The Orbán government’s vision of academe: A huge engineering school

Before I embark on the Orbán government’s latest strategy for Hungarian higher education, let me briefly introduce the past and present cast of characters tasked with overseeing universities. The first major change in Hungarian education under the Orbán regime was to nationalize all the public schools that hitherto had been the responsibility of local communities. This task fell to Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP), whose idea of a good school hearkened back to the second half of the nineteenth century: rote learning, discipline, uniformity. The government created a mammoth organization to administer these schools. It was the new employer of teachers nationwide, who thereby became state employees. Hoffmann was also responsible for higher education, but here she was even more obviously found wanting. Viktor Orbán, I think, would have been happy to relieve Hoffmann of all her duties, but it wasn’t that simple. She was one of the few Christian Democrats in the government. So a compromise was reached. Hoffmann remained undersecretary for pre-university education, and a new position was created for István Klinghammer, former president of ELTE, who took care of higher education.

Klinghammer was entrusted with a complete overhaul of the system, and within a year and a half he had apparently drafted a respectable proposal. The strategy was accepted by all those concerned, including all the college presidents. It sounded rather promising until László Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, vetoed the plan in November 2013.  And Parragh’s opinion is of great importance because he has Orbán’s ear when it comes to “practical education.” The government should invest money only in fields of study that will create something material that adds to economic growth. Apparently, the other “expert on education”–Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and a Calvinist minister–also disliked Klinghammer’s plan. I guess it was still too liberal and not practical enough. Klinghammer’s proposal was not even submitted to the cabinet. He was unceremoniously dropped.

In 2014 came the new Orbán government and with it a new undersecretary in charge of higher education, László Palkovics. I have the feeling that in Palkovics Orbán found his man. He is an engineer with a distinguished academic career who in 1995 left academe to hold important positions in Hungary and Germany at Knorr-Bremse, a manufacturer of braking systems. At the same time he is a loyal Fidesz man who is always ready to answer a call from Viktor Orbán. Since for Orbán only the practical aspects of higher education are important, a man who in his career often combined academe with business was a perfect person for the job.

Palkovics gave a long interview to Index from which it became evident that the man can think only in terms of his own field. All his examples came from engineering. Moreover, he vowed that “the state will not finance useless diplomas.”

If I understand Palkovics correctly, universities should be centers of research and development financed by private companies. Currently, private companies and universities apply together for certain state and EU funds, “but the question is how useful these projects are for the university or the economy. … Because this kind of cooperation is only beneficial if they produce actual products that can have market value.” At the moment the faculties don’t quite understand what their role will be in this new reality. He explained that they should produce not just a “study” but a “mechanical drawing.” Palkovics expects the universities to “fill the holes in their budgets” after there are no more EU projects.


Apparently the bulk of Palkovics’s 77-page proposal on the future of Hungarian higher education is about such schemes. So, it’s no wonder that the reporter asked what will happen to universities teaching the arts and social sciences. “They will not be able to develop marketable products.” Palkovics sees no problem here whatsoever. It seems that “this strategy can be applied to all fields,” but we get no answer about how this will be implemented in the real world. In Palkovics’s simple utilitarian view, teachers or social workers are useful only because of their indirect impact on economic growth. So, we can ask, are philosophy professors useful? Do they have any impact on economic growth? If not, perhaps philosophy departments can simply be phased out. Philosophers tend to be political troublemakers anyway, so their disappearance would only be a boon to the Orbán government.

On Palkovics’s watch entering college or university will be tougher than it is now. Perhaps the greatest hurdle will be the command of a foreign language on a fairly high level. Palkovics downplays this obstacle. In his opinion, “anyone who cannot pass an intermediate language exam after eight years of elementary school and four years of high school is just lazy.” But a few seconds later he indirectly admitted that he himself did not manage to learn a language in high school. As he said, he “learned three languages completely on [his] own as an adult without teacher or school.”

No free education, he said, should be provided for anyone who after graduation must be satisfied with a job that is beneath the level of his educational attainment. And he comes up with a telling joke: “What does an unemployed guy with a B.A. ask another fellow with a B.A.? –May I serve it with a bigger coke and a bigger potato?” Here he is targeting not allegedly unqualified students but fields of study. I take his statement to mean that no free education should be provided for anyone who wants to major in a field for which there are no readily available jobs. I assume he would argue that engineers can always be employed, art historians may end up flipping burgers. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is in, the arts and social sciences are by and large out.

While it seems that fewer Hungarian students will be admitted to university in the future, Palkovics is looking forward to an even bigger influx of foreign students which is, by the way, quite high right now: 7.5%. He wants to increase their number twofold “to fill the capacities” from which the Hungarian “inferior” students are barred.

I don’t know how you feel reading all this but I shudder. While according to a high school teacher in Pécs “the government wants to create talking robots” out of children between the ages of 14 and 18, Palkovics is designing a higher education system that will, I fear, produce what Hungarians call “professional barbarians” who have no background in the arts and social sciences and whose job will be to provide industry with mechanical drawings. And since Hungary doesn’t need an abundance of these barbarians, paying foreigner students will fill “the capacity.” A horrid world is opening up in front of our eyes. And yes, Palkovics is the perfect man to help further Viktor Orbán’s state where people produce things and think mighty few “unproductive” thoughts.


  1. In order to make Hungary a zombie state, the people have to agree and they must be willing and able to do it. So far only a few people complain, the majority votes for the Stadionbuilder viktor and worship him. People deserve what they get, if they don’t make any attempt to refuse to be dictated to and don’t fight for their right, their private property and their future and children’s future. It seems the majority already just happy zombies, watching EchoTV and Szaniszló Ferenc. He teaches them weekly, how the World works against the best country on the Earth, Hungary, which has the best geographical location and coveted by all the Israelis, who wants to live there and already built tens of thousands of apartments and waiting for the right moment to move in. Many Hungarians are now on this mental level.
    Those who are intelligent, should wake up, remove the Fidesz/KDNP/Jobbik/MSZP/LMP politicians from office, jail the guilty, before it is too late. The future of millions are at stake.

  2. Hungary has a wonderful tradition in the liberal arts, even during the Kadar times when I visited I was amazed at the quality of sociological studies, historical studies, and economic studies by people like Janos Kornai. In fact I returned in the late 1970s with numerous books which were incrediably cheap, one actually got me I a bit of trouble. It was a book in Hungarian about the Israel Arab conflicts. I was reading it at at Rock Island Arsenal during down time where I was then doing reserve duty and another officer asked what language the book I was reading was in and I told him.

    He didn’t really say anything, but the book just up and disappeared, which was weird. About a month later I was ordered to meet the CO and low and behold sitting there was an officer from MI military intelligence who was totally fluent in Hungarian and handed me the book back. He asked me a number of questions in both English and Hungarian about my visits to Hungary since my childhood. Then he wanted to talk about the book, he said it reflected the Russian line about Israel being a colonial settler state. Yes, what I read of it before it disappeared seemed to be going in that direction. Did I agree with that he asked? I told him that position seemed too simplistic, that it was more complex than just that. He asked if I thought the overall quality of Hungarian studies on international affairs was good, I said when they diverge from Stalinist orthodoxy they can be very good, when they tow the party line they are worthless.

    After about fourty five minutes the meeting ended and nothing was ever entered into my formal record about it nor was my security clearance changed. I guess I should have been totally upset by all of this but for whatever reason it just didn’t bother me in the least. But I never went back to Hungary again until after the fall of communism, in the back of my mind I guess I was indeed intimidated.

  3. Reblogged this on fanowon and commented:
    Nasihat supaya bersatu dan merendahkan diri seperti Kristus
    2:1 Jadi karena dalam Kristus ada nasihat, ada penghiburan kasih, ada persekutuan Roh, t ada kasih mesra dan belas kasihan, u 2:2 karena itu sempurnakanlah v sukacitaku dengan ini: hendaklah kamu sehati sepikir, w dalam satu kasih, satu jiwa, x satu tujuan, 2:3 dengan tidak mencari kepentingan sendiri atau puji-pujian yang sia-sia. y Sebaliknya hendaklah dengan rendah hati 1 yang seorang menganggap yang lain lebih utama dari pada dirinya sendiri; z 2:4 dan janganlah tiap-tiap orang hanya memperhatikan kepentingannya sendiri, tetapi kepentingan orang lain juga. a 2:5 Hendaklah kamu dalam hidupmu bersama 2 , menaruh pikiran dan perasaan yang terdapat juga dalam Kristus Yesus, b 2:6 yang walaupun dalam rupa Allah 3 , c tidak menganggap kesetaraan dengan Allah d itu sebagai milik yang harus dipertahankan, 2:7 melainkan telah mengosongkan e diri-Nya sendiri 4 , dan mengambil rupa seorang hamba, f dan menjadi sama dengan manusia 5 . g 2:8 Dan dalam keadaan sebagai manusia, Ia telah merendahkan diri-Nya dan taat sampai mati, h bahkan sampai mati di kayu salib. i 2:9 Itulah sebabnya Allah sangat meninggikan Dia j dan mengaruniakan kepada-Nya nama di atas segala nama, k 2:10 supaya dalam nama Yesus bertekuk lutut l segala yang ada di langit dan yang ada di atas bumi dan yang ada di bawah bumi, m 2:11 dan segala lidah mengaku: “Yesus Kristus adalah Tuhan, n ” bagi kemuliaan Allah, Bapa!

  4. szakbarbárs or “professional barbarians” are kinda equivalent to technocrats. Like Chinese or Russian technocrats who decide on the map to change the flow of the river Yenisei or build a pharaonic dam, and then it turns out 2 million people needs to be moved. Well, that’ll be a task of a different government department, they will deal with it.

    The Hungarian atomic and water dam lobby at the Technical University which are both purchased by the Russians (and the Hungarian construction industries),and they have zero regard for the environment or for other non-measurable or non-reducible-to-numbers type of things.

    They are loyal servants of politics. Their job is to execute, not to think.

  5. Maybe I’ve written about this before:

    One of my brothers in law was the director of a “Technical Gymnasium” in Bavaria and he himself started as a lowly worker in the textile industry, then moved on to become an engineer and later an IT teacher.

    We often talk about the “permeability” of the German school system – it could be better of course but it’s already a success when young people after working somewhere have the chance to go to this gymnasium and later to university – this is often called “Der zweite Bildungsweg”.

    Of course it’s a bit different (and sometimes difficult) when you have pupils in this Gymnasium who are in their twenties when they get their “Abitur” and start studying at 25 – an age where others have already finished their studies …
    So to cut so many people of their chance to get a “higher education” by reducing the number of pupils at the gymnasium imho would be a sin or rather a sign of extreme stupidity! Modern society needs all qualified people – not just the kids of the rich!

    But of course if Orbán wants Hungary to return to a “work based society” (work = agriculture, raising pigs) then that is the way to go!

  6. To put this policy in context, I must say that the proposals sound depressingly familiar to me as a UK citizen. There too there’s a political struggle going on about education, with a similar pigheaded insistence from the Government on central control and “back to basics” curricula in schools.

    Every incoming Education Secretary, it seems, has to turn everything in the education system upside-down, because (it’s contended) the previous governments made such a mess of it; this mess is the sole cause of the country’s present problems; but this time – with someone sensible in charge at last – everything’s going to finally be put right. I’ve been put off ever going near the teaching profession (which is otherwise attractive to me) because of the prospect of being subject to these constantly-changing diktats.

    So while these Hungarian proposals get it spectacularly wrong, they get it wrong in a way that’s depressingly widespread. The essence of the mistake is a rather naive and uncritical reverence for “market” or “business” methodologies, leading to the mistaken idea that these can be applied unchanged to the “education production management” business.

    A company like say Mitsubishi or Nissan can develop “just-in-time” production systems, which are impressive achievements, allowing production of just the things that are needed to be produced and delivered to exactly where they are needed, with no waste. But these effective systems work within a very limited, well-understood field; even if anyone could fully comprehend and predict the demand for labour, in Hungary’s neighbourhood or even just inside the country itself (which I doubt), “tuning” the education system to meet this demand is a laughable idea: for one thing, the lead time for the production of “educated units” is far too long to allow supply to be matched to a guaranteed demand!

    As for the criterion that universities should produce “marketable products”: I don’t know where to start with this one… Even in the virtuous world of business (which, as we all know, is the measure of all things) companies spend millions on projects which, valued in terms of presently-realisable market value, are worth zero. Some of these turn out to have enormous value – but I imagine that even Knorr Bremse’s most successful products can trace their origin to development projects that ended up – if you choose to close the books on them at a certain point in the past – producing nothing saleable.

    As usual, the arguments against education in the humanities selectively use “market” language as a fig-leaf for a general prejudice against the humanities – when it would be equally possible to use “market” language (value of long-term investment in human capital in promoting economic confidence, economic stimulus arising from funding teachers and students, long-term benefits from creativity and ideas) to argue the opposite case.

    Really the argument has nothing to do with applying “market” or “business” disciplines to shake up the supposedly lazy, undisciplined arts and humanities sector: because the pessimistic terms in which these disciplines are applied are terms no market-oriented company with any sense, or any confidence in its products, would apply to its own investment plans. Boiled down to its essence, the argument is simply that someone has no confidence in the value of education.

    Of course setting up the Hungarian education system to produce nothing but historians, sociologists, philosophers and students of literature would be as foolish as setting it up to produce nothing but tradespeople and engineers: but the public debate about education hardly ever reaches the point of wondering how to sensibly strike a balance (which would entail realising how unlikely either of these two extremes are), because of the prevalence of these vacuous “market good, airy-fairy academe bad” narratives.

    It’s curious that this report comes from someone with achievements both in academia and the “real world” – does Palkovics imagine that the former contributed nothing to the latter?

    By the way, the classic form of the “BA” joke is:

    – What d’you say to a philosophy graduate?
    – Big Mac and fries please.

    (You can substitute the “arts” subject to your taste: as a philosophy graduate who’s never worked in McDonalds, I like this version).

  7. I would like to warn everybody not to open the links:

    November 8, 2014 at 9:24 pm
    Reblogged this on kelvinengles and commented:

    November 8, 2014 at 10:32 pm

    Virus danger?

  8. I have studied engineering in Budapest on the Muszaki Egyetem.
    In my humble opinion, it was a terrible education.
    It saved me that I had time in Germany, to gain broad experience in a nice Schwabian factory with the help of the R&D staff.

  9. About the ‘B.A. joke’: well, unless the B.A. in Philosophy happens to be former HP CEO Carly Fiorina or Paypal founder Peter Thiel, I suppose? The former also graduated in Medieval History. The CEO of AMEX has a B.A. in Modern History, the CEO of Dentsu (one of the world’s biggest advertising groups) majored in Foreign Studies, and so on …

    Though the debate has been going on for centuries, what amazes me today is how the ‘marketability’ of what is learned in Liberal Arts Studies can be dismissed so expediently. For instance, have these people ever heard about creative industries? Also, do they sincerely think that in an increasingly digital world engineers, thinkers and artists don’t foster innovation together, and that you can cut the two latter branches and hope the former will bloom on its own?

  10. Not all STEM disciplines would do well under this policy – studies and research in ecology, evolutionary, and conservation biology would also suffer.

    Somewhat related to Eva’s post – Proposals to open Hungarian national parks, and other protected lands, to increased exploitation, including access for hunting. Like in the new education policy, this new natural resource policy would put utilitarian values above all others.

    Kilövési engedély a nemzeti parkokra

    A general loosening of conservation protections is in the works. This is something Hungary did fairly well and was considered a leader in previous eat-bloc nations.

    Currently government protected lands (including National Parks) have areas on which commercial activities are allowed (fish farms, livestock grazing, etc). These activities are at least theorectically managed in a way that either minimizes impacts on biodiversity or in many cases enhances it (fish ponds as bird habitat, livestock grazing mimics grazing by now extirpated or extinct wild grazers of the puszta). The new regulations could open more acreage to weakly regulated exploitation and provide more opportunities for political patronage, and weaken protections on already exploited areas.

    Also a new policy for easier permitting to develop NATURA 2000 Network lands. Another blow to inter-EU cooperation.

    Some of you may remember in 2012 when a proposal was put forward to allow hunting of endangered wild bird species. Some of the same groups that forwarded that rejected proposal, are spearheading the current effort to weaken conservation legislation.

    Eva, perhaps you could consider inviting guest writers to submit a few pieces on the environmental and conservation policies/proposals of the OV government.

  11. I hope we can expand our group of critics of the Orban government. One way to do this is to draw parallels between Orban and the Soviets. Orban is trying to create a worker’s paradise. His plans sounds great if he wants to build Sputnik, but it’s totally out of date. China right now is trying to build its “Creative Class,” so Orban is not emulating China.

    Putin is literally (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) creating new Soviet states. Look at the new Donetsk People’s Republic, which is its official name.

  12. @Marcel. Some years back Yale College decided to do a survey on the connection between academic success and SAT scores. Specifically, they wanted to know whetherbalanced scores in math and in English result in better academic performance or not. The answer was a resounding yes. Students with very high scores in math and relatively poor scores in English did not even do well in math and science courses.

  13. People surmise that Orban traveled back from Switzerland by train (took him 15 hours and had to change trains) because he didn’t want his luggage x-rayed.

  14. Realitycheck: Not all STEM disciplines would do well under this policy – studies and research in ecology, evolutionary, and conservation biology would also suffer.

    Computer science without strong Linguistics studies, Astrophysics without Philosophy, Medicine without Psychology or Sociology, Law without Philosophy or History, and what would become of Business Schools? Not to mention Epistemology …

    Gardonista: His plans sounds great if he wants to build Sputnik, but it’s totally out of date.

    Depends. If the capsule has room enough for the whole government, and can remain in orbit for a hundred years…

    Gardonista: China right now is trying to build its “Creative Class,” so Orban is not emulating China.

    When the director of the Műcsarnok qualified contemporary art – that is, most of the works in visual arts that have been exhibited, sold and criticized during the last 70 years – as a ‘Western bubble’, I thought he hadn’t travelled to China or India for years.

  15. Jobbik won very strongly against Fidesz in Ózd. 10299 v 5076 votes. Moscow must be very happy.

    My suspicion is that Fidesz will fundamentally alter the election system once its dominant position on the right wing (the entire election system was created to favour the dominant party of the right wing) will be in danger and it obviously is n danger (Jobbik established itself and is getting very strong in West Hungary too).

    This is the beginning of the end for Orban. There’s not way he can lift living standards and create jobs without bankrupting the country, and the corruption will continue.

    I think Orban will have to establish eventually a proportional system which – although allows the urban leftists to escape their compartmentalization and thus will be supported by leftist parties – makes the amendment of the Basic Law almost impossible (because it will be impossible to reach 2/3s and without it government is impossible or non-Orbanists), but a majority for Jobbik also less likely.

    Or Orban could ban Jobbik, but he will never do that.

  16. Here’s an interview with Orbán and Bavaria’s prime minister Seehofer (who is in the right wing of the ruling party):

    Orbán says:

    “Für uns bedeutet die EU dasselbe wie Demokratie.”
    EU is equal to democracy …
    Wow! But then he goes on …



    You should consider that “Die Welt” is a very conservative newspaper – I consider it too much right-wing for my taste, cant’t read it without fear of throwing up …

  17. Szeles was inspired by the news that the new acting chairman of the Budapest Jewish Community, ex-Catholic, ex-Protestant, ex-transvestite Schwezoff turned to the Fidesz authorities to investigate the finances of the largest Jewish organization MaZsiHiSz.
    MaZsiHiSz opposes Orban’s Jewish policies.

  18. tappanc, unfortunately this is no joke.

    The leader of the Budapest Jewish Community publicly brought charges of embezzlement. Because the Budapest community is about 90% in Hungary, the Budapest leader is the number 1. leader of the religious Jewish community. Because of this the charge of embezzlement by this Jewish leader is extremely serious.

    It concerns the Dohany street Synagogue. According to the charges, someone embezzled about 1$ million from the entry fees of the Dohany street building.

    The money that the Jewish community received, on average is about 1230 HUF per person while a ticket for an adult is 2500 HUF. And even a children’s ticket is way more than 1230 HUF.

    From the numbers, and the charges laid by the Budapest leader, it is clear that there was very serious corruption in the Jewish community in Budapest.

  19. Schwezoff charges that the revenue from the entrance fees should be 400 to 500 million, not the actual 300 million forints.

    Kunos states that the entrance fees bring in 500 million forints this year.

    Who is right?

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