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.

Apparently, it was enough to know what "yes"means in English

Apparently, it was enough to know what “yes”means in English

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.

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24 comments

  1. Rigo exams were pretty difficult to pass in the pre-1990 era. I remember my question:

    “how would you undo your shoelace? – elaborate on this topic.”

    Well, I was not able to dwell on this important issue long enough, so I received only the intermediate level certificate.

  2. “We can be duly horrified at this particular case, but the truth is that corruption is endemic on all levels in Hungary.”

    I think this statement is true for most countries in that region. But Hungarians in general and especially government officials maintained the theory that Hungary, belonging to the West, as opposed to all of the “Balkan” states is an exception.

    It looks like it is not.

  3. gdfxx :

    “We can be duly horrified at this particular case, but the truth is that corruption is endemic on all levels in Hungary.”

    I think this statement is true for most countries in that region. But Hungarians in general and especially government officials maintained the theory that Hungary, belonging to the West, as opposed to all of the “Balkan” states is an exception.

    It looks like it is not.

    I often joke about this.One travels on the highway toward Serbia. There comes the border: “Watch out we are in the Balkans!”

  4. @gdfxx

    Hungarian corruption used to be of the non-cash type in the pre-war or Kadar regimes.
    You help me – I help you. Cash-type corruption was looked down as a Romanian or Balkanian custom.

    Things have changed a great deal since 1990.

  5. tappanch :
    @gdfxx
    Hungarian corruption used to be of the non-cash type in the pre-war or Kadar regimes.
    You help me – I help you. Cash-type corruption was looked down as a Romanian or Balkanian custom.
    Things have changed a great deal since 1990.

    I remember the “kiskapu” phenomenon (literally it means “little gate”) in the Kadar era. It was a reference to the large gates on most official buildings, that had a small gate built into them. The large gate was for trucks or cars, the small gate was used to let people in without having to open the large gate. But after a while the term gained a whole new meaning: if one wanted to achieve something that was outside his reach (blocked by a big gate), there always was a way to open a little gate and obtain the unobtainable.

  6. OT, but connected to the elections.

    In the Vajdaság (Vojvodina) region in Serbia there are 700 activists of the local Hungarian party (VMSZ) which is a Fidesz-loyal organization (practically a branch), who canvass ethnic Hungarians for Hungarian citizenship and eventually for voting (for the more naive: that is voting for Fidesz).

    It is an enormous number if you compare it to the number of ethnic Hungarians (between 200 and 350 thousand). But Serbia is poor and Vajdaság is rather small compared to Transylvania and Fidesz pays them well (actually through Hungarian taxpayers’ funds). Anyway, this is just a tidbit how a well-oiled party campaign operates. It works.

    I wonder how many MSZP, Együtt and DK activists there are in Vajdaság or Transsylavania. Probably a combined zero.

    http://nol.hu/kulfold/a_vajdasagi_magyarok_tomegesen_regisztralnak_a_valasztasokra

  7. gdfxx: I gotta disagree, Kiskapu is not illegal,although using it implies sinister motives. I’m with tappanch on this.

  8. A language certificate seems to be a complete waste of time anyway. It takes a few moments in a job interview to discover someone’s ability at English.

    For the same reason, making possession of a language certificate a condition of a university degree is also pointless and has no paedogical benefit.

    The sad thing about this story is not so much the corruption but the underlying notion in that a language certificate could have any importance whatsoever.

  9. “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.”

    That’s true. But it’s also the viewpoint of people with a non-provincial view of Europe and the rest of the world…it’s the viewpoint of people who are involved in transnational discourse, in critically assessing their own tradition, in tasting the richness of the fruits that other traditions have to offer.

    It’s decidedly not the viewpoint of most people who sit for a language exam in Hungary. (Not all, but most.)

    For them, the language exam has little to do with being able to get involved in any transnational discourse– it is instead a mark of prestige, because once you have your language exam (B2 level), you can boast in your village about how you speak “perfect” English/German/whatever.

    (And, even more importantly for the reputation of your family, your parents and grandparents can boast about you, too.)

    And if you can get the C1 exam, then you are considered a genius, and a virtual native-speaker of the language.

    (Which just adds to the prestige of yourself and your family…and your neighbors in the village, with whom you’ve been at odds since 1972, will hate you all the more because your daughter has her C1 and their daughter has failed her C1 twice already…and what else do people do in villages, other than give their neighbors reasons to hate or envy them?)

    The villagers are not interested in whether transnationally-minded people think that Hungary is second-rate or third-rate…because THEY know that Hungary is first-rate, it is the people of Szent István, under the perpetual protection of the Holy Crown, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

    The villagers are, however, interested in rubbing each other’s noses in their own minor accomplishments, as well as those of their offspring and their offspring’s offspring.

    And getting that silly piece of paper from Rigó utca or any other examination “authority” will give them plenty of ammunition for boasting for years to come.

  10. This is a never ending story …

    A bit OT re Balkan:

    In Germany we have a saying that the Balkan begins in Munich …
    The town has an old history of being friendly to all kinds of people, it was the first where I encountered (40 years ago) Yugoslav and Greek restaurants – and even a Hungarian restaurant!

    Re language and the quality of language teaching in Hungary:

    I’ve probably told that story before:

    My wife’s younger son was told by his language teacher in the Gymnazium that he should ignore the difference between he/she/it and er/sie/es – it was too complicated for the poor Hungarian school children (and probably for that teacher too …)

  11. James Atkins :
    A language certificate seems to be a complete waste of time anyway. It takes a few moments in a job interview to discover someone’s ability at English.
    For the same reason, making possession of a language certificate a condition of a university degree is also pointless and has no paedogical benefit.
    The sad thing about this story is not so much the corruption but the underlying notion in that a language certificate could have any importance whatsoever.

    Agreed, but there should be two more pressing reasons to get a language certificate:

    1) as a filter for applying for a job or course (i.e. if you don’t have this level of competence, you won’t be considered for an interview stage)
    2) to let the individual know where his/her language ability lies (i.e. am I an intermediate or an advanced user of this language?)

    Related to the second point above, I am not Hungarian, and as my teachers always said to me: “If you cheat, then the only person you’re cheating is yourself!”

  12. @mbloftus “But it’s also the viewpoint of people with a non-provincial view of Europe and the rest of the world…”

    Well, yes. The Rigo Utca exam isn’t an international language exam. I don’t think it’s acknowledged outside Hungary is it? i.e. if you want to get a job in Brussels or go to study in London, they’ll look at your Rigo certificate and ask you “What’s this???”

    I think the Rigo exam also has a translation component, doesn’t it? i.e. Hungarian-English (or vice versa) which is also not exactly an international standard of testing.

  13. One thing I find really funny (or sad …)

    In every magazine stand in Budapest, you can usually find a magazine called ‘5 perc Angol’ (Five-minute English). It’s a magazine which seems to be about learning English. But as far as I can make out, it contains very little English, apart from maybe the name of whatever film star (usually someone like George Clooney, or Cameron Diaz) is gracing the front cover in that edition.

    It’s even got a website: http://www.5percangol.hu/

    I highly recommend it if you want to learn Hungarian, and don’t want to be bothered by too much English!

  14. wolfi :

    My wife’s younger son was told by his language teacher in the Gymnazium that he should ignore the difference between he/she/it and er/sie/es – it was too complicated for the poor Hungarian school children (and probably for that teacher too …)

    It’s a good thing he didn’t say to ignore der, die, das. Can you imagine the complications?

  15. Eva S. Balogh :
    It’s a good thing he didn’t say to ignore der, die, das. Can you imagine the complications?

    Of course she did that too! I have to acknowledge though that this is really complicated and often illogical too – some Germans don’t even get it right all the time.

    Anyway we often laugh about this when he talks about his mother and says “sein” or “his” instead of ihr/her … – but it’s becoming better …

    A bit OT:

    40 years ago I got the chance to accompany some bank managers on a business trip to the USA, visiting IBM, the World Bank and other financial institutions – just because I was their only computer expert with really good conversational English besides their systems programmer (who was married to an American girl) and he told them he didn’t want to do all the work …

    So I’ve told everybody in Germany who asked me: Knowing about computers is not enough – you have to be really fluent in English too!

  16. mbloftus :
    “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.”
    That’s true. But it’s also the viewpoint of people with a non-provincial view of Europe and the rest of the world…it’s the viewpoint of people who are involved in transnational discourse, in critically assessing their own tradition, in tasting the richness of the fruits that other traditions have to offer.
    It’s decidedly not the viewpoint of most people who sit for a language exam in Hungary. (Not all, but most.)
    For them, the language exam has little to do with being able to get involved in any transnational discourse– it is instead a mark of prestige, because once you have your language exam (B2 level), you can boast in your village about how you speak “perfect” English/German/whatever.
    (And, even more importantly for the reputation of your family, your parents and grandparents can boast about you, too.)
    And if you can get the C1 exam, then you are considered a genius, and a virtual native-speaker of the language.
    (Which just adds to the prestige of yourself and your family…and your neighbors in the village, with whom you’ve been at odds since 1972, will hate you all the more because your daughter has her C1 and their daughter has failed her C1 twice already…and what else do people do in villages, other than give their neighbors reasons to hate or envy them?)
    The villagers are not interested in whether transnationally-minded people think that Hungary is second-rate or third-rate…because THEY know that Hungary is first-rate, it is the people of Szent István, under the perpetual protection of the Holy Crown, etc., etc., ad infinitum.
    The villagers are, however, interested in rubbing each other’s noses in their own minor accomplishments, as well as those of their offspring and their offspring’s offspring.
    And getting that silly piece of paper from Rigó utca or any other examination “authority” will give them plenty of ammunition for boasting for years to come.

    I don’t believe that young people really exist in Hungarian villages. Their number is around 2-3% of the total population under 18 years…

  17. I hate to repeat myself. On the European continent, an Abitur, Matura, Baccalaureate is a school leaving exam that entitles the holder to enroll at a university. If students need another language certificate (Latinum, Graecum, Hebraicum), they have to pass the required exams within the first two semesters to be officially enrolled.

    Nobody should be admitted to any university without the required languages.

    To require languages skills at diploma time is absolutely gaga, especially in Hungary. It means that many students do their studies without reading a single non-Hungarian book until their diploma exams. And then they have to prove that they know a foreign language. This is bonkers.

    The corruption in getting such useless language diplomas is a result of this silly system.

  18. I disagree with James Atkin’s remark that possession of a language certificate to access university has no padegogical benefit. If you enter university to study the sciences, you need to know English. The international language of scientific literature is English and will continue to be so for the forseeable future. And I imagine this is true for most subjects. In your first few years as an undergraduate, you perhaps can get away with no English But there soon comes a moment when students will need to read original papers and like it or not, that requires good English. Strictly speaking, you don’t need a certificate if you have learned your English through other channels. But a university should most definitely be requiring language competence and requiring a recognised examination pass seems the most efficient way for a university to ensure its students are going to be able to cope.

  19. “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.”

    Speaks volumes.

    The regime is (as I have mentioned before) presently trying to close down by threat all but 5 or 6 of their favoured language schools in the country. This “leak” of what most surely have been widely known information is not coincidental and you can expect more, I think, particularly against International House.

    IH is a well-known and highly respected language school internationally. It works on a franchise system and that franchise is owned (in every sense of the word) in Hungary by an Orban acolyte who is also, just as it so happens, presently the Hungarian ambassador in Canberra.

    As has been mentioned before on here, IHS employs *non-NAV conforming*, or let’s just say *creative accounting* when paying its teachers, again a widely-known fact in the *market*. IHS also has most of the lucrative big contracts in Hungary ranging from the ministeries to the recent decidedly “whiffy” EU-subsidised 3 month crash-course lessons.

    A kind of Mexican stand-off has existed previously, IHS’s competitors have not complained too loudly about its *successes*, whilst the regime and NAV have not put too much pressure on its competitors (their own employment practices would be less than squeaky clean).

    With the regime’s latest intimidation, all bets seem now to be off. That, I strongly suspect, is why we have seen the recent embarrassing leak. There will be more to follow, I am sure

  20. Bowen: “I am not Hungarian, and as my teachers always said to me: “If you cheat, then the only person you’re cheating is yourself!””

    That such observation is difficult to “sell” in Hungary is quite a mystery. From some earlier debate here on the blog I remember that there is generally very little trust among people into the honest motives and behaviour of the other people but why does this lead one to just not care about one’s own honesty…?

    The story of Robert G. is quite interesting. In a rather twisted way he proved that Hungary is not yet “lost” for democracy and a more civilised public space. Apparently there are still not too few people who find it scandalous that elections are rigged, so that it makes sense to try to sell some “proof” of it for money. The bigger scandal is the bribery and the abuse of the Roma community, the business venture of Robert G. appears to be a minor issue for me.

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