Following up on yesterday’s post I got in touch with Bálint Magyar, Hungary’s minister of education between 1996 and 1998 and again between 2002 and 2006. He sent me some very useful material on the educational reforms that were undertaken under his guidance as well as a short description and critique of the measures introduced by the second Orbán government in its 2011 Law on Education. Because there seems to be some confusion about the existing situation in Hungarian public education, I thought it might be useful to publish his piece here.
In addition, I would like to share a brief summary of the Finnish educational system based on the description provided by the Finnish Embassy in Budapest. The recent educational success of Finland is legendary. Since the first survey in 2000, Finland topped the list of the 45-65 countries that take part in the PISA test, given every three years, on three occasions and was near the top in the other years, save for 2012, when it was bested by four Asian countries in science, five Asian countries in reading, and seven Asian countries and four European countries in math (Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Estonia).
The Finnish system is radically different from the Hungarian one, especially as transformed by Viktor Orbán in 2011. One difference is that in Finland parents can’t choose the school to which they will send their children. All children attend the school maintained by the local community closest to his or her home. Moreover, there is no tracking like in the United States. Proponents of the Finnish system claim that the success of this model lies in the uniformity of education provided. Thus, there are no “elite schools” but there are no markedly inferior schools either, such as one finds in Hungary. The Hungarian system exacerbates the divide between the haves and the have-nots and stands in the way of social mobility.
While the current government made it compulsory for children to attend kindergarten for three years, beginning at the age of three, and to enroll in first grade at the age of six, Finnish children start school only at the age of seven, preceded by a voluntary preparatory year. Children must attend school between the ages of 7 and 16, but almost all of the graduates continue their education. About half of them attend gymnasium, which is a three-year course of study. The other half attend basic-level vocational schools. The choice of trades is great: a Finnish 16-year-old can choose among 119 programs.
There are 17 universities and 27 colleges in Finland, where the competition for admission is fierce. In 2011 out of 66,000 applicants to universities only 17,000 gained acceptance, while out of 70,000 applicants to college only 22,100 were accepted. Finnish higher education is free.
According to OECD’s “Education at a glance,” Finland has one of the highest levels of educational attainment among the OECD countries: 84% of 25- to 64-year-olds have completed at least upper secondary education (against an OECD average of 75%) and 39% hold college or university degrees (OECD average: 32%). A few more facts about Finnish elementary education can be found here and here.
The same “Education at a glance” of the situation in Hungary points out that although a large number of people finish high school, only 23% of young people are expected to complete university studies. The OECD countries’ average was 39% in 2014. “Moreover, this rate has considerably decreased since 2010, by almost 9 percentage points.”
And now on to Bálint Magyar’s contribution.
♦ ♦ ♦
To all those concerned about Hungarian education
All those concerned in the world of schools—parents, students, teachers and the earlier municipal operators—have been stripped of their rights with the total centralization of public education. Officially redefining education from public service to civil duty, evoking the atmosphere of “military service,” they have made barracks out of schools and drill sergeants out of teachers. In consequence:
- the minister personally appoints the principals of the over five thousand schools, while it is no longer the principal, but district government officials who decide about the employment of teachers at the schools;
- teachers in all Hungarian public schools now have only one employer, the Klebelsberg National Schools Operations Center, so their dismissal is practically equivalent to exclusion from the profession; they were compulsorily registered as members of the National Teachers’ Chamber—which operates as a transmission belt of the government—while the unions’ rights were curtailed; school principals and teachers can only reply to the queries of the press with the permission of the district government official for education;
- schools have been stripped of their rights to employ personnel or manage their budgets, the autonomy of the teaching faculty has been taken away, their freedom to shape the curriculum has been constrained, their right to choose school books has been limited to books recommended by the ministry;
- the ideological indoctrination of the educational system is served by the liquidation of the schoolbook market, and the state monopolization of the distribution of schoolbooks, the replacement of the professional schoolbook accreditation mechanism with the ministerial schoolbook “tenders,” the legalized exclusion of private schoolbook publishers, in some cases their acquisition, in others their administrative destruction, the reform of the national curriculum in line with the ideology of the current establishment, the compulsory classes in divinity or secular ethics, and entry of this choice made by students in their reports and registers;
- the channels of mobility are drawn under political control, and preference given to church schools at the decisive high school stage;
- in order to establish a school system in the semblance of the prevalent cast-system-like social ideal, the lowering of the age of compulsory schooling from 18 to “only” 16—though planned to 15, and only reversed on account of broad protests;
- at the end of class 7, it is planned to filter out those not suitable for a high school education with a career-orienting test, and force them to choose careers early;
- the number of those receiving high school degrees are lowered, and the teaching of general knowledge subjects has been curtailed in vocational schools, especially in those which do not give high school degrees (baccalaureate), as little as 6 hours per week;
- the means of dispensing with state resources for education are centralized, so it is no longer the previous operators who decide about procurements, but the state itself (the Klebelsberg Center) who chooses the court purveyors to the system.
Universities were perhaps—in addition to the sphere of culture—the most important protected institutions of the critical intelligentsia’s positions. Institutional autonomy, the professorial status, and a relatively late retirement age all served as institutional guarantees for freedom of opinion among the teaching and research based intellectuals who maintained their own feudalistic defense lines, while the freedom of the students was provided by their status as adults, though unburdened by existential dependences, and so less vulnerable.
The calling of a higher-education leadership to order—though it had never been too brave—was prepared with three threatening government actions: a campaign of criminalization and trumped procedure—officiated by the Government Control Office—against a group of liberal philosophers; the announcement of a comprehensive financial and economic investigation of universities; as well as drastic cuts in state funding. These actions ensured that the overwhelming majority of university leaders and the teaching staff acknowledged the taking away of their rights with “calm resignation”:
- the new regulations for higher education ensured the minister a substantive—i.e. autocratic—say in the appointment of rectors (paradoxically this was what ended the student unions’ potential position for blackmail within the institutions of higher education);
- the right to appoint the financial heads of the universities was transferred to the minister of finance—who functions as governor to the political family, and the position of chancellors introduced in 2014 gave almost unlimited powers in all financial matters to the person filling this position as delegate of the prime minister even overriding the rector; the introduction of the institution of the board (under the name of consistory) does not serve what would be the noble aim of ensuring that people with the appropriate knowledge for the professional management of large institutions are in position, but rather the complete exclusion of institutional autonomy: three members of the five-member consistory would be appointed by the minister, the fourth, the chancellor is already a government appointee, and the fifth is the rector, who can only be delegated with the approval of the minister;
- the financial autonomy of the institutions was wound up, its reserves tapped, or withdrawn;
- in place of a per capita financing of higher education, a funding system that basically followed the choices of students in a fair competition, in 2010, a system of deals between the ministry and the higher education institutions stepped in, that can be used by government to blackmail the universities;
- the government however decides not only about education financed by the state, but also tries to administratively ban fee-paid courses approved by the Hungarian Accreditation Committee at certain universities; it uses these administrative means to ensure an interest in the privileged higher education institutions;
- the universities in a financial quandary then, in order to maximize the savings possible through each laid off teacher, themselves removed a significant segment of the teaching staff in their fifties and sixties—with liberal-critical intellectuals overrepresented among them.
Furthermore, the Hungarian National Bank’s establishing five foundations in 2014, with the express educational aim of propagating the government’s unorthodox economic teachings to counter the liberal principles conveyed by the economics taught at universities amounts to absurdity. The foundations were financially stacked up in steps that brought them altogether to a value of 250 billion forint (800 million euro), a resource equaling one and a half times the annual budget contribution to the entire Hungarian higher education.*