Tag Archives: education

Hungarians’ changing priorities; shifts in the left-of-center media

Changing opinions on political issues 

Yesterday I saw a Hír TV news segment that I found intriguing. A woman reporter with a cameraman behind her stopped passersby wanting to know what the “man in the street” thinks about current affairs. This is the umpteenth time that I have encountered such an exercise. The result was always disappointing. Eight or nine people out of ten simply refused to answer any of the questions while the other(s) proclaimed their loyalty to Viktor Orbán, who has created a wonderful, prosperous country. To my great surprise this encounter turned out differently. Everybody was willing to speak, and there was only one woman out of about ten who was enthusiastic about Viktor Orbán on account of his defense of the country against the “migrants.”

The reporter wanted to know what people think are the most urgent tasks and problems Hungarians face today. The answers were practically uniform: healthcare and education. A couple of people mentioned low wages and inflation, especially food prices. When people didn’t cite migration as a problem, the journalist asked them about the topic. With the exception of one person, they all claimed that the danger of migration is not in the forefront of their concerns. There are no migrants in Hungary, and migrants show little inclination to settle there anyway.

One of those dissatisfied citizens

At first I thought I may simply have seen an atypical, or skewed, news segment. But then, a few hours later, I found an article in 24.hu reporting that “Hungarians worry more about poverty and healthcare than migration.” It summarized the findings of two international organizations, Eurobarometer and the conservative International Republican Institute. Both indicated that migration is not uppermost in Hungarians’ minds. The International Republican Institute’s findings are especially interesting because the respondents were not faced with a set of prepared options. Here poverty and the lack of social equality (28%) were people’s main concerns, followed by corruption (15%), unemployment (13%), healthcare (12%), and “migration” (4%).

But in that case, why did the Orbán government launch a new campaign against the “Soros Plan”? Knowing the careful political calculations of Fidesz, we must assume that the questions in the new “national consultation” will be slanted in such a way that it will speak to the concerns of the majority of Hungarians. There are signs that in the present Fidesz vocabulary the “Soros Plan” is actually just another name for the European Union. In this case, the main thrust of this new campaign will again be anti-EU. But it has to be structured so that it doesn’t cause the kind of adverse reaction that the “Stop Brussels” campaign did.

Changes in the left-of center media

Those of you who are able to watch Hungarian-language television must be aware of the slow transformation of ATV, which until about two years ago was the only independent TV station. At that time Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s old high school friend and the financial brain behind Fidesz, turned against Orbán, allegedly because of his pro-Russian orientation. This put an end to the pro-government stance of Simicska’s Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV. At about the same time, major changes began to be introduced at ATV, which is owned by the fundamentalist Assembly of Faith. It is hard to tell whether these changes were made in order to boost viewership or for political reasons, but there are fewer programs for people who are interested in political news. Reporters were hired from TV2, a commercial station that caters to a different audience from the one that ATV had attracted earlier. Also, two important reporters, Olga Kálmán and Antónia Mészáros, left the station. Kálmán joined Hír TV and Mészáros left the profession altogether. In addition, several reporters simply disappeared from the screen. The new crew was, at least in my opinion, not worth watching.

The final straw was the replacement of Kálmán and Mészáros with Zsuzsa Demcsák, who began her career as a fashion model but later spent years at TV2, a commercial station recently bought by Andy Vajna, most likely as a proxy for the Hungarian government. After the change of ownership, reporters started leaving TV2, including Demcsák in April. ATV jumped at what the management considered to be an opportunity and hired her. The arrangement was that Demcsák and Egon Rónai would rotate being anchor of “Egyenes beszéd” on a weekly basis. Demcsák’s first week on the job was dreadful. The woman was simply out of her depth. The following week she showed off her incompetence on ATV Start, an early morning political program. Then came Friday morning when she was, I’m afraid, quite drunk while interviewing Tibor Szanyi, MSZP’s European parliamentary member. She was suspended, awaiting the results of an internal investigation, but I’m almost certain that we are not going to see her on ATV again.

On the other hand, Hír TV came out with several new programs. This morning I watched two of them. The first was “Elmúlt 8 év” (The past eight years) with Györgyi Szöllősi, who is a good reporter. The other was “180 fok” (180 degrees) with Sándor Csintalan, a somewhat controversial character who started off as an MSZP politician and at one point was in the Fidesz camp. He is now a committed foe of Orbán. The program is in part a call-in show and and in part a series of interviews. The first guests were Miklós Haraszti, who is no stranger to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, and the head of Iránytű (Compass), a polling company allegedly close to Jobbik. I encountered Iránytű’s director before and found his views moderate and balanced. And I loved the screen behind Csintalan, showing an idyllic countryside with a charming peasant house when suddenly Orbán’s infamous choo-choo train goes across. The train appears every five minutes or so. I laughed every time. I think I will also check out another new program called “Magyar Exodus,” which will be mostly filmed abroad, with Hungarian emigrants.

Unfortunately, these two cable channels reach very few people, but their existence is still vitally important. One can only hope that ATV will find its bearings soon because otherwise it can close up shop.

September 17, 2017

Transylvania in focus

Today’s post will be devoted to three subjects, all of which are related in one way or the other to Transylvania. The topics range from beer to the coming national election to a fifth-grade Hungarian language and literature textbook for Hungarian students in Romania. Since I spent the last two hours comparing a textbook written for children living in Hungary with that written for Hungarian students studying in Romania, I will start with the textbooks.

The Romanian Hungarian literature textbook is available in its entirety on the internet. Internet access to the textbook from Hungary is restricted to the first 16 pages, but from the table of contents we have a fairly good idea of what fifth graders are expected to learn. The verdict coming from educators in Hungary is that the textbook published in Romania is far superior to the ones children in Hungary use.

According to László Arató, president of the Association of Teachers of Hungarian, it is refreshing to read the book published by the Romanian ministry of education, especially when it’s compared to the old-fashioned, stodgy Hungarian textbook from Budapest. From the very first page the authors stressed that they consider the children partners, which is in stark contrast to the book children currently use in Hungary. While the Romanian textbook is full of contemporary writers’ works, the Hungarian equivalent got stuck at Sándor Petőfi’s ”János vitéz.” The choice of this poem didn’t surprise me a bit because Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary in charge of education responsible for the “reform” of Hungarian education, said at least five years ago that it was an absolute must that children study this poem. Those who are unfamiliar with the story don’t deserve to enter college. Fifty-six pages of the 203-page textbook are devoted to the literary analysis of this poem. I might add that in my copy of Petőfi’s complete poems “János vitéz” takes up 53 pages.

While the Romanian textbook is full of modern texts and daily encounters among people, teachers in Hungary are supposed to teach children about metaphors, Greek myths, and the Bible. There is also a section of excerpts from Hungarian writers who describe different regions of the country, with an emphasis on patriotism. One item sounded promising: Ferenc Molnár’s immortal The Boys from Pál Street. But, as it turned out, the book was covered in only five pages–just the structure and plot of the novel plus the names of the characters. The final item in the table of contents made quite an impression on me. I kept wondering how anyone can teach 10-year-olds about the “theory of literature.” In brief, I feel sorry for all those children who have to sit through this literature course and am especially sorry that they have to analyze “János vitéz” for weeks on end. I’m sure that fifth graders find this textbook deadly. No wonder that children don’t like to read.

Now let’s move on to a jollier subject: beer. Of course, not just any beer but the world famous “Igazi Csíki Sőr,” which I wrote about earlier. There was a trademark battle between a Dutch-Hungarian mini-brewery in Transylvania and the Romanian division of Heineken, the well-known Dutch brewery. For some inexplicable reason the Hungarian government decided to weigh in on the side of Igazi Csíki Sőr against Heineken. János Lázár and Zsolt Semjén traveled to Sânsimion/Csíkszentsimon to show their support. The government contemplated passing legislation that would discriminate against larger foreign-owned companies and promote the business interests of small Hungarian firms. And the government gave money to the company that produced the Igazi Csíki Sör. For a while patriotic beer drinkers boycotted Heineken and Igazi Csíki Sőr disappeared from the shelves as soon as it was put out. But these happy days for the owners of Igazi Csíki Sör didn’t last long. When the large breweries’ products are half the price of the beer from Csík, customer enthusiasm doesn’t last long. The mini-brewery decided that the government-favored beer will no longer be available in supermarkets. They will try their luck with direct distribution, providing home delivery to customers. I don’t know, but I have the feeling that this is the end of Igazi Csíki Sör. Market forces are simply too strong.

The last item is the intensive registration campaign the government has been conducting in the last month or so in the neighboring countries to entice ethnic Hungarians to vote in the 2018 national election. Those familiar with the details of the 2014 election know that Fidesz’s all-important two-thirds majority was achieved only because of the votes that came from Transylvania, Serbia, and Ukraine. Although Fidesz is way ahead of all the other parties in the polls today, Viktor Orbán leaves nothing to chance. In 2014 the government managed to register 193,793 voters in the neighboring countries, though only 128,712 of these were valid. A whopping 95.49% of them voted for Fidesz. Therefore, getting as many people registered as possible is of the utmost importance for Viktor Orbán and his party.

The government hopes that of the one million dual citizens at least 500,000 will vote in the election. The government had 332,000 registration requests by the time of the referendum on the migrant quota issue, in which dual citizens could vote. The intensive registration campaign since then has produced only meager results. In the last ten months the number of registrants has grown by only 18,000. The current figure is 350,000, with 148,000 from Romania, followed by Serbia with 40,000. Of course, it is possible that large numbers of people will register only in the last few weeks, but the goal is very ambitious.

Viktor Orbán himself sent letters to all dual citizens living abroad. In addition, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség/RMDSZ or in Romanian Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România/UDMR), the only serious Hungarian party in Romania, is actively involved in the campaign, especially since Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 22. The relationship between RMDSZ and Fidesz was not always amiable, but efforts to create a new ethnic political force to be used against RMDSZ failed. RMDSZ was the only Hungarian ethnic party left standing. Lately, RMDSZ and Fidesz have been working hand in hand for the reelection of Viktor Orbán.

August 12, 2017

Foreign language teaching in Hungary: Progress is very slow

Hungarians’ subpar knowledge of foreign languages in comparison to other European countries becomes a hot topic in the media from time to time. The reasons for this periodic interest in the topic vary. There are times when an international poll is taken, from which the population can learn that Hungary is again the very last on the list. That piece of news is usually followed by some soul-searching and analyses of the probable causes of the problem. Second, at this time of the year we normally learn that thousands of new college graduates cannot receive their diplomas because in four years they didn’t manage to pass a B2 (intermediate) language exam. (Here are some sample English and German tests a student would be confronted with.) Or, the occasion may be a new government decree that would change the current requirements. It just happened that in the last few months all three of these scenarios converged. A new poll was published, news came about the thousands of graduates without language certification, and the government announced its intention to require the infamous B2 exam prior to entry to college or university.

HVG called the results of a graph published by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Interpretation “shocking.” According to the graph, which the directorate general published on Facebook, the very last country out of 24 European countries is Hungary, where only 37% of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 can speak at least one foreign language. The runner-up is Bulgaria with 39%. Among the poor performers–countries whose score is below the EU average–are Poland (62%), Italy (60%), France (59%), Belgium (58%), Greece (58%), Portugal (58%), and Spain (51%). These scores might place the countries toward the bottom of the list, but they are still way ahead of the scores Bulgaria and Hungary achieved.

Although the problem is great, it is only now that the government decided to conduct a scientific study on the probable causes for these poor results. Those who want to pass the buck try to convince themselves and others that the grammatical structure of Hungarian is the principal obstacle to learning Indo-European languages. But, according to a survey, 69% of Finns speak one or more foreign languages. So clearly, this theory can easily be debunked. One cannot complain about the number of hours Hungarian students spend learning languages. For example, Hungarian kids spend 936 hours over nine years to learn their first foreign language, compared to 537 in Poland and 472 in Romania. According to foreign language experts, to pass the B2 test 500-600 classroom hours are plenty.

If Hungarian speakers are not inherently handicapped when it comes to learning languages and if more than enough time is allotted to foreign language study, the problem must be either with the teachers or with the teaching methods. Experts specializing in foreign language education claim that the quality of the Hungarian foreign language teachers is satisfactory. That is, they are competent in the languages they teach. The problem lies with the methodology. Studies show that one-third of all language teachers still use methods that are responsible for the dismal performance of their students. For example, the primary language in the classroom is Hungarian. The classes are deadly because the students mainly memorize words out of context and picayune grammatical points are discussed, for example tenses that are rarely used in normal conversation. The mainstay of the classroom routine is a question by the teacher followed by a student answer, which is dissected and corrected right there. Once that is done comes the new victim. This practice kills Hungarians’ willingness to speak freely for fear of making a mistake.

But there are structural problems in the school system itself that affects not only foreign language learning but learning other subjects as well. That is the 8 + 4 school system, which was originally designed for the time when compulsory education ended after grade 8. That meant that history, literature, chemistry, physics, geography, math, and a foreign language—in those days Russian—were taught on a very elementary level. Relatively few students continued their education in gymnasiums. And so, all these essential subjects were taught again, allegedly on a higher level, in high school. Since 40-45% of grade 8 students still don’t attain the expected level of competence in the foreign language they studied since grade 4, the level of instruction must inevitably be lowered in the first couple of years of high school. Some experts claim that in many schools foreign language teaching in grade 9 begins from square one.

Then there is the problem of overemphasizing the importance of the language tests, although we know there is no clear correlation between passing the tests and knowing the language. In the Kádár regime, once someone passed an official language exam, he was set for life. Whether he needed that foreign language in his work or not, he received extra pay for the rest of his working life. To some extent this is still the case. I read an article in which the author tried to find an explanation for those 10,000 or so students yearly who cannot receive their diplomas because in four or five years they didn’t manage to pass the foreign language exam. The author’s explanation is that in a great number of cases the diploma-less student finds a job without that infamous B2 exam. In her opinion, the motivation is still insufficient. But I suspect that the universities themselves are in part responsible for this state of affairs because students are rarely required to use a foreign language during their years in college. The inclusion of foreign-language articles in the list of compulsory readings would certainly provide some motivation to improve one’s language skills.

The latest government decision to require passing the B2 foreign language exam prior to entering university is a typical Orbán government move. Such a requirement would be fair only if students could learn a foreign language well enough to be able to pass this intermediate language test, but as things stand now this is not the case. In fact, according people familiar with the situation, in order to overcome this hurdle students need extra tutoring by competent teachers from language schools. These lessons are not inexpensive, and only better-off parents can afford them. This will mean that thousands of students coming from a lower socio-economic background will be barred from acquiring a college education. Although even the Orbán-appointed ombudsman has reservations about this plan, the government is bound and determined to introduce it by 2020. To give you an idea of the gravity of the situation, in 2016 39% of all entering college students didn’t have their B2 language exam behind them. The numbers were especially high among those who entered teacher’s colleges. Some smaller universities outside of Budapest also did very badly.

At the moment we don’t know what’s going to happen by 2020, but the government decided in June that a nationwide survey should be conducted between now and February 2018. The survey of 17,000 students will be conducted in 70 high schools and 100 elementary schools. I must say that such a survey should have been done decades ago because the problems of foreign language teaching are at least a century old. In the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy those soldiers who served in the k. und k. (kaiserlich und königlich) army, in which the language of command was German, managed to learn rudimentary German. But especially after 1945, during a long period of linguistic isolation and the exclusive teaching of Russian, the situation deteriorated significantly. Unfortunately, opening the borders didn’t make a quick and appreciable difference. It would be high time to remedy the situation, but the Orbán government’s educational philosophy is antagonistic to modern teaching methods, so desperately needed in Hungarian schools.

August 7, 2017

Introducing patriotic physical education classes

Back to education of sorts. Of sorts because the Orbán government, like all authoritarian regimes, looks upon education as a vehicle for its political agenda. It has been constantly fiddling with education ever since 2010, trying to adapt it to its own ideas and needs. Acquiring knowledge is taking a back seat to nationalistic indoctrination. As the latest test results attest, these “improvements” produced lower scores in all categories–math, science, and verbal skills. Instead of beefing up academic skills appropriate to the modern age, the government added subjects such as religious education (or ethics), and it increased the number of physical education classes. Of course, rote learning is still the pedagogical method of choice. As a result, children spend an inordinate number of hours in the classroom with less and less to show for it.

The Orbán government’s real aim is to use the school system for the infusion of values that the political leadership deems essential. Among these values, perhaps the most important is nationalistic patriotism, which they think young Hungarians lack. Therefore, the Orbán government’s new curriculum places special emphasis on pride in Hungarian cultural and scientific achievements and, in general, on historical and folk traditions. As the ministry of human resources put it, teachers of history and literature are supposed to instill national pride in their pupils.

Over the past seven years the government’s educational “experts” floated several ideas that were supposed to arouse students’ interest in what the Orbán government considers to be Hungarian specialties. Examples were the introduction of horseback riding and the compulsory daily singing of folk songs in schools. Luckily, the crazy idea of daily singing was soon abandoned.

Here I would like to focus on one notion that was put into practice: five gym classes a week instead of the earlier three. In theory, this might have been a good idea, but as usual it was introduced without due preparation and there are still many students who must do their exercises in the corridors instead of a gym due to lack of space. I was also very suspicious about the real reason for this great emphasis on physical education. We all know that a daily exercise program is good for us, and everywhere in the world only a small percentage of children and adults are physically active. Hungary is no exception. So, more gym classes could be a step in the right direction. Still, I was worried from the beginning that the greater emphasis on gym was not for the sole benefit of physical well-being but that the powers-that-be had a hidden agenda. Soon enough there were signs that my fears were justified.

The first sign that the government was thinking about general military training was Viktor Orbán’s surprising announcement that those men who received military training during the Kádár era and afterward, until it was abolished in 2004, gained immeasurably from the experience. The announcement was surprising because Orbán loathed his year in the military between high school and law school. According to his own admission, this was the time when he came to hate the regime and decided to turn against it. But today he seems to be convinced that Hungary must be able to defend itself and therefore must have a strong army. I believe that if the idea of conscription weren’t so unpopular, he wouldn’t mind reinstating compulsory military service. But since this is not possible politically, at least at the moment, he would like to have a strong reserve force.

István Simicskó, minister of defense, has been for the longest time a promoter of the idea of a “home army.” A year ago there was a lot of talk about building one, but it seems that the army found it difficult to convince men and women to enlist. Once that failed, Simicskó floated the idea of establishing shooting galleries in every “járás,” an administrative unit smaller than a county. Today not much can be heard about this idea either. Instead, at the beginning of June RTL Klub reported that the Klebelsberg Center (KLIK), which oversees Hungary’s educational system, inquired from school principals about the feasibility of establishing shooting galleries on school premises. A day later Magyar Nemzet learned that KLIK is also interested in the practicality of introducing martial arts. KLIK wanted to know what kinds of martial arts they teach now, because as of May students can replace gym classes not just with football but also with some kind of martial art. I should add that Simicskó is a practitioner of Wing Chun, a traditional Chinese martial art specializing in close range combat. Simicskó achieved the 4th master level.

The word is now out that by the end of this year schools will have to change the curriculum of gym classes to reflect “a program of patriotism and national defense.” Critics of the Orbán government’s educational policies are baffled and somewhat worried about these plans because of the coupling of patriotism/nationalism and the defense of the homeland. As it is, Hungarian education is supposed to instill an admiration for those who over the years have fought against “foreign oppression.” One only wishes the curriculum placed as much emphasis on the fight against domestic oppressors and the love of individual freedom.

It looks as if it is never too early to start patriotic/nationalistic indoctrination. According to the description of the project, it will begin when children enter kindergarten at the age of three. It is still not clear when students will have to start learning the rudiment of “the basics of military training.”

The plan strongly resembles the “levente movement,” which was introduced in 1921 and came to an end in 1945. It was the primary organization for pre-military training in the Horthy era. According to the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary could maintain only a very small army, so the introduction of the levente movement helped to circumvent the military restrictions imposed on the country. Every male between the ages of 12 and 21 who no longer attended school had to join a local levente group, where he was forced for 8-9 months a year to take physical education classes for three hours a week. So, it’s no wonder that some educational experts are worried that the patriotic physical education classes signal plans to reintroduce conscription sometime in the future.

Members of the levente movement practicing the shot put, 1928

But the very idea of “teaching” patriotism/nationalism to youngsters is frightening by itself. Often the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is blurred. It’s enough to take a look at the dictionary definitions of the two terms. Patriotism is “love and devotion to one’s country” while nationalism is “devotion, especially excessive or undiscriminating devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation state.” But what is excessive? The second meaning of nationalism is even more telling. Nationalism is “the belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals,” which is certainly true of the “patriotic” aspirations of the Orbán government.

In brief, the present regime is introducing the teaching of blatant nationalism into the school curriculum. This highly questionable project is being financed to the tune of 318 million forints by, I’m sorry to say, the European Union. It is one of the many paradoxes that most of us find intolerable. Here is the European Union, which is supposed to stand for international cooperation and ever closer integration at the expense of nationalistic egotism, and that organization finances Viktor Orbán’s latest plans to bring up a generation of Hungarians antagonistic to the very ideas the European Union stands for.

August 6, 2017

A quick look at three recent events in Hungary

Medián’s latest opinion poll on parties and politicians

Today I will again cover several topics, all of which, I believe, deserve attention. I will start with Medián’s latest opinion poll, which shows a slight uptick in Fidesz support while the opposition parties’ positions remain fairly constant. I will not burden you with too many details and will provide figures only for those voters who claim they will certainly vote at the next election. In this group Fidesz leads with 53%, followed by Jobbik at 21%, while MSZP, which looks upon itself as the leading party on the left, currently garners only 12%. DK stands at 6% and LMP at 3%, which means that it wouldn’t meet the 5% threshold for representation in parliament. The smaller parties like Momentum, Együtt, Two-tailed Dog, and MoMa each have a 1% share of the active voters while the Hungarian Liberal Party and Párbeszéd have even less support. As it stands, about 10% of votes would be absolutely wasted if all these parties decided to run on their own. Given the fractured state of the left-of-center opposition, it is not at all surprising that 33% of the likely voters have no idea at the moment for which party they will vote at next year’s election.

Medián also asked people’s opinion of politicians. Hungarians have a very low opinion of politicians in general. Usually, János Áder heads the list, but his rank is due only to his office. People feel they must respect the president of the country. But even Áder’s “popularity” is only 49%. Viktor Orbán trails at 44%. The most popular opposition politician is Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Zugló (District XIV), with 39%. Currently he is Párbeszéd’s candidate for the premiership, which might be responsible for an 8% jump in his popularity in the last two months. On the other hand, MSZP’s László Botka hasn’t captured the imagination of the electorate. On the contrary, between April and June he has lost 8%. His current standing is a mere 26%. There are only two politicians who are less popular than Botka: Lajos Bokros and Ferenc Gyurcsány. Given Botka’s lack of popularity and the stagnating low support for MSZP, the socialist party’s prospects don’t seem too bright. I must say that I’m not surprised.

Egypt and Hungary are political neighbors

At least this is what Viktor Orbán claimed yesterday when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Hungary to confer with the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 and to have bilateral talks with Viktor Orbán.

El-Sisi arrived in Budapest in secrecy late Sunday night. MTI reported his presence in the Hungarian capital only after his meeting with Viktor Orbán yesterday. The Egyptian press was much more forthcoming. They announced the impending visit to Budapest already on July 1. As 168 Óra said of the strange circumstances of el-Sisi’s arrival, “the Orbán government first wanted to hide the dictator but at the end he was greeted with open arms.” Indeed, just as in the case of Erdoğan, Orbán went out of his way to flatter the dictator. He again came forth with some strange comments. Orbán, who likes to speak in the name of all Hungarians, claimed that when Hungarians look at other countries their first inquiry is “how much they are in love with their own independence.” I’m sure that this odd comment comes as a surprise to most Hungarians. But, the most incredible sentence was: “Egypt is not only a country close by but also politically speaking a neighbor.”

In addition to political matters there was again a lot of talk about the great economic opportunities and the prospects of more intensive trade relations in the future. All the talk about trade with Turkey a couple of days ago and now with Egypt prompted Bálint Ablonczy of Válasz to write an opinion piece titled “Wouldn’t it be time for a western opening?” He rightly pointed out that seven years after the announcement of the Eastern Opening the diversification of Hungarian trade relations hasn’t changed at all. In fact, in 2010 77% percent of Hungarian exports went to the countries of the European Union. Today that figure is 80%. This is so despite bilateral talks with leaders of countries east of Hungary. Meanwhile, Orbán meets European politicians only at EU summits. Perhaps, says Ablonczy, it would be time to turn toward the west. What Ablonczy doesn’t say but I’m sure he knows is that at present there are not too many European politicians who would like to be chummy with Viktor Orbán, friend of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Abel Fattah el-Sisi, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Ilham Aliyev, and other unsavory leaders.

Trade schools versus gymnasiums

I once wrote a post with the title “Hungarian politicians and learning: Not a good mix,” in which I listed a few truly harmful people in and around Hungarian education, starting with Rózsa Hoffmann, KDNP undersecretary of education between 2010 and 2014, László Palkovics, her successor, and László Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The fact that a businessman might have such an outsize influence on public education might surprise most people, but the fact is that for one reason or another Parragh managed to convince Orbán that his ideas reflect the way Hungarian education should be structured for maximum economic benefit. Unfortunately, his ideas are totally misguided. He sees Hungary as a huge factory floor where blue-color workers toil on assembly lines. In his opinion, these workers don’t need a broad liberal arts education before embarking on a trade or profession. After eight years of general public education, they should be sent to trade schools. Orbán’s educational establishment has begun to promote trade schools over traditional high school education.

But there is one serious problem. Hungarian parents are smarter than László Parragh and want to have their children go through 12 years of academic learning. Interest in gymnasiums is still as high as ever. A furious Parragh blamed the municipalities for not shuttering gymnasiums. So, if the people don’t do something he and his fellow politicians want, the only way to remedy the situation is to force people to obey. A few days ago Magyar Nemzet received a copy of a background study on the subject which advocates “the introduction of an entrance exam to be taken in grade eight” that would determine the future of 14-year-olds. In addition, the authors of the study suggest “a gradual restriction on the number of gymnasiums.” Let’s kill children’s opportunities after a single test. Because once children are forced into these trade schools there is no way they will ever end up in college or university.

Let me include here a couple of recent photos taken in these “szakközépiskolák.”

My favorite is the one below that accompanies Magyar Nemzet’s article on the so-called educators’ plan for ruining a whole generation.

What in the world will these two guys do with what they are allegedly learning here?

July 4, 2017

The past seven years: Hungary in numbers, 2010-2016

Máté Veres, research associate of Gazdaságkutató Zrt., published this study in Új Egyenlőség at the beginning of the year. The article was translated by “Observer,” who added the following notes:

This article offers a set of indicators to reveal the state of the Hungarian economy and society. We think, however, that the situation is somewhat worse than Veres’s assessment because there are additional detrimental factors not discussed here, e.g.:

  • The very low investment rate as a percentage of GDP
  • The budget deficit hidden in subsystems down to individual units like hospitals or schools districts
  • The consumption boost by the remitted earnings from abroad, which are to decline in time
  • The poor ratings of the Hungarian places of higher education, the outdated, retrograde education model and policies, the very low number of people with IT or foreign language knowledge, etc.  

Analyses of these points will eventually be presented in another article. I’m grateful for the work and care “Observer” took in translating this important article for us.

♦ ♦ ♦

Analyzing the results of the second Orbán government [and third as from 2014] after seven years of freedom fight and other kinds of struggle and hundreds of millions of euros from the EU spent, it’s time to draw a picture of how the Hungarian economy and society are doing compared to 2010 in the light of the latest figures available.

After [the election victory in] 2010 the government benches have been widely using the already well known “past eight years” phrase. It was used by Fidesz and the Christian Democratic politicians as their favored counter-argument when the opposition tried to challenge government actions. The performance of the governments between 2002 and 2010 in many areas could have been criticized (as we did in our analyses), but in general the “last eight years” argument has always been a simplistic communication tool, often used to bypass substantive discussions. In our evaluation of the Fidesz government performance we now follow a different path and instead of summary political statements we shall stay with the facts and figures to show what the “past seven years” were like.

Seven years are already a sufficient horizon for an evaluation of the government’s achievements. For this purpose, however, in addition to showing the changes in numbers, we need to find explanations for the results, and therefore – where possible – to compare the results with those of our regional competitors as well. So now we’ll consider some areas of key importance to the future of the country.

UNEMPLOYMENT

It was 10.3% in 2010 and only 5% in 2016, according to the KHS (Central Statistics Office-CSO), or 6.8%, according to Eurostat.

Apparently the situation has improved, but it is worth adding that the [2008 world financial] crisis played a major role in the exceptionally weak 2010 numbers, while the much better 2016 numbers include both those working abroad and those fostered workers vegetating on subsistence wages (USD 180/month).

The same factors underlay the Eurostat numbers showing a miraculous growth of employment in Hungary (59.9% in 2010 and 68.9% in 2015). According to official figures we caught up with the EU average, but without those working abroad and the fostered workers we just caught up with the eastern [EU] member states. In any case, there is an improvement, primarily due to the EU-funded, labor-intensive construction projects.

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT

2010 – 36th place, in 2016 – 44th

Human development is an indicator introduced by the UNO, a concept of human well-being wider than the GDP indicator. It is generated by averaging three numerical indicators: life expectancy, education and standard of living (GDP Purchasing Power Parity per capita). In this area we not only managed to fall significantly behind, but all our V4 [Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary] regional competitors overtook us, while Poland was still behind us in 2010.

HOUSEHOLD DEBT

EUR 7,844 mil in 2010, 5,683 mil in 2016

A clear success can be booked in this area. The composition of the debt is just as important as its size, as the crisis taught a large part of the Hungarian middle class. Until 2010 the household debt of the Hungarian population grew at a rate remarkable even by regional standards, and in foreign currency, which was mainly due to the bad interest rate policy of the Hungarian Central Bank (HCB) and to the lack of regulation. The central bank’s interest rate policy between 2001 and 2007 encouraged the population to borrow in foreign currency.

PUBLIC DEBT

In 2010 the PD was HUF 20,420 billion or 78.8% of GDP. Seven years later, in 2016 it was 25,393 billion or 75.5% of GDP.

This figure has fluctuated during the second Orbán government. It had been over 80% GDP too, but at the end of the year ‘with hundreds of tricks’ – the best known being the seizure of the pension finds – they always managed a decrease from the previous year [the government publishes and uses only a single figure – that of Dec. 30th). There is a lot of uncertainty as to whether the government can sustain the downward trend, given the scale of the debt, but if it manages to keep the balance of payments at zero, the government can eventually claim a clear victory on this front.

TAXES ON LABOR

In 2010 the total was 54.1%; in 2016, 49.0% There is a sizable literature on the issue. The differentiated and on average higher taxes on labor and/or profit are not at all problematic, if they are used by the state to provide high-quality, accessible to all, health, education and other services. This is evidenced year after year by the results of the economic systems of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, known as the “Nordic model”, since the above-mentioned countries have figured at the top of the lists in competitiveness, innovation and the environment for decades. However, in Hungary things are developing in a direction exactly opposite to the Nordic Model. This question is also interesting because the Fidesz government proclaimed itself to be the government of tax cuts.

Social security expenses in the European Union, 2014

It is clear that if we look at the overall situation, the taxes on labor have decreased. Although it’s worth adding that in international comparison while in 2010 we had the second largest burden rate in the OECD, by now we managed to move up only by two places, occupying fourth place from the bottom. This small success is mainly due to the introduction of a flat personal income tax and its rate reduction to 16%.

However, it’s worth mentioning that the replacement of the progressive tax system used until then by a flat tax rate opened a HUF 444 billion hole in the yearly budget and benefited only the richest. In addition, never has labor in Hungary been burdened by such a wide variety of taxes as today. Actually the situation here is the worst in the region. Meanwhile the government promised a massive tax burden reduction in the medium term and a single-digit company tax. There has been a long-standing debate about the need for a significant reduction of the tax burden with regard to the competitiveness of the economy.

In any case, despite the 2010 promise, we surely didn’t get any closer to the “beer mat-sized tax return” [as V. Orbán half-jokingly promised in opposition]. However, with the new flat and extremely low 9% company tax rate, another 2010 slogan – “we shall fight the offshore knights” – now seems to have morphed into “join the offshore knights’ race.” Similar to the effect of the flat-rate personal income tax, now once again the richest (and the big companies) will do really well as not the Hungarians, but the multinationals, such as General Electric (GE), already did under a special agreement with the government.

GDP GROWTH

Between 2004 and 2010 the growth amounted to 9.9% or in absolute terms USD 114.2 billion to 129.4 billion (a 15.2 billion difference). Between 2010 and 2015, in the same length of time, the Orbán government boosted the GDP from USD 129.4 billion to 138.8 billion (a 9.4 billion difference). The right side of politics clearly underperformed. These numbers, however, may be deceptive because much depends on external factors. But if you just look at our competitors in the region, save for the Czechs and Bulgarians almost all Eastern European member states, even Romania, performed better.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT

The [public transport] ticket price in Budapest in 2010 was 320 Ft., in 2016 – 350. The ticket prices in the region were as follows in 2016. Sofia – 158 Ft., Bucharest – 90 Ft., Warsaw – 240 Ft., Prague – 275 Ft. So the situation remains unchanged, we are the most expensive.

FREEWAY CONSTRUCTION COST

During the Gyurcsány government overpricing [in public projects] gained notoriety, but there are still no authoritative studies regarding its extent. Interestingly, according to Zsuzsanna Németh, Minister of Development 2010-2014, the Hungarian freeway construction cost per kilometer had decreased steadily during the Gyurcsány government, and in 2010 was 1.8 billion Ft. on average. Compared to this, according to the same Ministry led by Zsuzsanna Németh, the freeway construction unit cost had increased to 2.3 billion per kilometers in 2013. But there were also sections where the costs reached almost 4 billion forints.

BIG MAC INDEX

[Or how many minutes you have to work for a Big Mac]

Crisis or not, the change here is clearly positive: in 2009 – 59 min., in 2015 only 44 min. That said, we still haven’t overtaken anyone in the region, we are on par with Bucharest. It is also important to point out that the Big Mac index focuses on cities, and while Budapest is clearly catching up, the country is dropping behind compared to the other EU Member States. And this worsening trend continued during the past seven years just as before.

BUDAPEST (CENTRAL HUNGARY) GDP PPP / CAPITA compared to EU average

In 2010 144%, in 2014 143% where 100% means the EU average

Only Budapest is above the EU average, the second best county – Győr-Moson-Sopron stands at only 77%. In the light of the foregoing it is worthwhile showing also how the best performing Hungarian regions – where the situation in this area has worsened since 2010 – compare to our V4 competitors. In 2014 in the same category Prague was stood at 173%, Bratislava 187%, Warsaw 197%. Notably in the case of Budapest, Pest County is also part of the region.

GDP per capita by purchasing power parity, 2015

IMPORTED FOODS SHARE

In 2010 24.5%, in 2015 22%

The more food is produced by local, domestic producers the better, both environmentally and economically. According to a relatively recent Corvinus University study, positive, if modest changes have taken place in this area.

THE REAL VALUE OF PENSIONS
It is so far growing in the second Orbán government period, due in part to last year’s persistently low inflation, the third year in a row, and, on the other hand, partially due to the inflation-indexation of pensions introduced by the Gyurcsány government and which during the Fidesz government was often surpassed through the use of small tricks.

MATERNITY LEAVE

In 2008 the gross benefit was HUF 28,500, in 2016 just as much. In international comparison, this is dramatically low.

PRIMARY SCHOOL TEACHER GROSS ANNUAL WAGES

In 2009 it was USD 9,500, in 2015 – 9,149.

The biggest change in the area of earnings in the past period, as mentioned before, was the flat personal income tax, which benefitted primarily the affluent. At first glance the above seems even a decrease, but due to the significantly weakened forint exchange rate in the period the balance is rather a positive one. This fact doesn’t make for any exuberant joy because according to the OECD data, admittedly in need of updating, the approx. USD 9,500 earnings (just as a few years ago) was sufficient only for the last place among the EU member countries.

PEOPLE LIVING IN EXTREME POVERTY

In 2010 – 3 million, in 2016 – 3.6-3.8 million

In addition to this terribly high number, perhaps it is most important to note that after nearly a quarter of a century, in 2011 the CSO stopped publishing any figures about exactly how many people live below the poverty line. (The Policy Agenda think tank, however, has calculated that by 2015 the number has grown to 41.5%. See our article on all of this.)

Actual Individual Consumption in the European Union, 2014

Furthermore, the CSO had calculated that at least 87,351 Ft. monthly net earnings were required (in 2014) for living at a subsistence level. In comparison the net minimum wage in 2016 was still 73,815 Ft. In the first case it seems there was finally a move forward. Thanks to the tenacious struggle of the trade unions in 2018 the minimum wage will reach the subsistence level of around 90,000 Ft. However, thanks to the far higher 35% tax burden, in net terms the minimum wage is still light years behind that of our competitors in the region regarding the increases carried out between 2008 and 2016. In addition, Hungary has the highest proportion (72.2%) across the EU of households that wouldn’t be able to pay any unexpected expense.

HOSPITAL BEDS NUMBER

In 2009 – 70,971, in 2014 – 66,000

The population has been declining steadily since 2010, but we surely aren’t so many fewer. Actually there are more elderly. Therefore we need more, not fewer beds.

HEALTHCARE

Not only compared to 2010, but in fact never has any government since 1990 spent so little on healthcare, as a percentage of GDP, as in the past several years. And this is not only a basic requirement for a more successful functioning of the economy but also a factor that could have improved significantly the overall mood of the whole country. Recent research has shown that the overall satisfaction level in a country is not best raised by increasing the earnings of the inhabitants but by spending relatively larger amounts on problems of well-being. There is also a demand for it. According to the 2016 European Social Survey the Hungarian society is in a terrible state compared to the other European countries: in Hungary people consume the smallest quantities of fruits and vegetables, Hungarian women are moving the least, compared to the Hungarian men only Lithuanians smoke more, compared to the Hungarian men only more Czechs are overweight, Hungarian women are the most overweight, we have the largest proportion of men in poor or a very poor state of health, compared to the Hungarian women only the Spanish women are in a worse state of health, among the Hungarian men are the most showing signs of depression, and the Hungarian population, both men and women, is most affected by cancer. After that, perhaps it’s not surprising that we visit doctors most frequently among OECD countries.

EDUCATION

Similar to the health care case, counting from 1990 we have never spent so little of the GDP in this sector as during the Orbán government. Yet the word education could safely be replaced by “future,” since it is basically influenced by the country’s medium and long-term competitiveness. We are rank penultimate in Europe [in spending], so such investment here would bring the biggest return among the OECD countries. The results are visible: we are sixth from the bottom in the OECD in the number of researchers employed in the country; there haven’t been so few studying in higher education in the last seventeen years. We spent the least for developing computer skills, and our students have the largest number of school hours for non-essential knowledge (e.g., ethics [compulsory alternative to religion], etc.) as opposed to essential ones (e.g. reading, writing, literature, mathematics, natural sciences, second or other language). In view of the above, the recently published PISA results, which understandably caused an outrage, probably represent only the tip of the iceberg.

One of the few positive steps in the past few years is that those who cannot find work are, finally, offered free training, but the training offered by the National [Vocational] Training Register (Országos képzési jegyzék) is unlikely to boost the highest added value production areas. In addition, the participants’ livelihood is not guaranteed during the course; hence the training can only be used by jobseekers with a better financial cushion or those enjoying a patronage. Improving job qualifications is needed to raise our incredibly low average salary, which already inhibits economic growth.

CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX

In 2009 – 46th place, in 2015 – 50th place

Even the people in Saudi Arabia, Botswana, Qatar and four-fifths of our region feel their governments are less corrupt.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

No previous government has shown less interest in this area. The Orbán government’s response to the day-by-day worsening problem of global warming was to abolish the Environment Ministry and to do nothing about the few concrete promises it made before the election – including the creation of a green bank. In the meantime, they managed to earn the glory of the “tree-felling government” title, since probably no one has cut down so many trees as they have done in the last seven years in Budapest, and they have plans for more. Moreover, we are perhaps the only country in the world to impose taxes on solar panels while indebting Hungary by a loan equal to at least 10% of GDPif not more – for the sake of a twentieth-century technology for [Russian nuclear reactor blocks] Paks 2, which, in the bargain, will surely never produce a return.

Meanwhile, despite all the flag waving and freedom fighting the external exposure of the Hungarian economy has not been reduced at all. And here it is not primarily the foreign currency denominated debt segment that counts most, nor the export-import volume, which reached 200% of GDP, but the fact that less than half of the exported added value is created in Hungary. In other words, more than 50% of the added value produced in Hungary is by foreign-owned companies, which is unique in the European Union. It is no surprise that of the EU money arriving here for business development – after the government has carved off its significant slice – almost 70% is awarded to multinationals.

Such a level of foreign investor influence is extraordinary even by regional standards, although in Eastern Europe we are all rowing in the same boat, i.e. in what the literature calls a dependent market economy. That is, our economies are wholly dependent on Western investments. This is particularly true for the car manufacturing brought to Hungary, because it accounts for more than 20% of Hungarian exports, and this situation hasn’t changed since the year 2000. Meanwhile a leading Fidesz politician says that nothing can be done because “Hungary is a determined country, where it’s impossible to pursue other economic policies.” But it was precisely the Orbán regime which showed that it is. Over the last fifty years countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore went through economic development with substantial state assistance, which took them to where we are heading today. Big companies like Samsung, LG and Hyundai were heavily subsidized by the state, which in return set certain export expectations, so these companies were forced to continue spending on innovation. While it is a widespread view that the international rules made impossible this type of government intervention, we can see that the Orbán regime can support their oligarchs without any sanctions. The problem is that instead of innovation the regime expects only political loyalty. Despite its references to them as a model, none of the East Asian models’ components has been employed.

In light of the above it is not surprising that there have never been so many who wanted to emigrate from the country. Meanwhile the middle class is eroding and the differences in wealth between the richest and the poorest are increasing.

There is money available though, since up to now the government has spent HUF 300 billion on state companies and a further HUF 100 billion on its own (i.e. our) soccer pet. Overall, we spend four times more on this prime minister’s mania than on road maintenance, while the number of spectators is steadily declining. There are other outlays that went wrong too – the György Matolcsy-led National Bank has had HUF 250 billion pumped into dubious foundations or spent for the purchase of art objects. In addition, another HUF 850 million was sunk into the Felcsút narrow gauge railway, never to produce any return, and HUF 6.7 billion credit was extended to Andy Vajna for the purchase of TV2. Speaking of Andy Vajna, it is worth highlighting the greatest of all items, in regard to which the government didn’t do anything, namely the offshore [knights racket]. Moreover, Hungary is actually moving in this direction. Even in the face of the couple of years old study finding that the almost unfathomable amount of USD 247 billion of untaxed income has left the country in past decades. In the course of this offshore racket we have suffered the second largest losses in Europe.

WHAT FOLLOWS FROM ALL THIS?

Looking at the numbers the government could demonstrate quite serious achievements compared to 2010, primarily in the area of balancing the ​​budget and public debt. The GDP growth rate could have been included but for the fact that this growth was due mainly to the accelerated EU investments and not to a better performance of the domestic economy. In fact our productivity has been stagnant since 2008.

On the other hand, the social inequalities have increased dramatically during these seven years. It is unlikely that these short-term favorable macro-economic data can be sustained in the long term, mainly because the Hungarian society’s human capital indicators have significantly deteriorated as a result of the dramatic underfunding of the public subsystems (healthcare, education, social policy, public transport). That is, the economic growth is due to a great extent to the EU investment funds and the short-term budgetary balance to huge austerity measures. Both are unsustainable.

February 19, 2017

Teaching and politics: A grade-eight geography book

The liberal media tends to overestimate the desire of most teachers to move away from traditional teaching methods. We are apt to forget the incredible resistance the teachers put up when Bálint Magyar, minister of education between 1996 and 1998 and again between 2002 and 2006, cautiously attempted to reform Hungarian public education. I’m convinced that the majority of teachers are quite satisfied with the way the material is taught and wouldn’t know what to do with all those “newfangled” methods a small group of top-notch teachers in elite schools would like to introduce.

This feeling was reinforced today when I listened to a screaming devotee of Viktor Orbán. She went on and on, singing the praises of the Hungarian prime minister, whom she considers the only far-sighted, modern politician in Europe. All the others are useless liberals who will be swept away by the spirit of a new age of people like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán. She turned out to be a high school teacher. I have no idea what she teaches, but I shudder to think of the influence she might have on some of her students.

Then there is an incredible illustration in the grade 8 geography textbook. It depicts Germany as a sow, feeding four little piglets that represent countries that are dependent on Germany’s financial help: Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Belgium. A fifth piggy, identified by a Hungarian flag, stands aside, giving the impression that Hungary is not the beneficiary of money that Germany pays into the common purse of the European Union.

I do give the book credit for explaining the structure of the European Union quite well. It also spells out the benefits a Hungarian citizen receives as a result of the country’s being part of the European Union.

One chapter of this textbook is devoted to demographics, within which “migration” is discussed at some length. The book points out that Hungary is “a transit country.” Most migrants stay in Hungary for a very short time and move on to Western Europe. When it comes to emigration, the book doesn’t divulge the extent of the problem, even though it does mention that half of those who leave Hungary are under thirty and “many of them are well-educated professionals.”

Although the authors ask students probing questions about the differences between “refugees” and “immigrants,” there is nothing in the textbook that could possibly guide the students on the matter. I assume that here the political views of the teacher are of some importance, especially since students would rarely have heard the word “refugee.” Viktor Orbán and the members of his government judiciously avoided the term and talked only about “migrants.” There is another question that most likely allows the teacher to interpret current events: “Why are the majority of refugees only traveling across Hungary” instead of settling here?

I was impressed with the chapter on “The present and future of domestic industry.” In it the textbook quite honestly reports on the inadequacies of the educational system and government support for research and development. I especially liked the sub-chapter “The future is information societies—what about us?” It talks about the necessity of investors with sufficient capital to support R&D. Otherwise, “the intellectual capital will go to other countries.” Again, there is plenty of opportunity for teachers to add their own views on these subjects. The same is true of renewable energy, which the authors admit has not been promoted by the government.

These are some of the laudable features of the textbook. When it comes to chapters on Hungary’s neighbors, the treatment is less even-handed. Saying that “Transylvania is the home of Hungarians” is more than misleading, even though in the text the student learns that Hungarians constitute only 19% of Transylvania’s population. Unfortunately, once these students leave school they seem to forget such “details.” I remember a fairly recent sociological study of young people’s knowledge of Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries. They are woefully ignorant of basic facts about the size of Hungarian minorities both in Slovakia and in Romania.

USA-NATO confetti factory

By the time I more or less finished reading the book I came to the conclusion that the inclusion of “political” cartoons in this textbook was most unfortunate. I would love to know what message a cartoon titled “USA-NATO confetti factory” intends to send. Does the textbook blame the United States for the breakup of Yugoslavia or for the Russian-Ukrainian conflict? I can’t think of anything else.

Who should have Ukraine?

I also find the cartoon on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict unfortunate, especially since the screaming right-wing teacher this morning blamed the United States for Ukraine’s recent problems with Russia. The accompanying text is also puzzling. After explaining that about one-fifth of the population speaks a mixed Russian-Ukrainian language, it adds: “nevertheless, the two ethnic groups are often in conflict within the country. Their antagonisms led to armed conflict for the Crimean peninsula.” Well, that is not how I remember Putin’s recent excursion into Crimea.

All in all, this textbook is a mixed bag. There is an often expressed requirement that teaching be politically neutral, but even the most superficial look at this book reveals that it is packed with information on recent events that are political in nature. I can’t help but think of the famous movie “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” Teachers can have a huge influence on their students, especially when those of the more liberal persuasion are afraid to express any opinion that might brand them as not fully supportive of the current regime. It’s too bad that there is no way of knowing what goes on in Hungarian classrooms in such a politically divided country as Hungary.

January 6, 2017