ministries. The first minister of the new mega-ministry was a totally ineffectual medical professor. He was followed by Zoltán Balog, who had absolutely no experience with either education or healthcare. He is a Protestant minister.
The man who served longest as minister of education was Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ), who held the office twice. Once in the Horn government (January 1, 1996-July 8, 1998) and again in the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány government ( May 27, 2002-June 9, 2006). He was the one who began a thorough modernization of the whole system. Although at the time a lot of conservative teachers hated his reforms, today Piroska Galló, head of the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ), admitted that it was during his tenure that the national curriculum came into being and emphasis was put on “competence development” instead of rote learning. The younger and more progressive teachers welcomed the new methods, but the older ones were unwilling and perhaps even unable to change their ways. A clearly conservative “educational expert” said the following about this period to Magyar Nemzet: “During the former government the educational philosophy was liberal. One could choose from a lot of programs, which caused confusion….” Although it wasn’t compulsory, she herself, who worked as a teacher in a gymnasium at the time, “tried competence reinforcing teaching. This is not the only possible method, but it was successful.” Reluctantly, she had to admit that the improvements in reading had something to do with the “liberal” methods introduced by Bálint Magyar. He was also a great promoter of the use of computers in the classrooms, which again wasn’t exactly a hit with teachers who would have been forced to learn new skills.
In any case, after 2006, by which time the minister of education was István Hiller (MSZP), some of the more ambitious plans were scrapped because the government found the computerization of schools too expensive. In 2010 with the Fidesz victory everything came to a halt.
Yesterday on KlubRádió I heard a father who had just returned to Hungary from the United States. He himself is a computer scientist. He called his children’s school in a well-off suburb of Budapest “a computer museum.” Anyone who’s interested in hearing younger progressive teachers describing the situation in Hungarian schools should spend about twenty minutes listening to a discussion on Antónia Mészáros’s program on ATV last night. Perhaps after listening to the reasons for the present revolt we can better understand what the real problem is with Fidesz’s educational philosophy: it stripped the teachers of their independence and it tries to make children unthinking robots.