The Finnish educational model and current Hungarian reality

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.

Finnish classroom

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.*

February 7, 2016
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
February 7, 2016 5:01 pm


If 39% of the Finnish population have degrees, the competition is perhaps not as fierce as the applicants student ratio (25-30%) suggests or else rates of degree-holders in Finland are set to decline (Unless graduates live longer).

A conundrum

February 7, 2016 5:21 pm

The teachers of Kecskemet are not happy with the empty phrases they got from government officials :

February 7, 2016 5:46 pm

London Calling!

Hungarian education needs a few ‘Teachers in Black’.

No one seems prepared to stick their heads above the parapet in a significant way. Aren’t their students predominantly Jobbik fodder? The same education system that produced the current teachers through the KISS organisation so closely aligned with Fidesz?

As you sow so shall you reap.



February 7, 2016 8:16 pm

Although Fidesz\’ PR is in overdrive to say that the liberals, and the left is responsible for all the teacher protests, that is BS. On my Facebook I can clearly see that many of my teacher friends will attend the demonstration on February 13. These are people from Budapest and from other cities, and rest assured most of them are not leftist or liberals. Many voted for Fidesz in the past (based on their timeline).

By the way on the Facebook page there is a survey that shows that about 1100 teachers support a strike. Only about 40 voted against it.

February 8, 2016 2:32 am

As somebody pointed out in a discussion thread on teachers cannot do what doctors (of whom, similarly, many have supported Fidesz) are doing now. If you are earning your living as a teacher of Hungarian and history, you just cannot emigrate, which means that sooner or later you will have to do something to change the circumstances in your country.

February 8, 2016 8:41 am
Where there’s a will there’s a way! When people say that it’s easier for medical personell compared with teachers to relocate to another country I think they are tending to underestimate the task for nurses, say, and overestimate the difficulty for teachers. Qualified nurses, even with 20years’ experience have to start at the bottom when they come to England. Their qualifications are not acceptable to our ways – which is not surprising if you have seen some of my posts criticising the Hungarian medical profession – but that’s not appropriate here. However what is so different is the attitude, culture and practising methods. My partner has worked her way through the ranks through dogged hard work to qualify for a university degree supported by a bursary. She will then become a registered nurse with the all important and coveted ‘pin’ to be able to practice safely in any UK hospital. As you can imagine – sometimes the language difficulty is more insurmountable than the practice semesters. Yes – she keeps an eye on Hungarian practice – and sees that it is sadly wanting – even as she sees that the English NHS isn’t perfect either. Nurses almost have a ‘reset’… Read more »
February 8, 2016 9:29 am

Charlie I agree with you.

Getting ill is bad enough in itself but, in Hungary, it is often terrifying because of the manner of treatment by both doctors and nurses.

When my son was quite young, he had an accident and cut his leg badly.
We called the ambulance, which came promptly.

By coincidence, a cousin from the UK who was studying medicine at Oxford, was visiting us at the time and after observing the medics at work, he said that all the procedures had been done correctly, but done unnecessarily brutally.

I can relate countless instances when I have received the same treatment particularly from nurses here who seem to think that their remit is to be nasty and inflict pain, rather than to comfort and alleviate it.

But about emigrating, I think many of the doctors who are staying here are doing so because they cannot speak any foreign languages and do not feel that they could ever learn. There is a really hopeless and bitter atmosphere in almost all health centres I have had the misfortune to attend, and it feels like there is envy of those who can go abroad.

February 7, 2016 9:44 pm

Re: Finland\’s drive toward educating its population

On its apparent success one fact I thought was significant involved the country\’s teachers who are revered in their work and highly respected. They were not simply cogs in a education \’machine\’ but symbols of the high value Finland placed on those charged with carrying out what is thought to be a high responsibility and that is imparting the population with the means and skills to be good contributing future citizens in their society. Their daily dedicated work is thought to be essential for the future of the country.

And the fact that the economy is not working 100% is irrelevant. That is a variable subject to economic markets and global stimuli. What counts is that Finland has understood that is essential to have an educated citizenry who would always have the skills to manage the troughs in the vagaries of economic life. Sadly Hungary appears to be remiss in this area. Her educational vision today puts a veritable strait-jacket on her intellectual, social, political , economic and cultural development for the next few decades.

February 8, 2016 2:22 am

As concerns the Finnish education system (which is currently being economized to death by the present government…): I completely agree that whatever the funding policies, the foundation of whatever successes this system may still have is the respect which education in general and teachers in particular are still enjoying, and people’s trust and confidence in the system’s ability to offer fair chances to everybody.

As long as society is not based on trust, transparency, rules that apply for everybody and objective merits and qualifications but on interpersonal vassal-liege-relationships and networks of protection and loyalty (as in post-feodal Central Europe in general…), there can be no real, functioning education reform. This is true even of the rich and happy Austria. Hungary with its legacy of Socialism is much worse off.

February 8, 2016 3:03 am

Spot on. Couldn’t agree more.

February 8, 2016 2:59 am


Looks to me that in Orbanistan the purpose of education is extremist Christian Nationalist brainwashing.

These people are the grave diggers of whatever meager modernity might have existed before them in the Hungarian Third Republic.

One doesn’t have to be a seer to be able to foretell with absolute certainty that the outcome will be incredibly painful for Hungarians over the coming decades.

Well, as they used to say in the Israeli Army back in my time there, some people learn with their brain, others with their pain (yesh shelomed im hasechel, vejesh shelomed im haregel).

Can’t be helped, the world is full of retards and psychos.

February 8, 2016 3:30 am


As to Matolcsy’s richly over-endowed institutes for the study of his oonortodox economics, I think that we do have to recognize that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction these days, seven years after the start of the GFC, especially among economics students at leading British universities, about some glaring gaps in what they are being taught in their badly over-mathematicized field.

I heard an extremely interesting program about this yesterday on the BBC, which featured economics students and staff from Manchester University, Cambridge University and the London School of Economics.

Given the issues around increasing economic inequality and the proven incapacity of mainstream economics to predict the sudden eruption of crises, such as the GFC, the demand is for a lot less econometrics and a lot more economics as social science and the study of the main schools of thought in the history of the field, rather than just the shopworn nostrums of Friedmanite liberal economics.

February 8, 2016 3:38 am

I noted here three days ago that the Hungarian Treasury gave its last weekly report on the government debt in December.

A journalist also discovered today this innovation of not publishing the weekly debt numbers.

I am reading that the government can legally (by a new amendment) withhold the info if they deem the numbers to be too dangerous to finance the deficit.

February 8, 2016 3:41 am

“We did not receive an answer from the Treasury why they stopped disclosing the weekly numbers, whether it is temporary or permanent”

February 8, 2016 3:51 am

The very last weekly number shows the gross debt of the central government on December 23, 2015.

weekly numbers in trillions of forints:
2015-10-30: 25.1
2015-12-04: 25.8
2015-12-23: 25.1

While the officials had 3 days to cook the weekly numbers,

they have 3 WEEKs to cook the monthly numbers.

2015-12-31: 24.7 (published on 2016-01-21)

February 8, 2016 4:29 am

Tappanch – A big thanks from me for these posts. The treasury may not give weekly reports anymore, but I’ve found your weekly summaries of what is going on to be enormously helpful. Please keep it up.

February 8, 2016 5:17 am

Listen to former finance minister Oszko speaking on January 29.

February 8, 2016 5:13 pm

Hungary actually had men like this in government once?!

February 8, 2016 4:39 am

One might add that whenever there is a sign of protests within education, the government “negotiates” with “representatives” of aggrieved teachers or students that the government appoints.
So, students who are chosen to “represent” students to the government are universally Fidesz acolytes. Many of these student “representatives” are in their thirties, are still undergrads (they never quite finish their exams), and are paid more than teaching staff in universities.
The heads of most unions these days are paid by, and in one way or another selected by government.
The people chosen to “represent” school teachers recently by government fiat are also Fidesz people, and the government clearly wants to replace the “wild representatives” with their own people through smear campaigns, and various underhanded forms of pressure (firing relatives, being one).

February 8, 2016 8:18 am

You know in looking at the videos if I interpreted correctly the government ostensibly isn’t too thrilled with the ‘confrontation’ existing in educational development. Thing is it was noted this goes back a ways. Looks as if the government is doing the old shuffle and stall trick inhibiting any sort of movement

Balint Magyar has a tiger by the tail. He has come to a situation where who he is dealing with will show him that ‘ it is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he knows already’ (Epictetus) . Fideszian ‘education’ is an oxymoron. It simply develops books with empty pages.

February 8, 2016 8:19 am
The link between public education and economic growth is somewhat different than the commonsense understanding that countries must have good schools to succeed economically. How good really depends on the situation of the nation within the world economy. There is something in the field of economics called the Law of Diminishing Returns and it applies to education too. Hungary is experiencing a decline in educational outcomes for the mass of people without question, will that be a critical factor in its role in the EU and global economy. Maybe yes and maybe no. The Orban government sees that providing a subsidized education through the university level has reached the point of diminishing returns. The private vision of the Orban government seems to be that given Hungary’s dependent role to the west the level of educational attainment needed for the mass of citizens is limited. Those who can pay for an education for their children are not impacted at all, in fact the social elites still find better schooling for their children even within Hungary. The young Fidesz cogs needed to fill governement posts will still be produced by this system. This is disturbing the the mass of Hungarians once they… Read more »
February 8, 2016 9:08 am
“The Orban government sees that providing a subsidized education through the university level has reached the point of diminishing returns.” They “see” nothing of the sort. You are projecting that on them. You, apparently, have certain desires when it comes to higher ed. – that shines through in your posts, which are based on some sort of wishful thinking. WHERE is there any proof that less education can be a good thing economically? Where is there a shred of evidence? Whatever highly developed country I choose to look at has a highly-developed broad-based educational system. So, where do you get this idea? I find your position odd, because the American military officers I’ve met have benefited greatly from higher education – all paid, 100%, by American taxpayers. This has nothing whatsoever to do with “the needs of the economy.” This is ideologically driven on the assumption that an officer will benefit from a better education. I’d like to see you give a presentation at the Pentagon suggesting that free higher-ed. for soldiers should be ended, now. You can point out to your fellow officers that many of you are earning more than your compatriots in the private sector – all… Read more »
February 8, 2016 8:41 am

On December 31, 2015, I predicted an early election for 2016, called by Fidesz.

(My argument was that they introduced the unsustainable new home-building grants and loans (70,000 euros per family!) to achieve a 2/3 majority in Parliament in a snap elections in 2016)

For the first time, an Orban government official did not exclude the possibility of an early election yesterday.

February 8, 2016 9:01 am

January 2016:
Half (!) of the apartment buyers in Budapest were investors.

p. 8

February 8, 2016 11:53 am

”Dismissal is practically equivalent to exclusion from the profession” – More likely it is total death of your teacher career. If you want to teach in public school, you have to be a member of teachers’ chamber, in which you can only be if you have contract with KLIK. There is option of private schools, but at least local ones have been told pretty straight forward manner, that if they employ persons that has been kicked out by KLIK, they won’t get a single job from municipality/city. So, many of these teachers who are now voicing their opinions, have a chance that they say good bye to their profession if Orbán decides to be nasty. Question is that will he sack 11 000 teachers and ban them from teaching again.

February 8, 2016 12:37 pm

Here’s something funny from my favourite Hungarian site vakkomondor:

February 8, 2016 12:58 pm

Sorry, here’s the original source:
Czunyiné dr. Balog Zoltán
Another tumblr site where frustrated Hungarians show what they think of the Fidesz government.
Sometimes really funny – sometimes very sad!

February 8, 2016 1:02 pm

The wonders of Photoshop!

He still looks as gormless as ever!

February 8, 2016 1:53 pm

Some poor chap has been struck by a meteorite in India.

You never know!

A ‘black swan’ event might just come from left field which puts Hungary on a different path.