Yesterday I tackled some aspects of Hungarian graduate education that I find distasteful, unnecessary, and possibly illegal. One of the readers of Hungarian Spectrum called my attention to ELTE’s latest rule book, a staggering 175 pages, governing all aspects of the academic careers of doctoral candidates.
Reading this rule book, I got the distinct impression that the relationship between a student and the university is quasi-contractual, with possible legal consequences. Among the rules, in this case relating to conditions that would disqualify a faculty member from being a student’s adviser, are passages from the civil code regulating family relationships. There are well over 100 paragraphs that may affect students’ academic careers. In addition to the main body of the document, there are eight appendices (each with several more paragraphs) and six supplements.
One cannot accuse the “Rector Magnificus” of the university of not being a thorough man. Everything is minutely spelled out. For example, the rule book explains that the academic performance of a doctoral candidate can be judged to be “insufficienter,” “rite,” “cum laude,” or “summa cum laude.” A student will pass his preliminary examinations only if none of the evaluations of his performance is “insufficienter.” This rule might seem too obvious to bother with, but at the same time it might just discriminate against truly original students. Let’s say a student gets two “summas” and one “insufficienter.” Goodbye, student.
This booklet is a perfect example of the mindset that, I fear, is an integral part of the whole culture. And if I am right, it doesn’t bode well for Hungary. With such an overly bureaucratic system, an organization–and even the state as a whole–becomes dysfunctional. In fact, János Lázár only recently pretty much admitted that this is the case.
Oh yes, the “Rector Magnificus.” This is not a joke either. In the oath that is indeed compulsory, students must swear that they will always respect the Rector Magnificus and the Senate of the university. Hungarian students must swear that they will be “faithful to the Hungarian people” and will do their best to use their “knowledge to further the glory of their people and country.” But what about the student who actually thinks that the Rector Magnificus is a spineless character who doesn’t deserve respect and that in the Senate there are a number of people who really shouldn’t be there? Or what about the new Ph.D. who packs up and becomes a faculty member at a foreign university, where he presumably furthers the glory not of ELTE or the Hungarian people but the university at which he is teaching? Is he then not being faithful to the Hungarian people?
In any case, respect cannot be demanded, as the Rector Magnificus and the Senate insist. One either has respect for the university one attended or one doesn’t. No one demanded that I swear allegiance to the universities from which I graduated. Graduation might have had a lot of pomp and circumstance, but the essence of the ceremony was the simple handing out of academic degrees. And this is how it should be.
By way of comparison I suggest you take a look at Yale University’s “Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Programs and Policies 2015-2016.” I am sure Hungarians who did graduate work in Hungary will be surprised by its tone, especially if they compare it to the Rector Magnificus’s rule book.
The other day we bemoaned the low ranking of Hungarian universities among the world’s institutions of higher learning. The most important consideration is “academic reputation.” Academics are asked to identify the institutions where they believe the best work is taking place within their field of expertise. The student-faculty ratio is also very important. These two considerations make up about 60% of the overall assessment. Another important component (20%) is based on the number of citations per faculty member. Thus, it should be quite clear why Hungarian universities are low on the scale.
One problem is that there are practically no English-language periodicals published in Hungary that a fellow researcher could cite. In 2012, I learned about an attempt to launch a new journal, the Hungarian Historical Review. I got so excited that I even sent them an e-mail lauding their decision to have an English-language historical periodical. But one publication is not enough. There should be many in all fields. I suspect that a lack of money had something to do with it.
The Orbán government is much more concerned with fences along the Serbian-Hungarian border, football stadiums, and lobbyists in the United States and in Germany than it is with higher education. In fact, Orbán thinks there are too many university students, and his government is making sure that there will be even fewer in the future. Therefore, I’m almost certain that the reputation of Hungarian universities will be further diminished.
But that is not the only problem. There is an appearance of rigor, manifest in the 175-page rule book, but in fact academic standards are low. More about that later.