“In defense of gymnasiums”: A cry for sanity

Absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton told us, it also damages everything it touches. It assumes not only omnipotence but omniscience. Unfortunately Viktor Orbán seems not to have realized that he is a mere mortal and has lots of gaps in his knowledge. In crafting national policy he doesn’t consult with experts because he is the expert on all things Hungarian. He tries to remake Hungarian society to reflect his own flawed image of the ideal nation.

One of his most dangerous experiments is in public education. Early in his administration we could already see how preoccupied he was with training the future Hungarian workforce, how he put more stock in things than in ideas. His latest plan to restrict entry to gymnasiums and to force most children to learn a trade after eighth grade is especially harmful. Although experts pointed out that eight grades of study before beginning a dual education is inadequate schooling in today’s world, they were not heeded, and probably not even read. A huge reorganization of education was ordered from above without any consultation.

A few days ago a thorough study was published by one of the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Department of Human Resources at the Budapest Corvinus University. The title of the study is “In the defense of gymnasiums.”

The amazing thing about most of Viktor Orbán’s reforms is that even the premises on which they are based are faulty. For example, the government’s claim that the number of trained skilled workers has decreased since the change of regime is just wrong. As the authors show in one of the many diagrams accompanying the study, although the number of graduates of trade schools (szakiskola) has decreased, the number of graduates from schools where students can also obtain a matriculation certificate enabling them to enter college has increased. This trend started already before 1990.

The other often repeated misconception is that attending a gymnasium or a trade school that offers matriculation certificates (szakközépiskola) is a waste of time and energy because these people cannot find employment. The fact is that with a matriculation certificate it is easier to obtain a job. Unemployment among those who did not finish high school is 8%, while among high school graduates it is 4.8%. Among college graduates it is 2.9%. There is also a wage difference between those who went only to trade school and those who while learning a trade also earned a high school diploma. The wage difference is 25% in favor of the latter.

Ordinary trade schools offer inferior educational opportunities. If we compare two children with similar potential, the one who goes to a trade school will perform worse than his counterpart in a high school offering dual education.

Orbán’s favorite hobby-horse is the “dual education” that is well-known in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. However, according to the authors, Viktor Orbán misunderstands the concept. In Germany a student receiving a dual education will first spend between 7,155 and 7,950 hours on academic subjects. In Hungary it is only 5,742 hours. This is an appreciable difference. As if a Hungarian student were to spend ten or eleven years instead of the eight he does now on academic subjects. Or if a Hungarian high school student would spend not twelve but about fourteen years in high school. In Denmark two-thirds of skilled workers speak English right out of school. In Hungary less than one percent do. In Denmark only 40% of the dual-education school graduates actually end up on the shop floor. The others become technicians or lower- or middle management. One reason they can rise through the ranks is that, among other things, only 7% of Danish students have problems understanding documents. In Hungary that number is 37.3%.

Orbán and his “education team”are convinced that Hungary has too many university graduates. That is not the case. Hungary is actually in the lowest one-third among EU member countries, as can be seen in the graph below.

Percentages of university graduates broken down by age

Percentage of university graduates by age

Moreover, by restricting entry to gymnasiums the number of people who can enter university will also shrink. So, instead of boosting the number of college graduates as most countries are doing, Hungary will soon have the distinction of being among the least highly educated people in Europe.

I would like to call attention to the incredible leap Poland has made. Among the 45-54 age group Poland clearly trails behind many countries. This is the heritage of the socialist system. But now more than 40% of the 25- to 34-year-olds are university graduates.

Perhaps the greatest sin of the new system is that the restrictions to entering gymnasiums will most severely affect children from the lowest social strata. As it is, children coming from families belonging to the top fifth income bracket have a 2.3 times greater chance of entering gymnasium than children from the lowest fifth. With Orbán’s new system, children of rich families would have a 3.4 times greater chance of earning a high school diploma than their poor schoolmates. This inequality also holds true for higher education. Someone coming from a poor family would have his chance of entering college slashed by 30%.

The authors suggest that Hungary follow the Polish example. In Poland the number of years of study has been increased to thirteen. The Polish government has raised teachers’ salaries and introduced all sorts of modern methods of teaching. As a result, Polish achievement on the PISA tests has made a spectacular leap.

Of course, this study will remain a cry in the wilderness. In the last four years extensive changes have already been introduced in the structure of Hungarian education, accompanied by a decreasing amount of money being spent on education. Hungarian education was nothing to boast about even before, but what is happening now ensures total failure.


  1. Attention: no Orwell, but Lord Acton! Michael Shafir From: Hungarian Spectrum To: shafirmchl@yahoo.com Sent: Monday, January 12, 2015 1:11 AM Subject: [New post] “In defense of gymnasiums”: A cry for sanity #yiv4151133977 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv4151133977 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv4151133977 a.yiv4151133977primaryactionlink:link, #yiv4151133977 a.yiv4151133977primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv4151133977 a.yiv4151133977primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv4151133977 a.yiv4151133977primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv4151133977 WordPress.com | Eva S. Balogh posted: “Absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, as George Orwell told us, it also damages everything it touches. It assumes not only omnipotence but omniscience. Unfortunately Viktor Orbán seems not to have realized that he is a mere mortal and has lots of g” | |

  2. When I think “Hungarian-university degree” I think “Schmitt Pál”. (Unfair, but there it is.) More gymnasium places, more university places, more university graduates, more diplomates in… sports science? Media arts? Travel and tourism? But for argument’s sake, we must assume that all university degrees confer some competitive advantage, at least in the Hungarian job market.

    That may not be so with respect to international economic competition. Prof Balogh, you write: “Orbán and his ‘education team’ are convinced that Hungary has too many university graduates. That is not the case. Hungary is actually in the lowest one-third among EU member countries, as can be seen in the graph below.” German economic success, on the evidence of this graph, is not positively correlated with a relatively high proportion of university graduates among the German population. Similarly, the graph shown places Hungary ahead of most of her immediate European-Union neighbours — among Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, the Czech and Slovak republics, and Romania, only Slovenia has a larger proportion of university graduates. Does the Hungarian economy lag those of neighbouring states? If it does, that lag appears not to be positively correlated with a failure to graduate a large enough proportion of young persons from university.

    What factors permit Germany to do better — if she indeed does do better — than Hungary in international economic competition when Germany’s proportion of university graduates is (slightly) lower than Hungary’s, and how can Hungary improve her performance? For Hungary, as a society, to ask those questions seems in order. I am not sure that, for the second question, among the answers given most weight will be “Raise the proportion of university graduates to the level of that in Cyprus”.

  3. You can label the schools how you like but the fundamental problem is the quality of Hungarian teachers. There simply aren’t enough good ones to provide an adequate level of education in the gymnasiums that exist and, from what I’ve heard, the technical schools are even worse. Since it will take at least 10 years (and a lot of money) to fix that, the little man in a hurry has chosen a diferent route.

  4. We should not omit the name of those advisers of Orbán who convinced him that Hungary should turn into a kind of Mexican-type subcontractor for the German industry and so its education system should reflect that status.

    The one is László Parrag, a failed entrepreneur, currently president of the Hungarian Chamber of Trade and Industry. He is a good pal of the dear leader and is allowed to attend the government meetings as he just wishes.

    The other is Sándor Demján, a well-known oligarch.

  5. What I know about the quality of the Hungarian education system comes from one source:
    Our young ones went to Gymnasium and University – and are still complaining how little they really learned …
    In coparison the good side of the German system is that there are many ways to get some education, not only the regular gymnasiums and the dual system but also special institutions like the “Berufsakademie” where young people in the IT business e g are paid by their employers to visit lectures at a university level …
    On the other hand (and surely not only in Germany …) I hear employers complaining that they can’t get enough good young people who are willing and able (!) to learn continuously …

    Totally OT:

    Yesterday on the ATV news there was a report on solar collectors producing electric current in Hungary. While these systems on roofs of private houses are financed in Germany with government grants it seems that Hungary introduced (or is going to introduce?) a special tax on them – at least that was what I understood. Does anyone know more about this?

  6. This idea is more complex.

    Orban wants to radically cull the secular high-schools (true, there are fewer kids too) which outside Budapest will effectively result in the monopoly of the traditional churches over the education of kids who might later enter higher education (ie. the future elite).

    This is because the “established” churches (Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists) already built out a massive network of parochial schools in an effort to resurrect the pre-WWII network, an effort supported by the right-wing such as Fidesz and not opposed by the left-wing such as MSZP. On the top of that, municipalities for financial and political reasons (eg. segregation is easier to operate in parochial schools) transferred the management of schools to churches all over Hungary in the last 3-4 years.

    So when Orban wants to rationalize the system and have fewer high-schools and put more kids in to trade schools (who can barely read and write), he will close down the remaining municipal or state-managed ones and obviously not the parochial ones.

    This will mean that in the bigger towns there will be perhaps one secular and one or two parochial school remaining, but in the smaller towns almost certainly only the parochial schools will remain (the churches already manage hundreds of kindergartens, elementary schools etc.).

    Ironically, even the Catholic Church raised its voice about the tendency of municipalities to get rid of education and “give” them to churches, but since it lives in a quasi-symbiosis with Fidesz, these voices became quieter, they sorter out the issue.

    Or course the left-wing (still earnestly called the communists in rural areas by average folks) ever the party without convictions and self-confidence never dared to step up and defend secular education.

    Slowly, but surely the rural kids (ie. anybody outside of Budapest) became conservative, anti-liberal, anti-Western. The right-wing always had a vision and long-term strategy, the left has nothing.


  7. Ratio of parochial schools in Hungary

    in the 2009-2010 academic year:

    kindergartens: 6.12%
    elementary schools: 8.77%
    vocational schools (szakiskola): 6.95%
    vocational high schools (szakközépiskola): 6.22%
    high school (gimnázium) : 20.35%

    The number of parochial schools had grown from 500 to about 800
    by the 2012-2013 academic year, the Catholic, the Reformed (Calvinist) and
    the Lutheran churches ran a combines 792 schools.

    The weight of these three denominations among each other:
    Catholic 62.75%, Calvinist: 27.90%, Lutheran: 9.34%


    If we assume that the growth was not in the kindergartens
    (their ownership was the only that was left in the hands of the local governments),
    the ratio of the parochial schools minus the kindergartens has increased
    from 9.8% to at least 21% in the first 3 years of the Orban government.

    By sheer extrapolation, we can estimate that the parochial schools must have reached
    the 30% level by now.

  8. tappanch:

    Your 30% assumption is a national average. In Budapest the figure is lower, in the provinces it’s higher. So this is the baseline at which the culling will start.

  9. [OT] Thanks to the Prime Minister’s press office, the good people of Hungary are provided with startling representations of yesterday’s Paris rally.

    (hope the Queen of Jordan won’t protest being edited out so boldly)

  10. Thanks, wondercat and Ron for the info on solar collectors – it’s really sad, but typical Hungarian?

    Re the school system (and a bit OT again):

    This reminds me in a way of how things were in Germany 60 – 70 years ago. When we were six years old my friends and I were anxiously waiting to enter school together – but that was not to be …

    I don’t remember who told me the bad news: My friends were Catholic an would go to the Catholic primary school of course while I was protestant and would visit the protestant school. The crazy side of this:
    The schools were in the same old school building where a wall had been built to separate the two confessions …
    Of course I didn’t understand why this was necessary – but I realised that religion and confession were something very stupid! That was the end of of religion for me.

    A few years later (after four years we moved to the gymnasium and there was only one in town) we tried to discuss this with our teachers and the school director (a real clerical fascist we later called him …) and he still was against integrating those two schools – though we tried to reason with him that instead of three and five classes respectively a common school could have 8 classes, obviously much better for the pupils. That was when I started to detest all those “Christians” with their “family values” – and my friends reacted the same way.

    The craziest part of this (I might have told that already) is that my parents made a pact before my sisters and I were born during the war that they would wait with baptising us.
    If my father died during the war (for an officer the probability was high) after the war we would we baptised Catholics following our mother – if he returned we would become protestants …

  11. Data from the US Census Bureau put the percentage of adults over the age of 25 in the USA that have finished a four year college at 31.7 percent in 2013. In 1947, just 5 percent of Americans 25 and older held degrees from four-year colleges. As recently as 1998, fewer than one-quarter of the adult population held college degrees.

    So the question for any country is how many college graduates does the economy need and how many can be absorbed in the labor market. I have not looked at labor market projections for Hungary, but I have looked at the data for the USA. Here is a link to a short article on this data http://irtd.ed.psu.edu:5000/pdfs/HowMany.pdf

    That article informs the reader that in the USA: “Looking first at the 10 occupations with the fastest or highest rate of growth, six of the 10 require either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree; the other four require from short-term to moderate-term on-the-job training. But looking at the projected increase in the number of jobs in the 10 fastest-growing occupations, 61 percent of those new jobs will not require college and 39 percent will.” But when all jobs are examined the percent of college graduates needed in the US economy drops to around 30%.

    The U.S. National Center for Educational Statistics longitudinal study of bachelor’s-degree recipients reports that four years after receiving a degree, 40 percent of those not enrolled in graduate education say they are employed in a job where a college education “is not required.”

    Eva writes: “Orbán and his “education team” are convinced that Hungary has too many university graduates. That is not the case. Hungary is actually in the lowest one-third among EU member countries. . .” But the question is not a comparative one in relation to the percentage of college graduates, but rather how many can the Hungarian economy absorb. Eva cites the fact that Poland now has a college graduation rate for 25 to 34 year olds of 40%, but how many of those graduates are working in Poland in jobs that require being a college graduate?

    It is totally true that Polish University enrollment has quintupled since the 1990s, with private-university enrollment now accounting for around 25 percent of the total. There are economists who believe Poland has over produced college graduates (here is one example of such an economist http://www.davidpublishing.com/DownLoad/?id=1894 ). In 2000, 14 percent of Polish emigrants had college degrees. By 2007, those percentages had increased to 19.6 percent of male and 24 percent of female emigrants, and it appears that more than one third of these were recent graduates aged 23-26. So there is indeed such a thing as the over production of college graduates in any nation in my opinion Eva. But I also suspect there is also such a thing as the over production of technical workers too.

    The best way to limit the number of college graduates in any society is by making the degree more rigorous to obtain through increasing standards, maybe the worst way to do it is the way it seems to be happening here in the USA and that is by making a college degree unaffordable for more students and hence reducing the flow of graduates.

  12. In my eyes, there are not such thing as an overproduction of well educated people. It enlightens people and give them a higher life quality in general. We live in a world getting more and more complex and those who will succeed in the ever growing competition is the most well educated. The most important resource will be knowledge and innovation. But yes, enlightened people is a threat to wannabee dictators so Hungary will also loose this race.

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