Tag Archives: László Palkovics

A short pause in the battle between the Orbán government and CEU

It is possible that as a result of the four-day Easter holiday we will have a brief respite from the latest Hungarian drama. Today I will expand on previous posts regarding the Central European University controversy and the recall of Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi.

Let’s return first to the presidential signature on the controversial bill aimed at closing CEU. Few people had illusions about the integrity of János Áder, who after all started his political career as one of the founders of Fidesz and who subsequently occupied important positions in the party. He could, however, have salvaged the little reputation he had left by sending the bill back to parliament, which in turn could have returned it to him unchanged. Instead, the word from the president’s office was that Áder’s legal staff saw nothing in the law that would be incompatible with international law or that could be considered unconstitutional. Perhaps his legal staff had blinders on. Scores of constitutional lawyers, conservative as well as liberal, shared their opinions with Áder about the unconstitutionality of the law. László Sólyom, the former president who was chief justice of the constitutional court for eight years, said yesterday in a lecture that a second-year law student ought to be able to tell that the law that was put in front of Áder is “unequivocally unconstitutional.” As he ironically put it, “the students of Bibó College wrote a very poor brief.”

In the meantime it seems that the firm stand of the United States coupled with the massive demonstrations at home forced Viktor Orbán to reexamine his original game plan. 24.hu learned from reliable sources that a “serious debate” has taken place in the last couple of days in Fidesz circles. Apparently, at the moment they are still clinging to their initial response that they will not repeal or withdraw the law but instead will offer some kind of compromise. László Palkovics’s rather confused offer of an arrangement by which Central European University could offer degrees in a licensing agreement with Közép-Európai Egyetem is still on the table. But the university has already indicated that this arrangement is unacceptable. I should add that, two weeks into this drama, the Hungarian government still has not found time to get in touch with the administration of CEU directly.

I have the feeling that the Orbán government was not prepared for the resolute, self-confident stance of the university and its president, Michael Ignatieff. Hungary’s present leaders are accustomed to cowed subjects who barely dare to open their mouths. But here is a group of independent people who stand up for their rights. President Michael Ignatieff, after returning to Budapest from abroad, pointed out today that they have absolutely no idea where the government stands as far as its relationship to CEU is concerned. A week ago Zoltán Balog who is, after all, in charge of education, announced that the government’s goal is the removal of the university from Hungary, but now László Palkovics, Balog’s undersecretary, claims that the government wants CEU to stay. A week ago the minister accused CEU of fraud; now the undersecretary assures them that the university functioned legally. Ignatieff called upon the Hungarian government “to develop at last a uniform position.” He also sent a message to the government “to call us by our name. This is not a Soros University but Central European University.” As far as Palkovics’s “solution” is concerned, Ignatieff, “without wanting to be sarcastic or insulting,” considers “Undersecretary Palkovics’s sentences incomprehensible.”

Michael Ignatieff, president of Central European University

In the meantime, the government has been intimidating students and faculty at other Hungarian universities, telling them that they cannot participate in any demonstrations on behalf of CEU or do anything in general to support the CEU cause. Such threats were delivered at the University of Debrecen, the University of Kaposvár, and Corvinus University in Budapest. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission countered this government action in a press release in which it called attention to provisions in the Hungarian labor law that would protect both students and faculty from any recrimination as a result of their activities on behalf of CEU.

Today Romnet.hu, a website dealing with Roma affairs, reported that a CEU graduate, who I assume is Roma, was sacked from a state-owned company. He was told that the firm had received instructions from above that they don’t want to employ people who earned their degrees from CEU. The CEU graduate’s boss apparently expressed his regret and promised to help find another job for him through his personal contacts in the private sector.

Then there is Márton Gulyás, about whom I have written nothing so far. He is a young, rather brash activist who has been under the skin of the authorities for some time because of his “unorthodox” methods of protesting. He already had one scrape with the law when, screwdriver in hand, he arrived at the National Election Commission and removed the plate bearing its name. He received a one-year suspended sentence for this act. This time he was caught trying to throw a can of orange-colored paint against the wall of the building housing the president’s office. His attempt was failed, but he was arrested and kept in jail for three days. Thousands demonstrated for his release, and today he and another young man who was arrested in his own apartment after the demonstration was over had their day in court. Gulyás was sentenced to 300 hours of physical work at some public project. His companion received 200 hours. They will appeal the sentences.

And now, switching gears, let me return to Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi’s recall from Washington. Attila Ara-Kovács, currently foreign policy adviser of Demokratikus Koalíció, writes weekly posts on foreign affairs in his blog, “Diplomatic Note.” His latest post is “The fall of the ambassador.” Ara-Kovács has contacts in diplomatic circles who provide him with information that is usually accurate. According to him, the U.S. State Department had learned about the anti-CEU bill before it was made public. Curiously, this information allegedly reached Washington from Moscow. If this is true, says Ara-Kovács, the rumors about Russian involvement might have been accurate. A State Department official contacted Szemerkényi, who didn’t seem to know anything about the proposed bill. When the American diplomat summarized its contents, Szemerkényi apparently assured him that her government would never enact such a law. She reminded the bearer of the news that there are just too many conspiracy theories floating around, and the Orbán government’s opponents are apt to conjure up untrue stories. She promised, however, to provide more information once she gets the word from Budapest.

It wasn’t easy to get confirmation from the foreign ministry, and Szemerkényi had to use her contacts in Fidesz. Eventually she received the full text of the bill and ample advice on how to “sell” this piece of legislation to the U.S. government. Szemerkényi, instead of quietly following instructions, sent word back to Budapest that, in her opinion, the United States would never accept such a law. It is an illusion to think that just because Trump doesn’t particularly like George Soros his administration would take this lying down. She added that such a step might risk future good relations between the two countries. According to Ara-Kovács, a few hours after the Hungarian government received Szemerkényi’s message the decision was made to recall her. Viktor Orbán doesn’t joke around when someone dares to say “no” to him.

April 13, 2017

Situation report on the fight for Central European University

Yesterday Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, director of the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy at Central European University who as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote a bitter letter on her Facebook page. She said that she and her husband left the United States in 2001 at considerable financial sacrifice in order for her to return to Hungary and join the faculty of CEU as an associate professor. It was a dream come true until April 4, 2017. As of that date, she finds herself part of an institution that “meddles in the internal affairs of Hungary and represents foreign interests.” What she finds most disappointing is that “colleagues, friends, and family don’t stand by her wholeheartedly.” They keep saying “the laws must be observed, and their glances indicate disapproval. Or, ‘I’m sorry; I don’t dare because I may be blacklisted.’”

Honest words, an honest description of what’s going on in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, but one must ask: Dear Diana, how is it possible that you haven’t noticed that something is very wrong with the party you dutifully voted for every four years? How is it that you as a proud Christian who gave birth to seven children and who, as you feel necessary to mention, “all attend parochial schools,” haven’t realized that this government’s alleged Christianity is hollow? Is it only now, when your own job is at stake, that you discover that something is wrong with the government you helped keep in power? Her statement ends with a whimper: “I am grateful for the support of those who dared to speak, dared to demonstrate, dared to share. Many of them are government-honoring [kormánytisztelő] Christian citizens, who for the first time said that this shouldn’t have been done.”

Fortunately most members of CEU’s administration, beginning with its president, Michael Ignatieff, are determined to fight and win. The contrast between the timid Hungarian academics and the international administration and faculty of CEU couldn’t be greater. Although President Ignatieff and Provost Liviu Matei have emphasized the support they have received from Hungarian colleagues and other Hungarian institutions of higher learning, the truth is that few have stood by CEU. Most of them have been quiet, but there was one “chancellor”—a newly appointed government watchdog over and above the university president and the senate—who outright welcomed the move of the government against CEU. The chancellor of the University of Debrecen pointed out that other Hungarian universities are at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting foreign students because of CEU’s ability to grant American degrees. The administration of Corvinus University was not exactly supportive either. President András Lánczi, the man who got the job as president of the university at the express wish of Viktor Orbán, also stressed the need for “a level legal playing field” for all Hungarian universities. It is true that 250 students and members of Corvinus University’s faculty published a supporting statement, but András Lánczi immediately fired off an e-mail reminding them of the university’s “ethical code,” which obliges members of the university community to maintain the good name of the university in their communications with the world.

Meanwhile the government is doing its best to mislead and intimidate. Two days ago an incredible number of policemen surrounded the parliament building on the occasion of the second demonstration in support of CEU. What was most disturbing was that in front of the row of policemen were apparent civilian strongmen who, as a video shows, provoked some members of the crowd. As it turned out, they were plainclothes policemen. While the uniformed police stood by motionless, these characters were belligerent. Almost as if they wanted to create a reason to arrest a few of the demonstrators. After a while they were recalled by a man in civilian clothes standing behind the police lines.

Last night two organizers of the demonstrations, a Hungarian and a foreigner, received unexpected visits from the police. Government papers want the public to believe that the demonstrators were almost exclusively foreigners. Magyar Hírlap­ reported that the government, as a result of the protest against the treatment of CEU, will be able to uncover the whole Soros network, which engages in such activities as “destabilization efforts by CEU graduates in states along the migration route, for example in Macedonia and Albania.”

The “parrot commando” keeps repeating the same false accusations against CEU, which they persist in calling Soros University. Until recently, László Palkovics, who is in charge of higher education, was given the task of explaining how eminently rational the Hungarian government’s position on CEU is. He steadfastly refused to admit that the amendments’ real purpose was to drive CEU out of the country. On the other hand, his boss, Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, at last told the truth in a radio interview. “There is no need to beat around the bush. There is no need to hide. We ought to say straight out that we don’t want Central European University to function in its present form.” He added that if the United States and CEU want to continue in the present legal framework, “they have to invest.” That is, build a brand new campus in the United States.

The outcome envisaged by Balog is unlikely to materialize. President Michael Ignatieff is in the United States at present and, according to the latest news, has already conferred with Thomas A. Shannon, undersecretary of state for political affairs in the State Department, and Hoyt Brian Yee, deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. (Ignatieff was certainly more successful at the State Department than Hungary’s foreign minister, who visited Washington about two weeks ago and couldn’t meet with anyone at the Foggy Bottom.) He also talked with Fiona Hill, a member of the White House’s National Security Council who advises the president on European and Russian affairs. Next, Ignatieff is off to Berlin and, I trust, to Brussels as well. Angela Merkel’s spokesman already articulated the German government’s position on the matter.

Meeting with Thomas A. Shannon, undersecretary for political affairs

The European Parliament is also responding. Five of the eight political formations have condemned the Hungarian government’s attack on CEU. Even within the caucus of the European People’s Party (EPP), to which the 12-member Fidesz delegation belongs, a storm is brewing. It was the leader of the Fidesz group, József Szájer, who provoked the storm by writing an e-mail to the other members of the EPP caucus in which the Fidesz members contended that critics of the law have been “gravely mislead (sic) by the propaganda and private agenda of the American billionaire Soros” and are fighting with a “virtual reality.” They added that “as in the world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are the equals and there are some more equals (sic) than others.” This e-mail apparently prompted an angry reaction. EPP’s leader, Manfred Weber, tweeted that “Freedom of thinking, research and speech are essential for our European identity. EPP group will defend this at any cost.” Frank Engel, a member of the EPP from Luxembourg, was less polite. He replied in an e-mail: “Forget the crap. We know what is happening, and why. Why don’t you leave both the EPP and the EU on your own terms? … You’re practically and factually out anyway. So go. Please go.”

Time and again the European People’s Party caucus has saved Viktor Orbán’s skin in Brussels. It has been reluctant to expel its Fidesz members, who really don’t belong in this group. The Fidesz delegation would feel much more at home in the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists of Europe, joining their Polish and euroskeptic British friends. But the EPP doesn’t want to lose 12 members from its caucus. Although it is the largest in the European Parliament, its lead is not overwhelming. Still, even without Fidesz it would remain the largest caucus, with 205 members. The Socialists and Democrats have 189 members. To shield a dictatorial regime for the sake of a few votes is too high a price to pay.

April 6, 2017

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

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

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

Teachers’ revolt, Nazi speech, and Orbán’s “battle” in Brussels

Hungarian public discourse at the moment revolves around three topics. The first two, about which I’ve already written, require updates. The third topic is new: today’s summit in Brussels and Viktor Orbán’s latest stunt.

First, the aftermath of the large anti-government demonstration of teachers and sympathizers on March 15, at which the organizers demanded an apology from Viktor Orbán. The prime minister’s response was that he considered the demand nothing more than a joke. János Lázár couldn’t even comprehend what István Pukli and his colleagues had in mind. As for their demand for his presence at the negotiations, he invited them to one of the town meetings Hungarian politicians attend to answer questions from the local folks. Zoltán Balog didn’t react to the organizers’ demand for his resignation. László Palkovics did, and said that he will remain at the head of the round table discussion. The leaders of the teachers’ revolt can come and join him.

Pukli was not intimidated by the predictable response. He did what no ordinary subject of the almighty Viktor Orbán has dared to do. He spoke back. “Here is the opportunity, dear Viktor Orbán, to take the teachers seriously, and instead of condescension and disdainful jokes, to take the problem itself seriously.” And he added that members of the government “secretly hope that the whole thing was no more than a bad dream and once they wake up everything will be the same as before. But their real awakening will be painful.” Pukli seems very sure of himself, and I do hope the teachers are ready to follow him.

I might also add that the two trade unions are still in conversation with László Palkovics and Bence Rétvári, who made it clear that the declaration of a strike is restricted to unions and that Pukli’s call for a walk-out is considered to be illegal. There might, however, be a clever legal loophole, as indicated by László Mendrey, leader of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szövetsége (PDSZ), this afternoon.

The other event of March 15 that continues to resonate is Viktor Orbán’s speech. People from opposing political backgrounds, including a former Fidesz propagandist, came to the conclusion that Orbán’s oration was a “Nazi speech.” The epithet spread first on Facebook. Yesterday I cited a Facebook post that compared the crucial part of the speech about the host animal and its parasites to a similar passage from the 1942 edition of Mein Kampf. The speech reminded Gábor Kuncze, former chairman of SZDSZ and minister of interior in the Horn government, of Adolf Hitler’s speech delivered on November 10, 1933.

Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman of Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), wrote in his blog that “what Orbán said is a perfect copy of Adolf Hitler’s speeches.” As an example, he quoted the following sentence from Orbán’s speech: “It is written in the book of fate that hidden, faceless world powers will eliminate everything that is unique, autonomous, age-old, and national,” adding that only the mustache was missing from under his nose. Sándor Csintalan, who for the last ten years or maybe longer was a devoted supporter of Fidesz, finally broke with Orbán because the “parasites” metaphor was too much for him. Although he hates “drawing these kinds of historical comparisons, it was in the 1930s in Nazi Germany that political rivals were compared to animals who sponge off a host animal.”

The most thorough assessment came from historian Mária M. Kovács, who is well known among our readers from her articles that appeared in Hungarian Spectrum. Yesterday morning, in an interview on Klubrádió, she summarized the German historical and rhetorical heritage that began with Johann Gottfried Herder and Eugen Dühring and eventually blossomed during the Nazi period in the language of Adolf Hitler and other leading characters of the Third Reich. That tradition included labeling members of the political opposition as members of the animal world, especially its least attractive members. “Parasite” was one of the favorite words, as well as “pack,” i.e. a pack of wolves or wild dogs. She added that this is not really new in Orbán’s vocabulary. But it has taken quite a bit of time for people first to recognize the similarity and then to be courageous enough to compare Orbán to Hitler.

I may add here that László Bartus, editor-in-chief of Amerikai Népszava, who is usually considered to be too extreme in his criticism of Orbán, has been describing the prime minister’s speeches as “Nazi talk” for a long time. For example, after Orbán’s “illiberal speech” on July 28, 2014. But even earlier, Bartus wrote an article after Orbán’s October 23, 2013 speech, which he called “Orbán’s Nazi speech.”

Viktor Orbán arrives at the summit in Brussels

Viktor Orbán arrives at the summit in Brussels

Finally, a few words about the summit that began today and will continue tomorrow. János Lázár devoted a significant part of his weekly government.info to the subject. He announced that today Orbán will be part of a huge battle in Brussels where the debate will center on the quota issue. Will it be compulsory to take a certain number of refugees? If so, then the referendum the government is currently planning will have to be held.

Naturally, all Hungarian news sites picked up the story of Hungary’s battling prime minister. If these journalists had followed the news a little more closely, news that was reported even in the Hungarian media, they would have known that Viktor Orbán was fabricating a phony battle to show his people that the European Union is at his mercy and that all decisions are dependent on his image of the future of Europe. The fact is that yesterday at a press conference held in the Bundestag Angela Merkel already announced that the question of compulsory quotas would not be put on the table. So, like a fortuneteller who predicts the past, Orbán announced today in Brussels that “there is a good chance” that his views would be accepted at the summit. Csaba Molnár, one of DK’s two members of the European Parliament, declared today that “it is a shame that the Hungarian prime minister week after week tries to mislead the Hungarians with his lies.” There will be no fight “because during the negotiations there will be not a word about compulsory quotas.”

Unfortunately Orbán is doing a splendid job of misleading the Hungarian public. Indeed, week after week he returns from Brussels as the victorious defender of European and Hungarian freedom. Even the better informed public and members of the opposition media lap it up. Another thing that needs to change.

March 17, 2016