Upon checking the more than 3,000 posts that have appeared on Hungarian Spectrum, I realized that this is the first time I’ve covered the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development/OECD’s annual publication, “Education at a Glance.” It is a massive volume of over 500 pages with data from 35 OECD countries.
From this latest “glance” it is evident that the Hungarian government has been shortchanging education. Although I know that the amount of money spent on education doesn’t necessarily correlate with the educational attainment of students, it is still worth noting that only Mexico and Turkey spend less money per student than Hungary does.
Since 2006 Hungary has been spending less and less money on education, both in real terms and as a percentage of the GDP. Austerity measures after 2008 affected the spending of all European countries on education, but the Hungarian cutbacks were the steepest, even in comparison to other countries in the region. In 2013, the last year for which we have data, Hungary spent only 76% of what it did in 2008. It is true that the number of students, due to the low birthrate and emigration, also decreased, but in 2013 the government spent only 82% per student of what had been spent in 2008. Both the EU22 and the OECD countries taken together have increased educational spending. Looking at it another way, in the countries of the OECD students spend an average of 13.1 years in school and, over this time, governments spend on average $121,899 per student. That figure in Hungary is $57,093.
Here are some basic facts about the economic situation after the 2008 economic crisis. Between 2008 and 2010 GDP decreased, in real terms, in 22 of the 44 countries with available data while public expenditure on educational institutions fell in only 6 of the 31 countries with available data, Hungary being one of them. As of 2013 Hungary’s spending on education as a percentage of GDP was a mere 3.8%, just ahead of last-place Russia, as opposed to the OECD average of 5.2%. These figures also include expenditures from private sources. The government’s contribution was only slightly above 3%. Table after table attest to the fact that Hungary is among the few countries where very little money is spent on education and what is spent most likely is not spent effectively. For example, for tertiary education, Hungary spends a fair amount of money, yet Hungarian universities are not judged to be of exceptionally high quality.
Hungarian teachers get paid on average around $25,000, as opposed to western European countries of about $50,000. Teachers’ salaries in the first four grades are even lower than that, under $20,000, which puts Hungary at the end of the list, alongside Slovakia and Brazil. In Hungary the starting salary for pre-school teachers is $13,228, which 10 years later is $17,858, and fifteen years later $19,181. One could continue with sad statistic after sad statistic.
The Hungarian media spent little time on this report. Árpád W. Tóth wrote one of his clever op-ed pieces titled “As if there were no tomorrow,” decrying the shortsightedness of the Orbán government for not wanting to understand that Hungary has no natural resources and therefore must rely on its human resources as the foundation of a better, more prosperous society. And yet Viktor Orbán ever since 2010 has been cutting back on spending for education. In addition, with his experimentation with teaching methodologies and concepts he is ruining the little that was good in the system. Billions are spent on useless stadiums, billions are stolen by favorite oligarchs, billions of public money end up in “private foundations,” billions are spent on “racist billboards.” Little goes for education. It is simply not a priority.
The government propaganda media was naturally rather quiet on the subject of the OECD’s report. They limited their coverage to reporting on a press conference that László Palkovics, the undersecretary of education, gave.
Palkovics, it should be noted, is the perfect man to finish the butcher job on Hungarian education that was conceived in Viktor Orbán’s mind and begun under Christian Democrat Rózsa Hoffmann, the schoolmarm from the 70s of the Kádár era. The fast-talking new undersecretary, a transport engineer by profession, is a man of action for whom there are no obstacles. Everything is simple. Everything can be done practically overnight. A new subject is being introduced in September and there is no textbook. No problem, it will be solved. I understand that Orbán is extremely satisfied with him.
But however self-confident Palkovics is, after looking through the hundreds of tables in OECD’s study he must have realized that these results are devastating. They are an indictment of Hungary’s commitment to education, which somehow must be papered over in a great hurry. Hence the press conference, which was dutifully reported by MTI and published in Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap. The headline in the latter was “Palkovics: Improving results in education,” followed by “Hungary spends more than the OECD average on the education of very small children, the salaries of teachers have improved and the earning power of university graduates is higher [in comparison to non-grads] than the OECD average.” I’m sure that he (or more likely one of his staffers) had to look high and low to find a few items in which Hungary was above the OECD average. I myself had no time to study the hundreds of tables, but I have the feeling that Palkovics cited the only three positive results that appeared in 500 pages.
In addition, he pointed to all the improvements that have been introduced. Numbers were flying every which way, numbers that cannot be verified and that were probably introduced only to obfuscate the issue. But nowhere did he say that the Hungarian government will spend more than 3.8% of the GDP on education either this year or the next. Instead, he talked about cheaper or free textbooks for poor students, proudly adding that Hungary spends 4.7% of the GDP on family assistance whereas the OECD average is only 2.5%. He also announced that the Hungarian government spent 0.7% of GDP on kindergartens as opposed to the OECD’s average of 0.6%. Pitiful, I must say.
As long as the Orbán government is in power and the likes of László Palkovics run the show, there can be no improvement. But every wasted year will have a lasting effect on the generation now coming of age, with a devastating effect on the future of the country.