Tag Archives: education

OECD’s “Education at a glance, 2016”: An indictment of the Orbán regime

Upon checking the more than 3,000 posts that have appeared on Hungarian Spectrum, I realized that this is the first time I’ve covered the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development/OECD’s annual publication, “Education at a Glance.” It is a massive volume of over 500 pages with data from 35 OECD countries.

From this latest “glance” it is evident that the Hungarian government has been shortchanging education. Although I know that the amount of money spent on education doesn’t necessarily correlate with the educational attainment of students, it is still worth noting that only Mexico and Turkey spend less money per student than Hungary does.

Since 2006 Hungary has been spending less and less money on education, both in real terms and as a percentage of the GDP. Austerity measures after 2008 affected the spending of all European countries on education, but the Hungarian cutbacks were the steepest, even in comparison to other countries in the region. In 2013, the last year for which we have data, Hungary spent only 76% of what it did in 2008. It is true that the number of students, due to the low birthrate and emigration, also decreased, but in 2013 the government spent only 82% per student of what had been spent in 2008. Both the EU22 and the OECD countries taken together have increased educational spending. Looking at it another way, in the countries of the OECD students spend an average of 13.1 years in school and, over this time, governments spend on average $121,899 per student. That figure in Hungary is $57,093.

Here are some basic facts about the economic situation after the 2008 economic crisis. Between 2008 and 2010 GDP decreased, in real terms, in 22 of the 44 countries with available data while public expenditure on educational institutions fell in only 6 of the 31 countries with available data, Hungary being one of them. As of 2013 Hungary’s spending on education as a percentage of GDP was a mere 3.8%, just ahead of last-place Russia, as opposed to the OECD average of 5.2%. These figures also include expenditures from private sources. The government’s contribution was only slightly above 3%. Table after table attest to the fact that Hungary is among the few countries where very little money is spent on education and what is spent most likely is not spent effectively. For example, for tertiary education, Hungary spends a fair amount of money, yet Hungarian universities are not judged to be of exceptionally high quality.

public-and-private

Hungarian teachers get paid on average around $25,000, as opposed to western European countries of about $50,000. Teachers’ salaries in the first four grades are even lower than that, under $20,000, which puts Hungary at the end of the list, alongside Slovakia and Brazil. In Hungary the starting salary for pre-school teachers is $13,228, which 10 years later is $17,858, and fifteen years later $19,181. One could continue with sad statistic after sad statistic.

The Hungarian media spent little time on this report. Árpád W. Tóth wrote one of his clever op-ed pieces titled “As if there were no tomorrow,” decrying the shortsightedness of the Orbán government for not wanting to understand that Hungary has no natural resources and therefore must rely on its human resources as the foundation of a better, more prosperous society. And yet Viktor Orbán ever since 2010 has been cutting back on spending for education. In addition, with his experimentation with teaching methodologies and concepts he is ruining the little that was good in the system. Billions are spent on useless stadiums, billions are stolen by favorite oligarchs, billions of public money end up in “private foundations,” billions are spent on “racist billboards.” Little goes for education. It is simply not a priority.

The government propaganda media was naturally rather quiet on the subject of the OECD’s report. They limited their coverage to reporting on a press conference that László Palkovics, the undersecretary of education, gave.

Palkovics, it should be noted, is the perfect man to finish the butcher job on Hungarian education that was conceived in Viktor Orbán’s mind and begun under Christian Democrat Rózsa Hoffmann, the schoolmarm from the 70s of the Kádár era. The fast-talking new undersecretary, a transport engineer by profession, is a man of action for whom there are no obstacles. Everything is simple. Everything can be done practically overnight. A new subject is being introduced in September and there is no textbook. No problem, it will be solved. I understand that Orbán is extremely satisfied with him.

But however self-confident Palkovics is, after looking through the hundreds of tables in OECD’s study he must have realized that these results are devastating. They are an indictment of Hungary’s commitment to education, which somehow must be papered over in a great hurry. Hence the press conference, which was dutifully reported by MTI and published in Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap. The headline in the latter was “Palkovics: Improving results in education,” followed by “Hungary spends more than the OECD average on the education of very small children, the salaries of teachers have improved and the earning power of university graduates is higher [in comparison to non-grads] than the OECD average.” I’m sure that he (or more likely one of his staffers) had to look high and low to find a few items in which Hungary was above the OECD average. I myself had no time to study the hundreds of tables, but I have the feeling that Palkovics cited the only three positive results that appeared in 500 pages.

In addition, he pointed to all the improvements that have been introduced. Numbers were flying every which way, numbers that cannot be verified and that were probably introduced only to obfuscate the issue. But nowhere did he say that the Hungarian government will spend more than 3.8% of the GDP on education either this year or the next. Instead, he talked about cheaper or free textbooks for poor students, proudly adding that Hungary spends 4.7% of the GDP on family assistance whereas the OECD average is only 2.5%. He also announced that the Hungarian government spent 0.7% of GDP on kindergartens as opposed to the OECD’s average of 0.6%. Pitiful, I must say.

As long as the Orbán government is in power and the likes of László Palkovics run the show, there can be no improvement. But every wasted year will have a lasting effect on the generation now coming of age, with a devastating effect on the future of the country.

September 20, 2016

Educational activist István Pukli’s encounter with the media

I think it is time to talk a little about “the art of communication” or rather the lack thereof in Hungarian political life. It was only a couple of days ago that Gyula Molnár, the newly elected MSZP chairman, mangled his party’s message on the forthcoming referendum to such an extent that Népszabadság gave the following title to an opinion piece: “If you want to get completely confused on the issue of the referendum, listen to Gyula Molnár.”

These verbal mishaps are far too common. Two days after the Molnár affair, István Pukli, the brave principal of the Blanka Teleki High School in the Zugló section of Budapest, gave two interviews a day apart in which he made contradictory statements that were turned against him by the pro-government media.

For months now I have been listening four times a week to György Bolgár’s call-in show on Klubrádió on which one can hear invited guests’ ideas about the best ways to advance the departure of the Fidesz regime. When the person begins with “in order to answer this question we have to go back a bit in time” I already know that he/she will never return to the question.

Confusion, contradiction, rambling: not exactly the stuff of good communication. And yet the funny thing is that communication as a college major is extremely popular in Hungary, and every organization or business has a spokesman, sometimes more than one, like the Tom Lantos Institute I wrote about yesterday. In the Hungarian school system it is almost a mantra that students’ verbal participation in the classroom will make them good public speakers. Teachers as well as parents complain about the growing number of written tests, which they consider to be detrimental to verbal proficiency. But it is doubtful that the regurgitation of a few pages from a textbook does much to promote either logical reasoning or verbal fluency.

Here is István Pukli who, before he became a school principal, had taught literature and history. You’d assume he would know how to think on his feet. But no, he wound up in a tangle of contradictions. Pukli gave two interviews, one to The Budapest Beacon, which appeared in English on September 1, and the other to Magyar Idők, which was published on September 2.

István Pukli / Source: Magyar Idők

István Pukli / Source: Magyar Idők

In the Budapest Beacon interview, he was asked the following question. “Can you really imagine genuine education reforms taking place within NER [System of National Cooperation]? Or is the failure of the current government minimally required.” To which Pukli answered: “We have to say that the answer is no. But this is not our primary goal. We resolved to lobby educational matters and fight to achieve our objectives until they are realized. If a side effect of that is that Viktor Orbán falls from power, then so be it.” He was categorical in rejecting the proposition that a change of prime minister might solve the problem. “No, it is necessary to defeat the Fidesz system,” he answered.

So far so good, but then a few minutes later he said that he “would not like to see a left-wing turn” because he is “not sure that solidarity among the left-wing parties and their coming to power is the solution.” Yet he liked György Magyar’s call for “the opposition to cooperate, win, create a proportionate electoral law, dissolve the new parliament and hold an election under a respectable electoral law” although “as a teacher of Hungarian and history, what would I have to do with that?” Well, does he want solidarity among the opposition parties on the left or doesn’t he? As for the meaning of the last sentence, I am not even trying to decipher it.

As the leader of a movement that has achieved considerable success so far, Pukli sadly lacks civic responsibility. He doesn’t even know whether he will vote in 2018 because he doesn’t know for whom he would vote. He considers Gyurcsány and the rest on the left as bad as Orbán on the right. He believes that there will be no change of government in 2018 because “a lot of people lap up Fidesz’s stupidity.” Or, I would add, because of apathy. His own political apathy is difficult to reconcile with his activities as a leader of those who want a complete turnabout in the educational policy of the government, which he knows can be achieved only after the fall of the present political system.

So, let’s move on to the Magyar Idők interview. Keep in mind that Magyar Idők is the most loyal pro-government organ in the country. Still, Pukli bravely announced his disappointment in Fidesz. He told the less than sympathetic journalist that “the party in which [he] believed doesn’t represent conservative values. It is being guided by political and economic interests and has ruined the educational system. There is party loyalty and there are principles.” But then, without any qualification, he stated that “The goal is not the removal of the Orbán regime, only that they should realize and correct their mistakes.” As the journalist reminded him, his movement’s school-opening message this year contains Pukli’s slogan used at the spring demonstrations he helped to organize: “They have no power over us.” Pukli clarified the source of the message, saying that it was borrowed from the film Labyrinth where “it refers to the demons within us.” So, it’s no wonder that Magyar Idők gave the following title to the interview: “The current political left cannot be an alternative. István Pukli: We have no enemies, we struggle with our own demons.” Because of his confused thinking and poor verbal literacy the right-wing paper managed to make a liar and an opportunist out of Pukli. The other right-wing organ, Magyar Hírlap, reinforced this assessment in an article titled “Pukli’s public schizophrenia: “If the press writes about us, they cannot not reappoint me.” Unfortunately, Pukli did utter this unfortunate sentence in the Magyar Idők interview, so he could also be viewed as someone who is involved in the protest movement to save his job.

After such a blunder come the usual attempts to explain the inexplicable and to distance oneself from the person who got himself into the mess. Yesterday afternoon both Olivér Pilz, the other leader of the “We Want To Teach” movement, and István Pukli were interviewed on Klubrádió’s “Esti gyors” (Evening express) program. Pilz suggested that Pukli in his interviews was talking only about his own political views, which got mixed up with the program of the movement. As for Pukli, he repeated what he told The Budapest Beacon. It looks as if the Orbán government has no intention of changing course in its educational policy and therefore, although their original aim was certainly not the overthrow of the government, “if this is the only way, so be it.”

September 3, 2016

Severe labor shortage combined with anti-immigration propaganda

Two days ago, seemingly out of the blue, Mihály Varga, minister of the economy, got in touch with MTI, Hungary’s official telegraphic agency, to make the grand announcement that “the government is taking steps to remedy the growing labor shortage that is becoming an impediment to economic growth.” As it turned out, the minister’s move was prompted by a proposal submitted by the National Association of Employers and Manufacturers (Munkaadók és Gyáriparosok Országos Szövetsége/MGYOSZ) to address the acute shortage of qualified workers in many fields.

Varga stated that the government agrees with many of the recommendations, which include the importation of guest workers from so-called third countries, i.e. outside the European Union. In order to facilitate this recommendation, the government promised to reduce the tax burden on companies that bring in foreign employees. This is the first time the Orbán government has officially admitted that the lack of qualified workers is a serious problem in Hungary.

The problem, of course, is not new. Already a couple of years ago Stefan Körmendi, managing director of Europakraft GmbH, bitterly complained that the Hungarian government had deceived him and his company when it sang the praises of the “well-qualified Hungarian labor force.” His company needed skilled welders, pipe fitters, and disk roller specialists. There were plenty of applicants, but when they had to demonstrate their skills, most of them were unable to perform even the most basic tasks. Sixty percent of the 600 applicants tested couldn’t even weld, and all of these people had a piece of paper testifying that they had successfully been trained as welders. The whole sad story can be read in my post from 2014.

Since then the situation has only gotten worse. At the end of June Népszabadság reported that some foreign companies are so desperate that they are importing employees from their other factories to work in their Hungarian division for shorter or longer stints. The article highlighted the case of a factory that makes tops for luxury convertibles. The company’s Hungarian division, situated in Szügy, a small village in Nógrád County, was in such trouble that it had to bring in four women and four men from its Mexican division in Toluca for three months. Even with the added expense of transportation from Mexico and perhaps bonus pay, this solution was apparently still worth it. Guest workers also came from the company’s Russian and Serbian divisions. These foreign employees were necessary because the quality of the work done by the locals was not what management expected. The number of rejects was far too high. Moreover, this factory ran three shifts, and it was difficult to fill all the shifts with Hungarians. They weren’t interested in working outside the usual daytime hours.

Bors, a Hungarian tabloid, dispatched a reporter to Szügy, where he learned more details of the lives of Mexican guest workers while in Hungary. They were placed in a stately mansion that serves as a hotel; they were taken to Budapest and other cities in the country on sightseeing trips; the company even made sure that they could watch Copa America football matches on television. Apparently, they didn’t like the food, but otherwise I’m sure this Hungarian trip was quite an adventure for them. After the Mexicans left, a new batch of people came from Tatarstan, Russia. Clearly, the situation is desperate, and I’m sure that the management of this company is just as frustrated as Körmendi was back in 2014.

MGYOSZ’s suggestions “for the handling of the critical labor shortage in Hungary” started with the main reasons for this shortage: low birthrate; emigration, especially of more highly qualified workers and university graduates; the fact that almost half of those seeking employment are unskilled; and a workforce whose quality is on the decline. Something must be done quickly because otherwise the economic growth of the last couple of years will come to a screeching halt.

To solve this crisis, first and foremost the government should assist in attracting foreign workers. For example, one million Ukrainians are working in Poland at the moment. In Hungary’s case, that would mean the importation of about 250,000 foreign employees. But Hungary is not an attractive place for guest workers because of low wages, high taxes, the lack of housing, and the low level of social services. MGYOSZ asked the government to lessen the tax burden on employees so they could raise wages. And naturally, to put more effort into the proper training of workers. The long-term goals include a better educational system that emphasizes the 4Ks: kreativitás, kommunikáció, kooperáció, and kritikai gondolkodás. As we know, Viktor Orbán’s ideas on education stand in sharp contrast to these guiding principles.

Turkish guest workers arriving at the Düsseldorf Airport on November 27, 1961 / Source: en.qantara.de

Turkish guest workers arriving at the Düsseldorf Airport on November 27, 1961  Source: en.qantara.de

Mihály Varga, I’m afraid, was a bit too hasty when he reacted positively to MGYOSZ’s suggestions. The Orbán government has consistently and fiercely opposed any kind of immigration and keeps repeating that more babies will solve all the problems. Mind you, the demographic statistics show no great positive changes on that score. Viktor Orbán must have been furious, and I wonder what “Misi” got from the boss.

Fidesz published a statement saying that the Hungarian government provides work opportunities for Hungarians, not for immigrants. Only the political left and Brussels want to flood Europe and the labor market with immigrants. The Prime Minister’s office also spoke out again against immigration. According to its spokesman, statistics prove that immigration actually exacerbates the problems of the labor market. MSZP’s spokesman, Nándor Gúr, also objected to the scheme because the presence of foreign workers would lower wages in general. The government mouthpiece, Magyar Idők, tried to provide cover for Varga by claiming that MGYOSZ actually talked about guest workers from “the neighboring countries” and not from “third countries.”

Some commentators, like Kinga Facsinay of Magyar Nemzet, pointed out that after a year and a half of intense anti-immigration propaganda, Varga’s enthusiastic embrace of the importation of a large number of guest workers is a strange turn of events. Actually, this is just another example of the confusion within the government that has been endemic ever Fidesz won the election in 2010.

But, yes, the propaganda was, and remains, both intense and expensive. On the anti-migrant campaign the government spent billions: 960 million forints for a “national consultation” and 1.2 billion for the two billboard campaigns. The “Message to Brussels” campaign wasn’t cheap either; it cost 1 billion forints. And the October 2 referendum on quotas will cost 4.5 billion. Instead of wasting all this money on propaganda, the government could have used it to improve the education of future Hungarian workers.

More than 25 years have gone by since the arrival of democracy in Hungary, and yet over 40% of those who are actively seeking employment today have no qualifications for any job. This is a devastating indictment of the Hungarian educational system. It also underscores the failure of successive governments to create an economic environment that would have kept emigration within bounds. Since both have been neglected, I see no short-term internal fix for the Hungarian labor shortage. And this will in turn discourage foreign companies from investing in the country.

If the Hungarian government changed course and welcomed guest workers, this might help a bit. But under the present circumstances few people, especially highly skilled workers, would be enticed to emigrate to Hungary in the hope of a better life.

July 8, 2016

Tibor Navracsics’s political “coming out”

Tibor Navracsics, who is EU commissioner in charge of education, culture, youth and sport, doesn’t appear too often in the Hungarian media, and when he does he is asked mostly about matters relating to Hungary rather than the work he does in Brussels. Thus, the Hungarian public knows very little about Navracsics’s views on and role in the European Union.

Last November Navracsics gave an interview to Mandiner’s András Stumpf in which he said that he has always been committed to the idea of the European Union, adding that “on the Hungarian right I am pretty much all that remains.” This sentence made a big splash as proof that, at least in Navracsics’s opinion, none of his former colleagues in the Orbán government is committed to the idea of European integration.

Navracsics had a rough time being confirmed as an EU commissioner. As I said at the time, “the long shadow of Viktor Orbán” followed Navracsics. After all, Orbán named him deputy prime minister in 2010, and he was also minister of justice between 2010 and 2014 when the European Union had serious reservations about the legality of several Hungarian laws. As a result, Navracsics received a post that came with very little actual power. Education and culture are fields handled exclusively by the individual nation states.

Since the Hungarian media pays mighty little attention to Navracsics’s role as commissioner, I thought I should say something about one of his tasks that, as a result of the refugee crisis, has given him greater freedom of movement and the possibility of making a more substantial impact.

Navracsics’s job description includes, among other things, “empowering young people of all social and cultural backgrounds so that they can participate fully in civic and democratic life.” It is this sentence that allowed Navracsics to expand his role considerably after the January 2016 Paris terror attack. By March Navracsics called together the EU ministers of education and urged them “to use education more effectively in building open, tolerant societies.” He talked to them about social inclusion, about combating prejudice, about encouraging critical thinking. Of course, this sermon made not the slightest dent in the Hungarian government’s policies at home.

Navracsics4

Then there is the refugee crisis. Navracsics proposed a program of “integration of refugees and migrants,” which the Commission acted on. Navracsics received  €1.6 billion “under the Creative Europe program for cultural projects promoting the inclusion of refugees and migrants.” So, what Navracsics is doing in Brussels is the exact opposite of what the Orbán government stands for. While he is working for the integration of refugees and migrants, Orbán is fighting tooth and nail for their exclusion.

In light of this, Navracsics’s most recent interview on June 6 with Péter Zentai on KlubRádió’s “Eurozóna” shouldn’t have been such a revelation. But suddenly the Hungarian media realized that Navracsics doesn’t agree with Viktor Orbán on either the refugee issue or Hungary’s relations with the European Union.

In the interview he expressed his optimism about the future of the EU. Its history has been full of clashes of interests among the member states, but at least until now the result was always deeper integration. He believes that “if common sense prevails in the majority of the member states” the current problems will be solved. This didn’t convince the interviewer, who said that the situation in Europe is “dramatic,” especially in light of a possible Brexit. Navracsics admitted that the European Union is at a turning point, but whatever happens with the British referendum, it is his “conviction that there are far more strategic interests in favor of the continued existence of the Union and its continued integration than against them.”

Perhaps the highlight of the interview was Navracsics’s criticism of the Hungarian opposition, which has been far too timid in standing by a common European policy on the refugee issue. Politicians supporting the European Union should argue as loudly in favor of common action as those do who promulgate a policy based on individual nation states. “We must clearly explain that membership in the Union and the continuation of integration is in Hungary’s national interest…. I regret that on the domestic political stage pro-EU politicians constitute only a soft-spoken tiny minority which doesn’t argue forcefully enough in favor of the point of view that I’m trying to express here.”

Finally, Navracsics, unlike many of the politicians of the democratic opposition, decided to go on record as agreeing with the Commission’s stand on quotas. It is, he said, “an absolutely acceptable solution which only means that if the number of refugees exceeds the regular numbers in a given country—which so far has not occurred anywhere—then the other members would come to its assistance and help in the placement of those affected. Therefore it is not the same as a mechanically enforced compulsory quota.”

Echoing Navracsics, Júlia Mira Lévai in HVG admonished those opposition politicians “who don’t dare to go against the current public mood and who are not brave enough to represent their own values.” In Lévai’s opinion, Navracsics’s “coming out” will play a significant role in the disintegration of Fidesz, which might be near, especially if leaders of the democratic opposition follow Navracsics’s advice.

I agree with Lévai that the timid response of the democratic opposition to Orbán’s refugee policies is mistaken. Always trying to follow a middle ground, as MSZP leaders usually do, will not satisfy the growing number of voters who are turning against the government and Fidesz. But I disagree that it is the refugee issue that will be the catalyst for the inevitable disintegration of Orbán’s power structure. A more likely candidate is the government’s disregard of the Hungarian National Bank’s highly illegal financial dealings, orchestrated by the chairman of the bank, who is exhibiting increasingly erratic behavior. And to the bank scandal one can add the boorish behavior of the newly created Fidesz media, which even some members of the inner circle find distasteful. But more about these developments tomorrow.

June 15, 2016

Orbán and his ministers got their report cards: they all failed

In the last couple of months we didn’t hear much about the teachers’ rebellion against Viktor Orbán’s educational reforms, except that the dissatisfied teachers promised to do something after the matriculation exams ended but before the last day of the school year. Eventually, we learned that the leaders of the “Tanítanék” (I would like to teach) movement were organizing a rally at which they were planning to present the government with their own report cards.

I must admit that I was not at all optimistic that they could pull off another huge demonstration, the kind they staged on March 15. Past experience has taught us how easily enthusiasm wanes. After realizing that street demonstrations rarely have any tangible results, participants soon enough lose their appetite for these gatherings. So, I was very afraid that instead of a mass demonstration only a few hundred people would show up today on March 15 tér and that, with such a poor showing, the whole teachers’ revolt would fizzle out.

Source: Blikk / Photo: Ferenc Isza

Source: Blikk / Photo: Ferenc Isza

I was wrong. To sustain people’s interest protests don’t have to have positive results. On the contrary, a negative outcome might spur even more intensified resistance. If the government had granted some reasonable concessions, the teachers might have been appeased. But Viktor Orbán misjudged the situation and decided not just to ignore the teachers’ demands but to make the state’s stranglehold over the schools and thus over the teachers even tighter. For one thing, instead of a single KLIK, there will now be another layer of bureaucracy–57 little KLIKs.

In the last three years, since the introduction of the centralized system, at least the school buildings and their maintenance remained in the hands of the local communities. The Orbán government, however, in its eternal wisdom, came to the conclusion that they should also centralize the physical maintenance of the school buildings. So, for example, if a window gets broken, the school administration will have to apply to one of the little KLIKs, most likely miles away, for a replacement window.

Source: Blikk / Photo: Ferenc Isza

Source: Blikk / Photo: Ferenc Isza

The reaction in the community was fury. According to the union leaders, the number of people who are ready to actively participate in an anti-establishment movement has grown many times over since the government’s refusal to listen to the initial demands of the teachers. They feel cheated and have come to the conclusion that negotiating with Viktor Orbán’s minions is absolutely useless because the government representatives cannot be trusted. The trade union leaders also realized that the so-called “negotiators” on the government side don’t have a mandate to make decisions or to offer negotiating points. So, Piroska Galló, head of the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ), announced that traditional methods of dealing with an employer, in this case the state, are useless in Orbán’s Hungary. From here on, more radical methods must be employed.

Apparently, the government decision makers were misled by the small number of teachers, only about 20%, who participated in the strike staged by the trade unions in April. Trade union leader Galló maintains that, although relatively few people took part in the strike, the trade unions’ demands were supported by a large majority of the teachers. Also, the government negotiators paid no attention to the protest of the parents who kept their children at home on the day of the strike. Their numbers were in the hundreds of thousands. They are ready to support their children’s teachers and are just as angered by the government’s reaction as are the teachers.

Mrs. Galló was right. Despite rain mixed with hail, thousands showed up in an impressive display of resolve. The government went very wrong here and still hasn’t learned its lesson. The education department, housed in the ministry of human resources, continues to think that the trade union leaders and the civic organizations of teachers will fall for the old line that “the majority of teachers believe in dialogue and not in street action and political provocation.” No, they don’t. If the teachers learned anything in the last few months, it was that negotiation with the Orbán government–alleged dialogue–is a dead end. I also believe that the charge, repeated time and again, that the “teachers are being used by anti-government forces” will only add fuel to the fire. The result is that both the trade unions and the civic “Tanítanék” group are determined to continue the fight, and with even greater force come fall.

The two leaders of the Tanítanék group are born leaders. I’m amazed at their organizational and oratorical skills. If anyone can organize a real mass movement around the teachers it will be István Pukli and Kata Törley. They promise something spectacular once schools open in September. They are already working to establish a nationwide network of activists. They began their recruitment right on the spot

One of the highlights of the demonstration was the handing out of report cards to government officials.  Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources; László Palkovics, his undersecretary responsible for education; János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office; Lajos Kósa, head of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation; Antal Rogán, “propaganda minister”; Szilárd Németh, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz; and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán all received failing grades. As the grades were read out, the crowd jeered and shouted “mocskos Fidesz” (filthy Fidesz). Of course, the greatest booing came after Viktor Orbán’s report card was read.

We should keep in mind that the popularity of Fidesz today is not what it was a few months ago. According to the Republikon Intézet, Fidesz’s popularity has fallen 8% in just one month, between April and May, among committed voters. The beneficiaries of Fidesz’s losses seem to be the smaller parties, especially the Demokratikus Koalíció (+3%) and to a lesser extent LMP (+1%) and Együtt (+1%). These results were more or less seconded by Fidesz’s own Századvég. Some spectacular show of force by the teachers might further erode Fidesz’s popularity.

For those who didn’t see István Pukli and Kata Törley on ATV, they also appeared on Egyenes beszéd ráadás (Straight Talk Extra) yesterday.

June 11, 2016

Intellectual fraud in Hungary

Today I will cover two topics. First, the industry that has developed to write essays and research papers, without which a Hungarian student cannot receive his diploma. Using other people’s work and passing it off as your own is plagiarism. In legal terms, it is a fraud, which is a punishable act. Second, a historical fraud: the history of the pilgrimage of Csíksomlyó/Şumuleu Ciuc.

Researchers for hire

The other day I found a fascinating article in Magyar Nemzet about a service for those who, after four years of higher education, are still unable to write a senior essay, as it is known here. In Hungary it is called “szakdolgozat.” In both cases the student is supposed to demonstrate that he/she is capable of independent and original research. It seems that many Hungarian students are either too lazy or are actually incapable of producing a research paper of about 40-50 pages. These are the people who turn to professional “manufacturers” of senior papers.

After reading the article, I managed to locate an internet site that offers a wide range of help for university students. Students can purchase not only “outlines” of topics but also complete essays to fulfill part of their course requirements. As the site explains, “during the course of college or university studies a student may have to write dozens of essays. In case you don’t have time or have difficulties with some of them, get in touch with us and we will help.” The enterprising businessmen of szakdolgozatiras.hu described the final research paper as “the greatest obstacle to receiving one’s diploma.” They claim to have supplied more than 1,600 senior papers over a ten-year period, and the testimonials coming from satisfied customers are super.

In addition to the professional senior paper factories there are those Magyar Nemzet calls the lone wolves. One freelancer admitted that he has been writing papers for others for the last eight years and up to now has “helped out about 250 people.” Some of these freelancers come cheap. The journalists found one fellow who charges only 56,000 forints (about $200) for the job, but such a low price is rare. According to Magyar Nemzet, a senior paper (B.A. or B.S.) costs 100,000-120,000 forints and a master’s thesis 112,000-140,000. If the work has to be in English, it will cost at least 200,000 forints.

After doing a little research on the subject and looking at some of the papers, I came to the conclusion that a large percentage of customers are students who attend college at night. There is a good likelihood that they really are at a loss when it comes to producing original work. And their professors don’t seem ready to guide them. So, they turn to “professionals.” Those who need help getting started but don’t want to buy a completed essay can get paper topics, outlines, and bibliographies. Such a service costs only 15,000-20,000 forints.

I may add that there is nothing new under the sun. My father told me that this was common practice at the Budapest University of Technology between the two world wars, especially when it came to writing a “doctoral dissertation.”

A historical falsification

It was all over the papers last weekend that President János Áder and his wife were going to take part in the gathering that has become a celebration of national unity across borders. Thousands of “pilgrims” gather every year in Csíksomlyó, equipped with Szekler and Hungarian flags. The pilgrimage is religious in origin, but by now religion takes a back seat to nationalism.

The story that allegedly justifies the pilgrimage is that in 1567, during Pentecost, János Zsigmond, prince of Transylvania, tried to convert the Catholic Szeklers to his own faith, Unitarianism. While the men of Csíksomlyó fought the prince’s troops, the women prayed in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary, who helped them against the evil prince and his troops. The trouble with the story is that it is not true.

The statue the women of Csíksomlyó allegedly prayed to in 1567

The statue of the Virgin Mary the women of Csíksomlyó allegedly prayed to in 1567

Csíksomlyó was granted the right to hold a pilgrimage every July 2, the Day of Visitation, when the pregnant Virgin Mary visited the also pregnant St. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. It is not clear when the date of the pilgrimage was moved, most likely during the eighteenth century when a Hungarian nobleman in Habsburg service in Vienna came up with the story of János Zsigmond’s attempt to forcibly convert the Catholic Szeklers to Unitarianism. Prior to 1780, when the story was first published, no one had ever heard of the great battle between the Catholic Szeklers and János Zsigmond’s troops. It is true, however, that Unitarianism was spreading rapidly in the Szekler areas of Transylvania at that time as a result of the preaching of Ferenc Dávid, a Hungarian Reformed bishop who had turned Unitarian.

Janos Zsigmond

János Zsigmond Zápolya (1540-1571)

First, a few words about János Zsigmond Zápolya (1540-1571), son of János Zápolya, who after the battle of Mohács in 1526 was elected king of Hungary by the majority of the Hungarian nobles. János Zsigmond’s mother was Izabella, daughter of the Polish king Sigismund I.

János Zsigmond was both handsome and extremely well educated. He spoke eight languages fluently and was a great lover and supporter of music and the arts. He himself played the flute and the organ. He was known as a man of religious tolerance whose greatest achievement was the discontinuation of state religion and the declaration of freedom for all religious denominations in the territory of Transylvania. János Zsigmond made this declaration in 1568, a year after he had allegedly waged war against the Catholics at Csíksomlyó. At the Diet at Torda/Turda he issued the Edict of Torda or the Patent of Toleration:

His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he–together with his realm–legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearings is by the word of God.

Unitarians of Transylvania—and there are 75,000 of them—have repeatedly asked György Jakubinyi, archbishop of Gyulafehérvár/Alba Iulia, to debunk the story as sheer fiction. The archbishop expressed his regret that the occasion is used to foment religious discord, but there has been no correction of the erroneous historical facts. In fact, according to those who attended the pilgrimage, the speakers told the gathering crowds the same untrue story about the intolerant Unitarian king of Hungary and later Prince of Transylvania.

Hungarians should be proud that Unitarianism as a distinct religion was born in Hungary and that the first Patent of Toleration was declared there, even as elsewhere in Europe religious wars were being fought. By the way, a good short biography of János Zsigmond is available in English online. He is a historical figure who shouldn’t be forgotten–or besmirched.

May 23, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s latest attack against Hungarian education

There is trouble again in the field of public education. With the reverberations from the teachers’ strike not entirely quelled, the government has already managed to get the teachers wound up anew by introducing yet another set of school reforms. As if the Orbán government had lost its magic touch and is unable to gauge the mood of the country. Even if at the moment no strike is in the offing, neither the teachers nor the general public are satisfied with the government’s response to what they consider to be an educational crisis. To announce a total reorganization of the public school system at this junction can only lead to further tension. I find it intriguing that while the government has been hyperactive in the field of education, introducing one so-called reform after another, in healthcare, another trouble spot, the Orbán administration has done practically nothing. It is hard to say which strategy is better since both education and healthcare are in terrible shape. Viktor Orbán’s luck seems to be running out.

In order to understand what the government is contemplating, we have to take stock of the current Hungarian school system which, I must say, is pretty complicated. A Hungarian child begins his studies at the age of six in an eight-grade elementary school (general/általános iskola), from which he can move on to middle school (középiskola). There are three types of middle schools: “specialty middle schools” (szakközépiskola), gymnasiums, and trade schools (szakiskola).

Gymnasium courses of study are of varying length. Most common is a four-year program, entered after finishing eighth grade. But there are gymnasiums that can be entered after the fourth grade. And there are a few in which a student spends six years, leaving elementary school after the sixth grade.

Just to complicate things, there are also the specialty middle schools which, I understand, are as popular in Hungary as the gymnasiums (approximately 200,000 students in each, or 40% of all high school students). Until now at least diplomas from specialty middle schools allowed students to enter college or university. Their “matriculation” was the equivalent of those who finished gymnasium.

Only about 100,000 children, or 20% of all high school students, attend the third type of middle school, the trade school.

The new “reform” focuses on the specialty middle schools and trade schools. As usually happens in Orbán’s Hungary, we have no idea whom the government consulted before presenting its plans because those considered to be experts on education were horrified when they learned the details.

In my opinion, the essence of the reform is to lower standards while trying to give the impression of higher value by changing the branding. The “specialty middle school” (szakközépiskola) will from here on be called “specialty gymnasium,” and “trade school” (szakiskola) will be named “specialty middle school.” All three kinds of schools, the government claims, will enable students to take their matriculation exam, which is a necessary prerequisite to entering college or university. But in reality, there are huge differences between the quality of education the students in the three types of schools will receive.

In these new specialty schools the time allotted to academic subjects will be grossly reduced. Formerly 22-23 hours a week were devoted to these subjects. According to plans, the study of a broad range of academic subjects will be reduced to 12-15 hours. Study of the “specialty” subjects will be increased to 12-15 hours a week. While the same number of hours will be devoted to literature, math, and history as before, students will be able to study only one of the natural sciences, depending on their “specialty.” Those whose specialty is healthcare will study only biology. If the specialty is engineering, the person will study only physics. Only those who are interested in mining, tourism, and surveying will study geography. Those who are interested in hotel management will learn only a foreign language. In brief, if parents enroll their child in one of these schools, the child’s whole career might be determined at the age of fourteen.

Teachers are horrified. In our complex, fast-changing world, to narrow the educational base to such an extent is a totally mistaken notion. Viktor Orbán imagines the Hungary of the future to be a mini-China where millions of blue-collar workers toil in large factories. But we all know that in the long run such an economic structure cannot be maintained, even in China. As people often say, Hungary can offer only intellectual capacity, which can be attained only through education. Yet Orbán is systematically lowering educational opportunities and cheapening educational offerings.

Critics of Orbán’s vision are worried about the educational opportunities of children herded into “specialty gymnasiums” or even worse “specialty middle schools” whose career opportunities will be greatly diminished. Children at the age of fourteen cannot make responsible decisions about their future careers. It is most likely the parents who make the decision, often without any knowledge of their children’s inclinations or true talents. I can speak from experience that even at the age of eighteen many people only think they know what they want to study. One of my favorite stories is of a freshman who complained about the faculty adviser to whom he was assigned. Who on earth came up with the idea of hooking him up with a psychologist? In fact, there was a very good reason for the decision because on his application he indicated that his “possible major” would be psychology. Half a year later he didn’t even remember what he put down. I also met a college student who was busily preparing to study medicine after graduation but halfway through discovered East European history. Today he is a university professor. That’s why I’m such a fan of the so-called liberal education, with little specialization at the B.A. or B.Sc. level. Specialization can come later.

globe

Shortly after this latest brainstorm of the government became public came the “revolt of the geographers.” The Magyar Földrajzi Társaság (Hungarian Association of Geographers) began collecting signatures against the decision. In their estimation, no geography will be taught in about 900 high schools if the government goes through with its plans. They were soon followed by chemists and physicists. In brief, the government is setting the stage for even more intense conflict with educators.

After word got out that very few high schools will teach geography, the joke began to circulate that the reason for this decision is that perhaps this way Hungarian students will be unable to find the country to which they want to emigrate on the map.

April 28, 2016