The Hungarian “foreign language examination factory”
For those of you who don’t follow the comments to my blog posts there is a huge debate among readers of Hungarian Spectrum over who is responsible for the video of a fake meeting of six Roma in Baja. Most of us couldn’t make head or tail of the story of R. (Róbert) G. Since then more information has become available, and there is a good possibility that no political party was involved. Instead, it might have been a private initiative to get some quick cash, although R. G. seems to be a well-off man who owns several houses in Baja as well as in Budapest and the house where the meeting was staged looks substantial and well maintained. The bizarre nature of R.G.’s story didn’t prevent Fidesz politicians from accusing the opposition of hiring the culprits to discredit the government party. MSZP denies any involvement and threatens to go to the police if Fidesz’s accusations continue. DK demands a thorough investigation of the case.
We can be duly horrified at this particular case, but the truth is that corruption is endemic on all levels in Hungary. Quite independently from the fake tape there is proof that Fidesz politicians in Baja bribed the local Gypsies for their votes and that is a crime. Of course, creating a fake video for money is also a crime. But what can we expect in a country where corruption can be found at the highest levels of the administration, starting with the prime minister? It has long been suspected that he amassed his considerable (and under-reported) wealth in not exactly the most honorable way. And it’s better not even to mention the cesspool of party finances.
So let’s turn to corruption in another sphere: phony language proficiency results. Who is involved here? Language teachers, university professors, politicians, high government officials, high-ranking police officers, and people who work for the official language testing center, commonly called Rigó utca after its location in Budapest. We are talking about scores of people at the testing center as well as at the Gáspár Károli Hungarian Reformed University and the Budapest Engineering School. Because, after all, it was not only the proctors who had to be paid but also those who gave out the test questions ahead of time as well as those who came up with the right answers and passed them on to the test takers. The customers were in the hundreds or perhaps in the thousands. It’s no wonder that the Hungarian media talk about a “language-exam factory.”
Blikk, a tabloid popular with the less educated and politically less curious public, broke the original story back in July. Some of the facts later turned out to be not quite accurate. For example, the newspaper called Corvinus University the center of the “exam factory.” Blikk was also wrong when it claimed that the “factory” began its operation only in 2010. Apparently it has been in existence since the 1990s.
Interestingly enough, Blikk‘s revelation didn’t make a splash in the larger Hungarian media, but Blikk didn’t give up. It pursued the scandal. A few days after the original article the paper revealed that about 80% of the people who took advantage of the opportunity offered by the “exam factory” were university students who needed to pass the language exam in order to receive their diplomas. The rest, older politicians and other public employees, didn’t mix with the students; their exams were organized separately. Apparently there were some unexpected encounters when government and opposition politicians ended up taking the exams together, presumably in happy harmony!
Soon enough we also learned that an intermediate language exam cost 300,000 but an advanced one could be purchased for only 500-550.
On October 4 the prosecutors charged 18 people with involvement in the falsification of foreign language examination results. Although by now we know that members of parliament were involved, they will not be charged with fraud because in their case the three-year statute of limitations has expired. However, the prosecutor’s office of Pest County which is handling the case confirmed that at least one Budapest mayor is a suspect. The number of people who will most likely be charged is not 18 as was originally announced but well over 600 if we include those who took advantage of the “exam factory.” As far as numbers are concerned, this will be the largest criminal case in the history of Hungarian jurisprudence.
The chief organizer was András P., owner of a private language school in Győr, whose private fortune as a result of the scam is considerable. Origo estimated close to a milliard forints. Under András P. there were several layers of intermediaries who also got a piece of the pie. Each language teacher received about 10,000 forints per student, which doesn’t sound like big money until you realize that we know of only four language teachers if Blikk‘s information is correct and the number of participants in the scheme was well over 1,000. I guess eventually we will know more because there are detailed lists of all the “customers” stored on the chief organizer’s computer.
As long as corruption is as widespread, even in fields that are connected to intellectual achievement, we cannot hope for improvement in Hungarian universities, public administration, and, yes, in politics. A country in which 30-35% of university students admit that they cheat on their exams and 40% of university graduates are unable to pass a fairly simple language test is destined to be second- or third-rate in a highly competitive world.
Fidesz and MSZP are silent. Or, to be more precise, when asked they said that they have no intention of starting an investigation of the matter within their own parliamentary caucuses. Members of the small LMP delegation triumphantly announced that their language tests are valid. They were either taken in the 1980s or at none of the places where the phony tests were administered. DK also announced that none of their people are involved in the scheme.
When I write about a topic in which members of parliament play some role I usually check the website of the parliament which, among other things, details the members’ language proficiency. I never had much trust in those results from Rigó utca, but after this case I will have even less so.