Tag Archives: education

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  • The poor ratings of the Hungarian places of higher education, the outdated, retrograde education model and policies, the very low number of people with IT or foreign language knowledge, etc.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

You don’t want to be a grade 11 student in Hungary

At this time of the year, when life more or less comes to a standstill for a few days, it is refreshing to do something different from my usual daily fare. I decided to satisfy my curiosity about the so-called “experimental” textbooks the government foisted on teachers and students in certain schools.

I settled for a textbook on Hungarian and world literature for grade 11 students together with its companion volume of literary texts. The textbook is only 168 pages long. Its main staple is plot summaries, but it also includes a list of terms, a pronunciation guide to foreign names, and a short bibliography.

The text covers the period between 1849 and “the first decades of the 20th century,” but this cut-off date is somewhat arbitrary. A lot of contemporaries of the authors discussed in this volume ended up in the textbook for twelfth graders.

Acting as if I were a conscientious student, I followed the first set of instructions in the text. After reading a short introduction to the era following the lost war of independence marked by political resistance, I dutifully proceeded to do my homework. I was supposed to read the first chapter of The New Landowner by Mór Jókai (1825-1904), “which one can find on the website of the Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár.” It was not included in the companion volume, so I don’t know what happens if the student has no access to a computer. I guess the textbook authors didn’t think of this “small” problem. In addition, I was supposed to group together all the foreign words “on the basis of their roles and meanings.”

I got as far as reading the text which, given the archaic language full of bastardized Latin and German, was not an easy task. And if I had taken the assignment seriously and tried to do something with the hundreds of foreign words, I’m sure it would have taken me more than three hours.

My second homework assignment was just as strange. I was told to read about forty lines of an epic poem by János Arany (1817-1882). I was certain that this time at least I will find the text of the poem, or at least its relevant passages, in the companion volume. No such luck, although a great number of Arany poems are included in the collection. In fact, most of the reading assignments are not readily available to the students.

There are “interesting puzzles” hidden in the book. Among the homework questions I found a curious reference to a contemporary poet who expressed sentiments similar to Arany on a certain subject. Apparently, the student can find this contemporary poem “in the collection of literary texts.” Which collection? Perhaps the one the student will use in grade twelve?

Especially annoying are the clumsy efforts to make nineteenth-century literature relevant. One of Arany’s ballads is about a woman who has gone mad but who is in denial. The students are supposed to view the 1999 American film “Girl, Interrupted” and write an essay on “Where strangeness ends and where madness begins.” I do hope the film is available in the school so students can watch the “relevant scenes.” Continuing with the theme of madness, the authors suggest taking a look at John Everett Millais’ painting “Ophelia” on Wikipedia.

When it comes to prose, the “collection of literary texts” contains only short stories. Yet it seems that students are supposed to be thoroughly familiar with Kálmán Mikszáth’s The Siege of Beszterce (1896). Again, the authors resort to an American film, this time “Argo” about the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, because they see parallels between the two stories. The suggested title of the assigned essay is: “Is there any practical use to looking at fictive films or novels?”

Until yesterday I thought that I knew Hungarian literature pretty well, but this grade 11 textbook proved me wrong. Here is a text that considers only a handful of presumably remarkable writers. Among Hungarians, it pays a great deal of attention to János Arany, Imre Madách (1823-1864), and Kálmán Mikszáth (1847-1910). Briefly mentioned are János Vajda (1827-1897) and Gyula Reviczky (1855-1889). And then comes the mystery man. Or at least for me he was a mystery man: István Petelei (1852-1910). Eventually I came to the conclusion that his inclusion has something to do with his being a Transylvanian who wrote mostly about village folks and the countryside. On the other hand, the much better known Sándor Bródy (1863-1924) is not mentioned, even though the “collection of literary works” includes one of his short stories. It’s no wonder that the teachers are not exactly thrilled with this thrown-together “experimental” textbook.

As for foreign authors, Russians are well represented: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, although it is unlikely that the students will have the time to actually read any of these great Russian authors. The textbook gives considerable (of course, “considerable” is a relative term here given the brevity of the text) space to French literature: Flaubert, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. From German-language literature only Rainer Maria Rilke made it. From Great Britain Dickens’s David Copperfield was included, but there is no sign of any work by Dickens in the “collection of literary texts.” However, the students are supposed to read the fourth chapter of the book, on the basis of which they are to draw a comparison between the fate and humiliation of David Copperfield and that of the thirteen-year-old daughter of a Jewish pharmacist in a Hungarian movie. Sorry, but these forced comparisons really turn me off. Walt Whitman is discussed for a page and a half and the two of his poems appear in the collection of literary texts. The plot of Henrik Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck is summarized in considerable detail.

I really don’t know what students are supposed to learn from such a superficial, ill-constructed textbook. Certainly not to enjoy literature.

By the way, anybody who’s interested in Hungarian literature might want to consult Lóránt Czigány’s A History of Hungarian Literature: From the Earliest Times to the Mid-1970s, available online. At least I know that you have a computer.

December 26, 2016

Hungarian politicians and learning: Not a good mix

I highly doubt that Hungary’s abysmal PISA results will prompt any kind of reform that would eventually produce a viable educational framework. The reluctance to tackle the problem is already apparent. One Fidesz politician after the other offers reasons why a competence-based system is simply not suited to Hungarians.

The most radical solution came from a registered civic organization called Magyarországi Szűlők Országos Egyesülete (MSZOE), about which we know practically nothing save the name of the editor-in-chief of its website, Sándor Keszei, who is also the organization’s president and spokesman. His solution to the problem is the boycott of the PISA tests because the results “discredit Hungarian students.” Who is responsible for these results? The teachers, “who cannot teach our children to read, write and count by the end of the eighth grade.” This year, he continued, has been a bonanza for the teachers’ unions because they successfully fought for higher wages, less supervision, and greater autonomy for school principals. They are currently fighting for fewer compulsory courses because they want to spend less time in school. The moral of the story is that neither the teachers nor the students work hard enough. If they did, the results would be significantly better.

Of course, Sándor Keszei’s opinion is neither here nor there. We don’t even know in whose name he is spouting off. But when János Lázár says practically the same thing it can have grave consequences. For example, the growing dissatisfaction of the teachers, who in the past were heavily pro-Fidesz. Ever since the government’s introduction of an entirely new regimen and curriculum their dissatisfaction has been growing. And now they, not the “national curriculum” which they have to follow, are being held responsible for the low scores. As Lázár said at his “government.info” last week, the government provided the framework for a successful educational system. Now it is up to the teachers “to fill this framework with content.”

But this is exactly the bone of contention between the government and the teachers’ unions and other civic groups concerned with education. Teachers must strictly adhere to the directives that come from above. I understand that supervisors check the notes of students to see whether their teachers are using certain key phrases. The teachers aren’t providing the content; the government is. Moreover, teachers complain that because the requirements of this framework are so rigid, no time remains to explore any applications of the material they are teaching.

Rózsa Hoffmann and her colleagues would have a heart attack facing such a classroom

I can’t stress enough that the retooling of Hungarian education after the Fidesz takeover was not done by educational experts. It was the handiwork of Viktor Orbán. Curiously, from what we know about Orbán as a student, he crafted a system that is antithetical to his own personality. As a kid he was very hard to handle and got into all sorts of scrapes. He was enraged by disciplinary action. In high school he was anything but a model student. On the contrary, as he himself admitted, his command of certain subjects was so inadequate that his only chance at a university education was to apply to law school. How it is that forty years later he promoted a strict, confining school experience is beyond me.

Of course, Orbán needed a couple of enablers to put his ideas into practice. One was Rózsa Hoffmann, KDNP undersecretary in charge of education, who shared at least some of Orbán’s general educational philosophy but, as we learned later, knew that the over centralization he advocated wouldn’t work. Or, this is what she claimed afterward. As we know, the centralization ended in total chaos and led directly to the teachers’ revolt that broke out at the beginning of 2016.

Rózsa Hoffmann’s ideal was a classical liberal arts education taught by rote. Orbán the political illiberal didn’t see the point of offering the majority of Hungarian students a liberal arts education. What he tried to do was to merge Hoffmann’s notion of strict rote learning with the ideas of László Parragh, chairman of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, who emphasized learning practical “blue-collar” skills and reducing the number of hours spent on academic subjects. In this view, Hungary should have a small highly educated class who can hold their own talking about philosophy, the arts, literature, and history and a large class of manually skilled workers who learn so few academic subjects that in the modern, high-tech world their prospects are practically nonexistent.

Parragh has been quiet but Hoffmann, who had to relinquish her post after the 2014 elections, decided to air her views. Let me quote what she had to say.

The PISA tests are very interesting and eye-catching, but they are far from the ideal classical erudition which traditionally characterizes Hungarian public education. Therefore, considering them as absolute measures would be a mistake. The Hungarian educational system will never be the same, as it shouldn’t be, as some overseas country’s which achieved spectacular results in this competition. If these countries sent their students to a large European museum where one needs knowledge of the arts, history, and the Bible, Hungarian students would win because of their higher general learning. Therefore, I don’t think that the objective of Hungarian public education is that our students lead the way in competitions that measure only competence because this would not reflect our values.

This is the woman who was responsible for public education between 2010 and 2014. As Gellért Rajcsányi, a conservative journalist who works for mandiner.hu, noted, Rózsa Hoffmann lives in a fantasy world.  As do the small minority of “privileged parents, students, teachers, and politicians who project their own circumstances and possibilities onto a much more complicated and sadder reality.” If they don’t wake up, they will lead the country to ruin.

Although the current undersecretary in charge of education, László Palkovics, was in the first couple of days realistic and admitted the seriousness of the situation, he soon backtracked. He now blames Bálint Magyar, who was minister of education twice, once between 1996 and 1998 and again between 2002 and 2006, for the 2015 test results. I guess Palkovics received word from above that no retreat is acceptable. He should find a scapegoat–the liberal Magyar, who in fact tried to introduce competence-based education, which was fiercely opposed by the conservative teachers like Rózsa Hoffmann herself who had been brought up in the old methods of learning by rote.

It’s easy to point the finger at the opposition, the test, teachers, lazy students. The reality is that the Hungarian educational system is the major culprit, and nothing will be done about it as long as Viktor Orbán is the chief school superintendent.

December 14, 2016

Wakeup call: The PISA results reveal deep problems

The outcry over the PISA results is not subsiding. On the contrary. As more details surface, the magnitude of the problem is dawning on commentators. If almost 30% of Hungarian students at the age of 15 are functionally illiterate, it is difficult to imagine how the rosy future of the Orbán propaganda can ever be achieved.

The chief villain, of course, is silent. HVG asked the prime minister’s office for a response but was told to get in touch with Zoltán Balog’s ministry of human resources. Balog seemed to be in hiding. His undersecretary, László Palkovics, complained that this heartless OECD measures the performance of countries without taking into consideration local conditions, like his great efforts at a second wave of “reforms.” As Árpád W. Tóta, the witty political commentator, said, this problem can easily be remedied. Hungary should turn its back on the OECD just as it did today on the Open Government Partnership because it didn’t like the organization’s report on systemic corruption in Hungary over the last six years. Officials try to say as little as possible, but it seems that the party line is to whitewash the system they introduced and to blame the one-size-fits-all approach of PISA. Hungarian students have to take the same test as Japanese and German students, without any regard for the “Hungarian soul” and idiosyncratic “Hungarian thinking.” At least Viktor Orbán believes that Hungarian thinking is unique.

The consensus that has emerged in the last two days is that the cause of this drastic drop in performance is the reorganization of the educational system. The government set out to introduce a uniform system where all teachers teach the same material and thus all children end up with the same body of knowledge. Prior to the reform teachers could choose from a long list of textbooks. After the reform the choice was restricted to only two textbooks for each subject. If there had not been widespread protests, the government would have opted for only one. The old, favored textbooks were withdrawn and in record speed new texts appeared. In addition, the government decided that children need to work more and to acquire more factual knowledge. Even first-graders are required to stay in school until 4:00 p.m. Teachers, although they received raises, have to teach more classes and are forbidden to leave the building before 4:00 p.m. whether they have teaching duties or not. The result: overworked teachers, overworked students, and underperformance.

Some commentators are certain that the poor results are the consequence of too much teaching. A fair number of the many hours spent in school are frittered away on non-essentials. To appease the churches the government introduced religious instruction (or, alternatively, ethics classes). At least one hour a day is spent in physical education, which because of a lack of facilities often takes place in the corridors or consists of running up and down staircases. Since one of the undersecretaries in Balog’s ministry is a conductor and an expert on sacred music, even the crazy idea of daily singing came up at one point. Zoltán Balog was most enthusiastic. Wouldn’t it be splendid if these good Hungarian children would learn as many folk songs as possible? I don’t know what happened to this brilliant idea, but I hope it was dropped. Meanwhile, schools either don’t have any computers or, if they do, they are ancient and pretty useless. So it’s no wonder that students had difficulty answering the PISA test questions digitally.

Now let’s take a look at some of the details, which give us a fuller picture of the dreadful state of Hungarian education. In three years the number of students who haven’t reached even minimal reading competence has grown dramatically. These are the people whom we call functional illiterates. It is hard to believe, but 27.5% of 15-year-olds can’t figure out the meaning of quite simple texts. Six years ago only 17% of Hungarian students fell into this category. Hungary’s functional illiteracy rate is double that of Poland’s. That makes Hungary one of the poorest performers in the OECD countries, along with Mexico, Turkey, Greece, and Chile. Unfortunately, the situation is no better in the sciences, where 26% of the students performed under the minimum standards. Three years ago this was 18%. The situation is about the same in math as well. In brief, 18% of all Hungarian fifteen-year-olds underperformed not just in one subject but in all three.

You will write one hundred times: “Next time I will cram better for the PISA test” / Népszava , Gábor Pápai

According to Péter Radó, the foremost authority on education in Hungary today, if everything remains the same “Hungarian public education will produce 25,000 new functional illiterates yearly, in addition to about the same number who are deficient in math and science skills.” If one concentrates only on males, every third 15-year-old boy is functionally illiterate (31.9%).

Compare the 18% of Hungarian underperformers in all three areas with the Polish results, where only 8.3% fall into this category. Poland’s well thought-out educational reform has produced spectacular results. Long discussions among teachers, educational experts, students, and parents preceded the introduction of the Polish reform plan. In Hungary government officials talked to no one who would object to their retrograde plan and discussed it with only a small group of people with no expertise in education.

Let me add that the European Union as a whole is not doing as well as one would expect in the field of education, especially since it has a plan according to which by 2020 the proportion of students who perform under the minimum requirements must be reduced to 15%. As you can see on the following graph, the European Union’s results leave a great deal to be desired. It is unlikely that by 2020 it will achieve the desired result, especially if Hungary keeps adding to the already dismal figures.

Proportion of underachievers in Europe and Hungary in all three subjects

Among his many sins in the field of education Viktor Orbán set out to reduce the number of university graduates in Hungary. During the Kádár period only about 10% of the population had a higher degree. After 1990 successive Hungarian governments opened the doors of universities just like in other developed countries. As a result, enrollment soared, at least until Viktor Orbán decided that Hungary didn’t need so many university graduates. By exacting high tuition fees and decreasing the number of free places he managed to substantially reduce the number of students enrolled in Hungary’s colleges and universities.

Moreover, Orbán decided that among the high school population were some whose presence until the age of 18 was undesirable. The government therefore decreed that education was compulsory only to the age of 16. As a result, children of very poor families drop out of school as soon as possible in order to join the public workforce and help the family economically.  In the last couple of years Orbán also set out to decrease the number of academic high schools (gymnasiums) and to favor trade schools.

These moves, not without reason, raise the suspicion that Viktor Orbán wants to lower the educational attainment of Hungarians. The less educated can be more easily influenced and led. As Tóta said in his opinion piece today, Orbán managed to create a school system for sheep.

And he will undoubtedly continue along the same path unless someone stops him. For example, if the results of these tests rekindle teacher dissatisfaction. Lately, there have been signs that high school students, being perhaps foolishly brave, are standing up and even arguing with Zoltán Balog on matters of education. After all, their futures–and the future of the country–are at stake.

December 7, 2016

PISA: The abysmal results of Viktor Orbán’s educational “reforms”

St. Nicholas (Mikulás) brought a birch rod instead of sweets today. How inconsiderate of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a study conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), to release its latest results on the scholastic performance in mathematics, science, and reading of 15-year-olds on December 6. The first such study was undertaken in 2000 and it has been repeated every three years.

Hungarian children have taken part in PISA since the very beginning. Their performance was never exactly sterling, but thanks to the efforts especially of Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) as minister of education, the scores of Hungarian students improved a bit, at least in reading comprehension. While in 2006 they scored 482, in 2009 they got 494. In math and science, however, there was no appreciable difference between 2006 and 2009. Then came the 2012 results, which were really bad. Hungarian children did worse in all three categories than three years earlier.

In December 2013 Viktor Orbán’s undersecretary Rózsa Hoffmann, of the Ministry of Human Resources, announced that the 2012 PISA results “support the urgent necessity of the renewal of public education.” As we know, the Orbán government began in earnest to “reform, ” or as its critics say “destroy,” public education by nationalizing all schools, taking away the autonomy of teachers, introducing five-day physical education and religious or ethical education, reducing the number of foreign language classes and computer science, and piling endless hours of rote learning on overworked students and teachers. All that eventually led to the “teachers’ revolts” we talked about so much this past spring.

In 2013 one couldn’t say with certainty whether Viktor Orbán’s initial educational “reforms,” undertaken in the first two years of his administration, had a major impact on the abysmal 2012 PISA results. Today there can be no doubt. Retro-reform is a disastrous idea. Returning to the teaching methods of the 1960s and 1970s will not do. Failure is guaranteed, especially as measured by a test like PISA, which focuses on how students can apply their knowledge in real-world contexts. It’s hard to apply things learned solely by rote.

The first reaction to the latest results was disbelief followed by anger. Critics of the educational “reform” can now point to hard data. The media called the test results a national tragedy and a disgrace. Not only did Hungary’s students fail. So did Viktor Orbán, whose ideas were put into practice by Rózsa Hoffmann and her successors, claims the Demokratikus Koalíció. MSZP’s Ágnes Kunfalvi, the party’s educational expert, is calling for Zoltán Balog’s resignation. Meanwhile László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education in whom Viktor Orbán found the perfect man for the job of transforming the country into one large factory of blue-color workers with minimal educational attainment, is trying to explain away the results.

So what happened in the last three years? Students’ reading comprehension fell from 488 to 472; their knowledge of sciences from 494 to 477. Only their math score of 477 remained the same, which is less impressive if we consider that in 2009 it was 494. Hungarian students’ test scores are considerably under the OECD averages.

Natural sciences–blue; reading comprehension–yellow; math–orange

The government is consoling itself with the results of another test, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), according to which Hungarian fourth and eighth graders performed way above average. This is all very nice, but what can students do with knowledge that they have no idea how to apply?

The teaching methods in Hungary, I’m convinced, have changed very little in the last 150 years. I assume by now children don’t have to sit with their hands behind their backs for 45 minutes, which is certainly an improvement. But rote learning is ingrained in the system, especially among older teachers, whose percentage is steadily growing. Undersecretary Palkovics, just like his predecessor Hoffmann in 2013, claims that the second wave of reforms he introduced haven’t yet had a chance to exhibit their beneficial effects. He added that this was the first time the test had to be performed digitally, which may have negatively influenced the outcomes. Well, that is an indictment of the present state of Hungarian education. I wouldn’t mention it if I were in his place.

Válasz, a conservative weekly and internet site, desperately tried to give a balanced picture when it comes to responsibility for the poor scholastic performance of Hungarian youngsters. It rightly pointed out that the state of public education is a reflection of the condition of the society as a whole. Yes, but to what extent is the Orbán government responsible for the sick Hungarian society everybody is talking about nowadays? Válasz is correct in noting that public education is a very complicated affair which cannot be turned around overnight. It called attention to some of the core problems of Hungarian education: segregation, great differences in school quality, and the poor educational background of parents of a great number of students. It is also true that given the low prestige of the teaching profession, on balance the quality of teachers is poor.

The problem is that the Orbán government has been in power for over five years and by now, if their policy was sound, there should be some sign of improvement. But I’m afraid the trajectory of the “reforms” is fundamentally wrong, leading to undereducated adults who will not be able to fill the kinds of high-tech jobs our modern age requires. Moreover, the growing number of parochial schools, especially outside of Budapest, only intensifies segregation. Unfortunately, this aligns with government policy. Zoltán Balog is convinced that Roma kids are better off in segregated schools because they allegedly receive more attention there.

444.hu was a great deal more critical than Válasz. In their opinion education is the greatest failure of the Orbán government. Unfortunately, I don’t see any recognition of this fact by those politicians who have been busy in the last five and a half years ruining the already flagging educational system. I found a handy chart that lets you compare Hungary’s performance to other countries in every possible category. You will be surprised.

I think it would be time for Palkovics and Co. to swallow their pride and at least talk to those educational experts who think that the present course should be abandoned and an entirely different approach slowly introduced. However, knowing Viktor Orbán’s unwillingness to admit his mistakes, I fear he, Palkovics and Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce who thinks he is an educational expert, will decide that all’s well, that they should proceed on the already chosen road to eventual great success. In fact, Magyar Idők yesterday announced that “Hungarian students are outstanding” according to TIMSS results. But if one reads a little further, one also learns that although 12% of fourth graders’ knowledge of math is excellent, the percentage of students who are below grade level is also high (8%), which puts Hungary in the group of poorly performing countries.

But how can the government improve the situation when the minister responsible for education doesn’t think that functional illiteracy even exists? Or when the chief of staff of the prime minister’s office comes up with the preposterous idea that being a good Christian and a good Hungarian is more important than acquiring knowledge since it might soon become outdated? I’m afraid it’s hopeless as long as Viktor Orbán is in power.

December 6, 2016

Learning? Secondary to being “a good Christian and a good Hungarian”

Before I begin today’s topic, János Lázár’s most unfortunate remarks about the goal of Hungarian education–to bring up good Christians and good Hungarians, let me return to the Habsburgs.

The Orbán government’s fascination with the House of Habsburg is not a new phenomenon, but in the last few years it has become more pronounced. Moreover, relations  between certain members of the Habsburg family and the Orbán government are excellent.

mezotur2

Let’s start with Otto von Habsburg or, as he was called in Hungary, Dr. Habsburg Ottó, whose archives will be deposited in the Royal Castle in Budapest. Although he was buried in Vienna with the rest of the Habsburgs, his heart was sent to Pannonhalma. His second son Georg (Habsburg György) and his family live in Hungary. Until 2012 he was president of the Hungarian Red Cross and he currently serves as one of the “traveling ambassadors,” promoting Hungary’s bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. He and his wife have three children, and the second girl was named Ildikó. How much more Hungarian can you get?

Great was the surprise when in July 2015 the Hungarian government named Eduard von Habsburg, an Austrian TV producer and scriptwriter, Hungarian ambassador to the Vatican. Eduard didn’t know any Hungarian at the time, but “he has been studying the Hungarian language intensively for the last year,” Hungary Today reported. His father Michael (Mihály) was born in Hungary, so Eduard is a bona fide Hungarian citizen.

The latest news on the Habsburg front is that the Hungarian government commissioned a bust of the last Hungarian king, Charles/Károly IV, who, since his beatification by the Catholic Church in 2004, has been known as Blessed Charles of Austria. As you can see from the photo, Zsolt Semjén thinks very highly of Charles both as a king and as a perhaps to-be saint.

karoly-kiraly

The above was just a footnote to yesterday’s post. My main topic today is a speech János Lázár gave at the opening of the Mezőtúr Reformed College’s refurbished “Old Library.” Perhaps in his eagerness to please his hosts, he declared that “the government believes that the most that can be given to students is to raise them as good Christians and good Hungarians.” He added that “everything beyond this is debatable and questionable” since we don’t know whether the acquired knowledge will stand the test of time in the next centuries.

The reaction of liberal commentators and leaders of the teachers’ unions was undisguised outrage. One of the bloggers of gepnarancs.hu pointed out that he always suspected that “a hidden curriculum existed” and now, thanks to the overly talkative Lázár, we have learned the truth. After all, ever since 2013 the number of parochial schools has multiplied and an incredible amount of public money has ended up in the hands of the favored churches, the Catholic and the Hungarian Reformed. But now it is no longer a secret. The Orbán government wants to entrust the churches with the education of future generations of Hungarian children.

Kolozsvári Szalonna, as usual, was even more outspoken. The blogger considers Lázár’s words a calamity. “I can’t imagine a more horrible thing than for a relatively young minister in the twenty-first century to say such immensely stupid and tragically frightening things. I get really scared when a sickly dictatorship and religion cling together trying to suffocate a whole country.” The Orbán government, in his opinion, fears nothing more than independent thinkers. Until now they have stolen everything material, now “they want to divide among themselves the education of our children and our rights to be believers or not.” The author is convinced that the “marriage of state and church results in defenselessness, poverty, ignorance, later dissatisfaction, blood, and tears.” His conclusion is that if the Hungarian people allow this nuptial “we will write ourselves out of Europe and the twenty-first century as well.”

Less emotional but still hard hitting was the reaction of the two teachers’ unions. The Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ) expressed its hope that since it was János Lázár and not Zoltán Balog, the minister responsible for education, who spoke, this unacceptable statement is merely Lázár’s personal opinion because no government can force its worldview on the whole nation. “It cannot be more than a private opinion because—as is clear from all the signed and declared international treaties—the state must honor the parents’ religious and ideological convictions.” The curriculum must be free of any ideological or religious bias. PSZ expects Zoltán Balog to clarify the government’s position on the matter.

László Mendrey, head of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ), while emphasizing that no one should question the right of the churches to maintain schools, added that “they cannot attain supremacy.” In his opinion, Lázár’s ideas are unconstitutional and in conflict with the law on public education. “Lázár doesn’t realize who the most important persons are in education. We will help him: the children … For them, the most important consideration is not to be good Christians and good patriots. Rather, the goal is to acquire knowledge that will meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.”

I’m certain that this issue will not go away quickly. I wouldn’t expect any reassurance from Zoltán Balog who is, after all, a Protestant minister. He is also woefully ignorant of what education is all about, and his past interactions with children have shown him to be incapable of any meaningful exchange with young people. Moreover, what can one expect from a man in charge of education who announced the other day that he doesn’t believe in the notion of functional illiteracy because “if someone can read he also understands the text.”

I share the concerns expressed above by teachers and political commentators because I remember only too well the days when, because of the intertwining of state and church before 1948, education was entrusted mostly to the Catholic Church. More than half of the elementary schools were Catholic parochial schools while “an overwhelming majority” of gymnasiums and teachers’ colleges were also in the hands of the Catholic Church. Creating a secular school system was long overdue by 1948. It is another matter how the Stalinist regime of Mátyás Rákosi handled the nationalization of parochial schools. Yet I would find it unacceptable to return to the pre-1948 days in the twenty-first century.

November 28, 2016