Tag Archives: law on higher education

Infringement proceedings galore, but what good will they do?

Lawyers working on infringement proceedings launched by the European Commission against the Hungarian government must have been especially busy in the past few months. Yesterday the Orbán government received notices of three such infringement proceedings. Although infringement proceedings against Hungary are numerous, I have the feeling that three notices in one day is a record of sorts. One is a “letter of formal notice” and two are “reasoned opinions.”

Notices that bear the odd name “reasoned opinions” represent the second stage in the infringement proceedings. In these cases the European Commission had already sent a”letter of formal notice” concerning a piece of legislation but found the corresponding answers to their objections unsatisfactory. If the answers to the reasoned opinion are still unsatisfactory, the case will go to the European Court of Justice.

I will start with the odd man out here: the reasoned opinion concerning restrictions on loss-making enterprises in the retail sector. You may recall that recent Hungarian law prohibits supermarkets to continue operation if they operate at a loss for two consecutive years. Not surprisingly, the Commission considers such a measure unacceptable because it runs counter to “the freedom of establishment and the principle of non-discrimination” (Article 49 TFEU) and “the free movement of capital” (Article 63 TFEU). Hungary has two months to respond.

Although this is a horrendous piece of legislation and one very much hopes that it will be abolished one way or the other, it is taking back stage to the two other infringement proceedings. The first, another reasoned opinion, concerns the Higher Education Law, which as amended on April 4, 2017 in practical terms makes the continued existence of Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros, impossible. The other infringement proceeding, this one a letter of formal notice, addresses the law, adopted on June 13, dealing with foreign-funded NGOs.

The European Union is often accused of dilatoriness, but this time such criticism cannot be leveled against “the bureaucrats of Brussels,” as Viktor Orbán likes to call the officials and politicians of the European Union. They acted quite promptly. In the case of the Higher Education law, the note the Orbán government received is a reasoned opinion and the Hungarian government has only one month to respond instead of the customary three. As for the foreign-funded NGO case, it took the EC only one month to send out a letter of formal notice. Again, the Hungarian government has only one month to respond. Zoltán Kovács, who is in charge of foreign communications, has already complained bitterly about the unfair treatment Hungary received in these cases because of the very short time limit given.

So, let’s see what the EC’s objections are to the amendment of the Higher Education Law. In the opinion of the European Union, “it is incompatible with the freedom for higher education institutions to provide services and establish themselves anywhere in the European Union.” In addition, it “runs counter to the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business as proved by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Union’s legal obligations under international trade law.”

The law on foreign-funded NGOs introduces new obligations for certain categories of NGOs, for example, to register and label themselves as “organizations supported from abroad.” Again, in this case the European Commission decided that this law doesn’t comply with EU law. (1) It interferes with the right to freedom of association. It could prevent NGOs from raising funds and would therefore restrict their ability to do their work. (2) The law introduces unjustified and disproportionate restrictions to the free movement of capital. (3) It raises concerns as regards the respect of the right to protection of private life and personal data. In plain language, the exact amounts of transactions and detailed information about donors would have to be reported to the Hungarian authorities, which in turn would make the data public.

Anyone who thought that the Orbán government would be terribly impressed by the legal arguments outlined above would be wrong. Zoltán Kovács told Politico that “we, of course, maintain our position.” If necessary, the government will go to court. Politico also got in touch with Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, who correctly pointed out that “infringement procedures alone are inadequate to redress the combined impact of retrogressive reforms that have taken place since 2010.” The European Parliament would need to vote on an appropriately damaging report which, if passed by two-thirds of the European Parliament, could trigger Article 7(1), which would result in the withdrawal of Hungary’s voting rights.

The Hungarian government’s response to these latest infringement proceedings is defiance. Pál Völner, undersecretary in the ministry of justice, said that “the government is ready to face infringement proceedings with relation to the NGO Act. These are organizations that want to weaken Hungary’s defense capabilities in the fight against illegal immigration.” The charge that organizations like Transparency International or the Hungarian Helsinki Commission want to weaken Hungary’s defense capabilities is of course nonsense. The Hungarian government wants to curtail their activities because it considers them opponents of the Orbán government’s unlawful modus operandi.

Márta Parvadi is right: the Orbán government cares not one whit about all these threats of legal proceedings under the aegis of the European Court of Justice. Viktor Orbán doesn’t mind paying fines, even heavy fines. For political gain he has no compunctions about spending billions of forints of the Hungarian taxpayers’ money. That’s why the only hope of the anti-Orbán forces is that the European Parliament report that may trigger Article 7(1) will be prepared soon. Well, there is good news on this front. On July 11 Judith Sargentini of the Greens/EFA was appointed rapporteur for the European Parliament’s investigation into whether Hungary is in breach of the values of the European Union. But more about that tomorrow.

July 14, 2017

Yet another lunacy: Law on teaching foreign languages

The other day I happened upon a very funny 10-minute video. In Hungary bakers must put a big, ugly paper sticker on every loaf of bread before it goes into the oven. But only bread; other baked goods don’t have to have the sticker. So, a journalist wanted to know why the distinction between bread and, let’s say, brioche. No one the journalist asked could give an answer. People in the industry just shrugged their shoulders. At the end, he asked an official of the Bakers’ Association who naturally had no rational explanation for this idiocy either but said that “there must be order in this world.”

Every bureaucracy tends to overregulate, but what has been going on since the Orbán government came into power defies imagination. Regulation on top of regulation in all aspects of life, which naturally makes not only the individual’s life ever more complicated but also negatively affects business activity and hence economic growth.

As we know, Hungarian education suffers from overcentralization and useless bureaucratic constraints. More and more paper work to satisfy the authorities at the top of the pyramid overburdens the teaching staff. Striving for absolute uniformity of teaching material kills the individual initiative of both teacher and pupil.

After “reforming” public education, the Ministry of Human Resources began work on a new law governing higher education. This project, however, was recently put on ice since the proposed bill that had been hammered out by István Klinghammer, the newly appointed undersecretary of higher education, was torpedoed by László Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Parragh has peculiar ideas about the purpose of  higher education–ideas, however, that Viktor Orbán finds attractive. Parragh’s “veto” meant that the entire draft had to be pitched.

Then there was the new law on adult education, a task that fell to the officials of the Ministry of Economics. This is the law, in effect since September 1, that prompted an outcry in the community of teachers of foreign languages. There are large language schools for which, it seems, the law is tailored because they are the only ones who can fulfill all the requirements stipulated in the law. The Ministry refuses to divulge the names of organizations that were consulted in connection with drafting this bill, but eventually it became clear that there were only three: the association that represents large language schools, Parragh’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the National Chamber of Agriculture. There is an association that represents smaller language schools called Nyelvtudásért Egyesület (Association for the Knowledge of Foreign Languages) whose aim is to promote wider knowledge of foreign languages. No representatives of this association were invited to participate in the preparation of the bill. In addition, there are the thousands of private teachers who are either freelancers or who teach in high schools during the day and in the evening have a few pupils.

languages

According to the law, no distinction is made among these groups. All of them must put up 1 million forints as insurance that they don’t run away with the money of their pupils. All of them must follow the same curriculum, the same books, the same lecture structure. All of them, even private teachers, must have separate toilet facilities for the students. All such teaching facilities must provide daily data on the number of students entering their courses as well as school attendance and the number dropping out. The rules even dictate that the teacher must have a copy machine and a printer, two separate pieces of equipment. As one private teacher pointed out, since he has a multifunction printer he is not eligible. The same teacher complained that there is not one word in the law about teaching online, which constitutes a good portion of his teaching activity.

There is one exception to all of these rules: those teachers who concentrate on specific language competencies. For example, special vocabulary for doctors, for mechanical engineers, computer scientists or for that matter pastry chefs or bricklayers. Here I see the hand of Parragh who has no appreciation of anything that is not practical.

If this law remains in its present form, Hungarian foreign language teaching will receive another blow. Only very large language schools will remain, where apparently the classes are too large. According to some teachers, as many as sixteen pupils make up an average class. I know from personal experience that one learns nothing useful in such surroundings. It is possible that smaller language schools operating with only a handful of teachers will not be able to fulfill all the requirements because, as it is, they are struggling to keep their heads above water. They might have to throw in the towel, and their teachers will most likely go to work for the few large schools. As for the private teachers, they will either stop teaching or go “underground.”

The incompetence of the people who have joined the ministries since Fidesz won the election in 2010 is really staggering. First of all, I don’t know why the Ministry of Economics was entrusted with drafting a law that deals primarily with education. Yes, one could argue that the knowledge of foreign languages has something to do with business, but teaching is teaching. Moreover, not only adults turn to language schools or private teachers. Many high school students find that what their high schools offer is simply not enough to pass the language exams necessary to acquire a university degree.

These incompetent bureaucrats feel so powerful and knowledgeable that they don’t ask experts in the field to help but instead listen to lobbyists and leaders of business or agricultural trade associations who surely are unfamiliar with the topic of foreign language teaching. Moreover, I even doubt that they understand what the professions they represent actually need. Let’s hope that the outcry that this law spawned will result in some changes. If not, its consequences will be dire, the profession predicts.