Corruption at the University of Szeged

It was about a year and a half ago that Hungarian Transparency International released a study on the “Lack of Transparency in Hungary’s Higher Education” which, despite its title, was mostly about corruption in Hungarian higher education and in the student unions, Hallgatói Önkormányzatok (HÖK). Transparency International interviewed 500 students and conducted a number of in-depth interviews with teachers and administrative professionals. The result? According to the students, corruption is highest in political life but is also present in higher education. Thirty-two percent of students believed that the faculty was not at all or was only partially honest.

When this study was published I wrote a post entitled “Corrupt student leaders, corrupt politicians” in which I drew a parallel between corruption in politics and corruption in the student unions. In that piece I did not go into the details of how these student leaders operate, what kinds of illegal activities they pursue, and in what way they are assisted by corrupt university officials. Today, inspired by several recent newspaper articles on the “untouchable student leader” Márk Török of the University of Szeged, I would like to concentrate on these aspects of Hungarian university life, using the University of Szeged as a prototype.

The student union (HÖK) at the University of Szeged is notorious. Szeged is a large university, with an enrollment of 30,000. The yearly budget of the student union is 3.5 billion forints, an enormous sum for undergraduates to dispose of. However, seasoned HÖK leaders are no ordinary undergraduates. They have held their leadership positions for years. Since student leaders must actually be students, they are perpetual undergraduates. Often it takes them years to get a degree and, when they receive it, they immediately enroll in another department or school. So, for example, Márk Török began his university career as a history major. Once he got a degree in history he enrolled as an undergraduate in the School of Pedagogy and then moved over to the Law School. By now Török is 30 years old and has been enrolled as a student at the University of Szeged for the last twelve years. Between 2004 and 2008 he was the student union president of the Faculty of Arts; after that, he became president of the student union of the whole university. There was only one break in his presidential career when in 2008, as a result of disciplinary action against him, he could not attend college for two semesters. But apparently even then he was running the show from behind the scenes.

The powerful student leader, Márk Török

The powerful student leader Márk Török

The 3.5 billion forints allocated to the student union are spent without any oversight. It is the “president” of the student union who, with associates of his own choosing, decides how much money will be spent on what. In early 2011 first- and second-year students in Szeged signed a petition to demand more transparency but got nowhere.

People who know the inner workings of the university are convinced that the university administration has been cowed by the student union leaders, who can blackmail them in the university senate where promotions or/and appointments are being decided. If a professor gives them trouble, with their votes and some clever finagling they can ruin the person’s university career. It is impossible that the university administration doesn’t know of the alleged Ponzi-scheme that urged students to enroll in an association to receive a monthly stipend from HÖK of which ten percent would be paid as a membership fee in the association. The students were told to recruit five others. Upon closer investigation, it was determined that this was Török’s business venture. They also must know that HÖK, through a business venture, runs two pubs in Szeged.

Inside of the university Török can do practically anything he wants. For example, he made renovations in the building of the Faculty of Arts without university approval or obtaining a building permit. He is powerful enough to make administrative changes that are to his advantage. The deputy president in charge of the student unions who was responsible for Török’s expulsion paid dearly for daring to challenge the almighty student leader. Eventually even his post was eliminated. By now, without Török’s permission no student can expelled for either academic or disciplinary reasons.

In 2013 Török was again reelected president of the university’s student union. He was the only candidate and his platform was not publicly available. Átlátszó Oktatás (Transparent Education) is suing the university.

Abcug.hu published a surprisingly positive portrait of Márk Török. The reporter, Illés Szurovecz, went to his old high school in Veszprém where his former teachers spoke highly of him, describing him as mature beyond his years. He was always a leader with a flair for the theatrical. He was fiercely independent: “he had his own plans. What he decided on he carried through” even if it meant serious conflicts. He was his own man and did not need “allies.” He did not care what other people thought of him.

Within the university Török is unpopular, yet there is no one who can take his place. In any case, normally he is the only applicant for the post. The reason for his lonely position is his centralizing efforts in the last few years. Only his closest friends can have meaningful positions within the organization. Even his critics think that, after his departure from HÖK, Török will be in “some leading position.”

All this reminds me of Viktor Orbán. Purposeful, power-hungry, self-confident, stubborn, someone who keeps tab on everything, who has no allies, only subordinates. Unlike Viktor Orbán, however, Török seems to have business acumen. He is like an Orbán and Simicska combined into a single corrupt political manipulator. He has a promising career in the Hungarian mafia state.

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31 comments

  1. There is something significant that Transparency International missed: HÖK/HÖOK leaders are also party members or party affiliates. In most universities, they are affiliated with Fidesz.
    Since only HÖK members can nominate people to join the organization, HÖK members able to vet out all those who don’t “fit”, and maintain a certain “purity” in party affiliation in the organization.
    ELTE, in Budapest, is an exception. There HÖK members are affiliated with Jobbik. Since the rape of a student at an ELTE freshers’ camp last year, after which some HÖK members at ELTE were ejected from their positions, the government has decided to reform HÖK nationwide. As a result, all expect that ELTE will get a new, Fidesz-oriented HÖK leadership.
    HÖK is financed through funds deducted, compulsorily, from student fees at universities. Unlike membership in most unions (HÖK is supposed to be one), students cannot choose to join HÖK. They automatically become members.
    The salaries earned by HÖK leaders are very nice. Top HÖK leaders – who have not got a BA degree – earn more than full professors in Hungarian universities.
    In virtually every university one can find HÖK leaders in their thirties or even forties – some of whom maintain their position by repeatedly failing exams.
    That people from such a corrupt organization have votes on university senates is revolting, but given the fact that they are Fidesz supporters/members, I fear this will not be changed.

  2. @Webber: I hear HÖK in addition to being a great environment for testing ambitious and politically absolutely reliable fidesz and jobbik politicians, is also at the very same time a concerted effort to recruit such people into certain state administrative positions. The HÖK guys are untouchable and professors actively fear them, and this is how Fidesz wants this system to work. Since the professors have no wider political influence in society, are anyway mostly conservative and fidesz-leaning and are totally beholden to Fidesz’ political influence even at the lowest levels, they play along thereby maintaining the system.

  3. @Webber: Thank you for this info.

    Next to most important political positions Fidesz embedded itself it seems that student organizations are their great next bet. I know I keep doing this but I would like to remind everyone that Fidesz started out as reform youth political party, and they were very serious about not allowing anyone to become or stay member who were over 30 years of age. That changed fast, as they figured out that being a politician is a very great way to make a living, and they cancelled the age requirement. I find somehow this whole HOK circus resembling to that history. As always Fidesz finds the “solution” (failing courses, enrolling into other courses, etc.), and if that will not be enough they will come up with something, like if you were a HOK president elected twice, you can stay a president until you become the PM of Hungary or something like that. Orban, and Kover figured out how the part system works prior to Fidesz, and started to climb those stairs of the Communist Party in the eighties, like there is no tomorrow. When tomorrow came, the just come up wit there own party, and when their when party was not enough, they started to rewrite the rules.

  4. @Kisharang – This part of your summary is, I am glad to say, not true: “professors…, are anyway mostly conservative and fidesz-leaning and are totally beholden to Fidesz’ political influence even at the lowest levels”
    That is true only of the new university established by Fidesz (Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem) and, to a lesser extent, of the private Christian universities (Pázmány, for example). At the NKE/UNI staff have been fired for making critical comments about government policy.
    Fortunately, people of all political persuasions are still teaching and speaking freely at state universities. For instance, two of the most critical voices are at Debrecen University: Mihály Vajda and József Debreczeni. Also, think of Ágnes Heller or György Péter, who teach at ELTE. Both are leftists. Naturally all universities also have Fidesz supporters – and that is as it should be.
    There are fears, of course, that Fidesz may try to get critical thinkers fired from state universities. These fears became more intense after Fidesz replaced neutral or leftist rectors with Fidesz supporters. But even with the change of rectors, so far these fears have proved groundless. Serious Hungarian universities, even under Fidesz, continue to have critical thinkers on their teaching staffs, and continue to hire people of all persuasions.

  5. If reform of HÖK includes a lowering of HÖK leaders’ salaries to, at maximum, the level of a teaching assistant’s salary (tanársegéd), quite a lot might change. TAs in Hungary, who also must be PhD candidates, earn 161,800 forints per month, before tax. Current HÖK leaders, who earn roughly ten times that, would quit rather than take that wage. For genuine BA students, however, that wage would be attractive. If their salaries were set according to the university pay scale, HÖK leaders, also, would care about salaries in higher education, and would demand raises for everyone.
    I should note that salaries in higher education have not been raised in over a decade now. Indeed, the Gyucsány/Bajnai government(s) eliminated the (truly ridiculous) 13th-month salary, but did not compensate university staff with a pay raise. Orbán and crew also have not raised salaries, though wages have eroded even under their leadership.

  6. @Marcel Dé – They do not and cannot have challengers. Only ranking HÖK members can nominate candidates for HÖK, you see. So, if and when a position opens up, they hand-pick the candidates.

  7. It’s like nominations for positions within existing political parties, or even more like nominations for positions in the old Communist Party. There is no other organization than HÖK/HÖOK/EHÖK (etc.) at each university. No other student organization has official recognition, and only student organizations with official recognition get seats on the university senate.

  8. The civil war inside the Neolog Jewish community continues.

    Acting chairman of the Budapest community, Schwezoff (ex-Catholic, ex-Protestant, ex-transvestite), who is supported by Fidesz adviser Zoltai resists the convening of an assembly meeting that might dismiss him.

    He fired the rabbi of the main synagogue of Budapest in a preemptive strike yesterday.

    http://www.szombat.org/hirek-lapszemle/meghosszabbitjak-zoltai-tanacsadoi-szerzodeset

    http://www.mazsihisz.hu/2015/01/06/frolich-robert–sokk-hataskent-ert-a-tegnapi-nap,-de-nem-onkent-vallaltam-a-felmondast-7595.html
    http://www.bzsh.hu/schwezoff-david-tajekoztatasa-a-januari-kozgyulessel-kapcsolatban/

  9. Reading the posts of the last few days, one might wonder if there are any institutions in Hungary that are not rotten to the core. What about the family, the Catholic church,elementary and secondary schools, trade unions, the military, public administration offices, voluntary associations, neighborhood groups, public health facilities, hospitals, banks, small businesses, emergency services, street departments, garbage collection, police, etc. etc.?

  10. I’m reminded of John Belushi’s character in Animal House, “Bluto” Blutarsky, who had spent 7 years at Faber College with a 0.0 GPA.

  11. @Eva S. Balogh – I also don’t understand why student leaders are paid, but that doesn’t matter – they are, and that has been the Hungarian system for decades now. I don’t begrudge anybody their salary (it’s no skin off my back). However, I understand that one of the more prominent HÖOK leaders has a salary of around 2 m. forints/month, which far more than full professors earn (a full prof.’s max. possible salary is 463,500/month). This seems ridiculous.
    Given that the Hungarian “tradition” is to reimburse student leaders, I suggest regulating student leaders’ pay and setting within the university pay scale. Admittedly it is a bit unfair to set the pay of someone without a BA at the level earned by TAs – people working towards a PhD – but since that is the lowest level on the university pay scale, it is the best I could come up with. In any case, I’m fairly sure that PhD students, who know how far that salary will stretch, won’t want student leaders to earn less. At 161,800 forints per month, pre tax, that salary is just about enough to starve in decent clothing (that’s roughly $603/month, or $7,244/year before taxes and other deductions, which will take about half of that sum).

  12. @John van Til – I don’t know about the rest, but can assure you that school teachers and trash collectors are absolutely not corrupt by Hungarian standards.
    Unlike doctors (for instance) teachers don’t take “tips” in Hungary (they do in Romania and some other countries), though their pay is really awful. As to trash collectors, if you have something that won’t fit in the bin, they’ll remove it for you (excluding a dead body), if you slip them a sufficient tip (500 forints is more than sufficient). That is not corruption. That is just a much needed income supplement for work well done. I say it is work well done because all too many Hungarians avoid paying even that, and instead dump their bulky trash in the woods.
    Nurses, also, are perhaps not corrupt in that sense. They just do a better job if they are tipped (they would literally starve without tips).

  13. In 2014 there were three attacks against Malaysian aircraft. One of these were predicted 13 days in advance:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2890215/Mysterious-Chinese-blogger-sparks-online-frenzy-predicting-black-hand-going-bring-AirAsia-jet-THIRTEEN-days-one-vanished.html

    Isn’t that a bit too much coincidence? Three Malaysian aircraft destroyed in a single year. Including the one that was shot down over Ukraine and for which the USA accused the Donetsk Republic.

    How long before we learn the real truth behind the Malaysian aircrafts?

    The same way we learned the truth behind the Iraq war “big lie”. In the Iraq lie it took years for the truth to come out. We can only hope the truth will reveal itself sooner.

  14. @Webber

    You mean they’re not elected by the students? Oh my.

    Of course elections are not an absolute guarantee – it’s often a crappy bunch in France also – but at least it prevents the extreme monopolistic madness described here.

    Who’s the European Commissioner for Education? 🙂

  15. @Marcel Dé – you misunderstood me. They ARE elected by the students, in the same way that members of parliament in old communist countries were elected by citizens. That is, there is no alternative on the ballot to the selectives candidates – or rather, the alternatives on the ballot are all acceptable to HÖK (or the Communist Party, in the old case). People often forget that there were elections under communism, too.

  16. The funniest news of the day was that apparently president Janos Ader is positioning himself as a candidate to succeed Ban Ki-moon in 2017.

    For starters, Áder doesn’t speak any foreign languages at all and of course has zero experience with the UN or similar global organizations.

    But the people around him seriously think he can have a shot.

    ROFLMAO.

    And we haven’t even mentioned the influence of the US.

    I mean how clueless can one be?

  17. The dream-world of the Honky Hungaricoes:

    “The funniest news of the day was that apparently president Janos Ader is positioning himself as a candidate to succeed Ban Ki-moon in 2017.”

    Of course, prior to the election of the Pope, Hungarians entertained the notion that the Hungarian bishop (Erdo..?) was one of the front-runners. (One can only larf…)

  18. @Kirsten – I don’t know how many students vote, nor do I much care. Before 1989 voting in many communist states approached 100% because it was compulsory.

  19. Webber, has any reform of students’ representation in universities been attempted at all after 1989? 🙂 There is a students’ organisation probably meant to represent students’ interests (at least this is how it is meant in other countries) but with a restricted eligibility to run for office, lifetime jobs, and a massive influence apparently even on the senior staff of an university? With or without compulsory voting for students, that is an interesting example of how limited the actual application of “liberal democracy” could be even in the years where it has been allegedly pursued.

  20. @Kirsten – Believe it or not, HÖK is the post-1989 reformed students’ representation! The rules for it were set by the “democratic opposition.” Since some of those high up in the opposition came out of the communist youth organizations, I suppose those served as the mode.

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