higher education

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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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.

tubes

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.

Trampling on individual freedom: First the Internet, now education

Almost a month ago I wrote a post that touched on Viktor Orbán’s brainstorm to introduce dual education. The upshot of the scheme is that some students will have to spend a large part of their time in school preparing themselves for a trade in a kind of apprentice program. Right after the announcement of that scheme on October 10, I wrote that Viktor Orbán was contemplating an educational program that  Nikita Khrushchev had tried in the Soviet Union. I reminded readers that the Soviet experiment had been a flop.

In my haste I fear I missed a sentence that foreshadowed what has come to light lately. Orbán is not thinking of introducing dual education within the present structure of public education. Instead, he plans to force a certain number of youngsters into vocational schools. This will be achieved by closing about half of the gymnasiums that currently graduate 190,000 students a year. Orbán wants no more than 60,000-80,000 matriculants. If more students would like to go to gymnasium, which is the traditional route to university, tough luck!

I can hardly find words to express my outrage. Orbán’s regime is trampling on Hungarians’ rights. The government fears the internet, so let’s make sure that fewer people can get to it. They decide that Hungary needs more skilled workers, so about 120,000 students are deprived of their right to enter the school of their choice.

Not that the current public school system is all that terrific or fair. I have a problem, for example, with the homogeneity of the student bodies of elite gymnasiums: practically all students come from the same socioeconomic group in Budapest and some of the larger cities. Admittedly, most countries have struggling educational systems; few can be described as success stories. Finland is always held up as a model given its spectacular results over the last twenty years, and lately one can read a lot about Poland where in the last ten years or so PISA test scores have shown a remarkable improvement.

Today there are three main types of schools serving Hungarian students between the ages of 14 and 18. There are the vocational schools that are, like their American equivalents, pretty useless. In these schools students spend a decreasing amount of time on academic subjects: 100% in grade 9 and 40% in grade 10. In the last two years they allegedly learn a trade. These schools don’t offer “matriculation,” without which one cannot enter university. The second type of school is unknown in Canada and the United States, the two countries I’m most familiar with. It is called “vocational middle school” (szakközépiskola). These schools seem to be a mixed bag. For example, some concentrate on economics, others train students to enter the catering business. These schools do offer the option to take matriculation examinations. The third type is, of course, the beleaguered gymnasium.

Earlier all these schools were under the ministry of education, but in 2010 the Orbán government abolished the separate ministry of  education and put it under the mammoth ministry of human resources. Well, that is coming to an end. From here on the two kinds of vocational schools will be overseen by the ministry of national economy. The man who will be responsible for these schools is Sándor Czomba, an engineer without any experience in education. Czomba in a speech at an exhibition ironically entitled “Decide well–At stake is your future!” outlined some of the steps that will be taken. Teachers, parents, students–be prepared. The government will examine each and every gymnasium and will decide which ones do and which ones don’t deserve to exist. Czomba reassured his audience that “this will not automatically mean that there will be no gymnasium in a given community.” Unreal!

The traditional graduation, "the ambling"  Fewer will be marching into universities

The traditional graduation, “the ambling”
Fewer will be marching into universities

How can they achieve their aim of reducing the number of students seeking acceptance in a gymnasium? There are several possible methods. For example, they could demand a certain grade point average as a prerequisite for entering gymnasium. Just think how many future leaders could fail right here. Pick your favorite: Winston Churchill comes to mind. They could try to steer students toward vocational education, in effect browbeating them, all the while describing student decisions as personal choices. The problem is that these “choices” severely limit future options. How many 14-year-olds know what they want to do with their lives? Mighty few. Even older students have a hard time deciding. One of my favorite stories is about a student of mine who complained that I had assigned a psychologist to serve as his freshman faculty adviser. What on earth was I thinking? I showed him: he himself had written the summer before arriving in New Haven that he wanted to be a psychologist. He didn’t even remember it.

To give you an idea of how far Orbán is from mainstream thinking, the European goal is that 75% of all youngsters take matriculation exams and that 40% of all matriculants enter college or university. With this new program Hungary cannot reach this goal. University-bound students will come mainly from gymnasiums, especially since the current five-year program of vocational middle schools will be reduced to four years, during which students will spend a great deal of their time engaging in practical training at the expense of traditional academic subjects. Moreover, the Orbán government wants to introduce stricter college entrance requirements. For example, students will have to know a foreign language. But since language training in Hungarian schools is notoriously poor, high school students will struggle to learn a language well enough to pass the required language exam. The surest path to passing the exam is private tutoring, which only well-off parents can afford. It is unlikely that students from the vocational middle schools will ever learn a language well enough straight out of high school, and few of them will have well-heeled parents who can pay for the necessary private lessons. As we will see tomorrow, the new undersecretary in charge of higher education, again an engineer and not an educator, already announced that Hungary does not need to have 40% of the adult population be college educated, as suggested by the European Union. For Hungary 30-35% would be more than adequate.

Some suspicious souls speculate that Viktor Orbán does not want a highly educated public. The more ignorant the better. They can be more easily manipulated.

Culture and education in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Now that it is almost certain that Tibor Navracsics will be responsible for education and culture in the European Commission, perhaps it is appropriate to focus on how these areas have fared under the watchful eye of Viktor Orbán. I am not exaggerating the prime minister’s role here because we have seen a carefully orchestrated Kulturkampf in Hungary ever since 2010. The government purposely fosters the kind of artistic and literary work that appeals to the political leadership, whose taste is not exactly avant garde. Abstract art is frowned upon, as are the kinds of novels that Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy or László Krasznahorkai write, although they are the best known contemporary Hungarian writers. The statues that are being ordered or resurrected by the government take us back not to the twentieth but rather to the nineteenth century. I wrote several posts about the fate of Róbert Alföldi’s National Theater, now under the direction of Attila Vidnyánszky, originally from Ukraine. His productions have resulted in a loss of 40,000 theatergoers.

The fate of the fine arts was handed over to György Fekete, a rather bizarre interior decorator, in the form of a new Fine Arts Academy. Its future was ensured when it was included in the new constitution. The academy also got full ownership of the Műcsarnok (Art Gallery/Kunsthalle), until now in the hands of the Hungarian state. It is the largest art gallery in Hungary. It specializes in contemporary art. Or at least until now it did.

Fekete, who is 82 years old and an arch-conservative in politics as well as in artistic taste, picked a man after his own heart, György Szegő, to be the director of the gallery. He is an architect best known for his stage sets. Despite his appointment as director of a gallery devoted to contemporary art, he actually despises the genre that “has become fashionable in the last twenty-five years.” He also has some frightening ideas about art which, according to him, should not “criticize” but “only delight.” Instead of the “art of the technical media” one must concentrate on traditional art forms, especially painting with its 8,000-10,000 year tradition. What the West presents as art is a “soap-bubble” that will burst in no time. So, the gallery that is supposed to give space to contemporary art will be headed by a man who hates it. He will undoubtedly force his own taste on the public. Very soon we will be back to the fifties when only socialist realism could be exhibited.

I’m no art critic, but the man whom Szegő extolled as his guiding light produced this work.

The Two of Us (2010)

György Fekete: The Two of Us (2010)

By contrast, Szegő mentioned by name one of those soap-bubble artists–Jeff Koons, whose exhibit in the Whitney Museum of American Art has been a great success this summer and fall. The Koons retrospective is moving to the Centre Pompidou, Musée d’art moderne, and from there to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

Here is an example of Koons’s work.

Jeff Koons: Tulips (1995-1998)

Jeff Koons: Tulips (1995-1998)

I guess from here on Hungarian art lovers will have to go to Vienna for major contemporary art exhibits, but I’m happy to announce that Szegő will receive twice as much money as his predecessor to run the gallery.

And now we can turn to education and all that the Orbán government did and did not do for it. I talked about the Net of University Lecturers who wrote an open letter to José Manuel Barroso on the sad state of Hungarian higher education. Today Budapest Beacon published the English translation of the document, which I republish here with the permission of the editor of the internet portal.

* * *

September 11, 2014

Dear President:

On behalf of university lecturers working in Hungarian higher education, we would like to congratulate you on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from the Budapest Corvinus University.  All of us greatly appreciate the highly responsible work you performed as president of the European Commission over the past ten years in the interest of advancing the cause of Europe. We would like to use the occasion of your visit to Budapest to call your attention to the crisis situation in Hungarian education.

Over the past five years the Hungarian government has decreased public funding of higher education in real terms by half, and to this day has not created a measured, predictable financial system for the sector.  The Hungarian budget for 2013 allocates 0.43 percent of GDP to education in place of the minimum 1 percent recommended by the European Union.  The current government seriously limits the autonomy of universities by forcing the dismissal of the directors of financially dependent institutions.  The head of government personally appoints chancellors to serve next to rectors through which he can directly interfere in the running of universities.  The government also threatens the independent operation of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee, thereby discrediting its quality inspections and endangering the international integration of our universities. The financial austerity measures have resulted in many being forced into retirement or dismissed. The body of teachers has suffered significant losses, with those retaining their jobs forced to work more for extremely low wages by European standards.

For five years the Hungarian government has failed to adopt a well-grounded strategy for higher education.  The rights and responsibilities of those running higher education are not transparent.  Meanwhile, the government’s administration for education divvies up resources and provides unlawful advantages to institutions close to them or founded by them.  For example, they intend to give 90% of the support for higher education obtained through tender from the European Horizon 2020 program to the National Public Service University.

Alongside existing higher educational and research facilities struggling to retain what is left of their autonomy, the government is building a parallel higher education and research network to service its own goals.  Part of this strategy is the creation and funding (often circumventing normative criteria) of the National Public Service University and the University of Physical Education.  The latter institution was established by the parliamentary majority with an ad hoc modification to a law.  The rules governing the title of university teacher were changed in a manner custom-tailored to a specific individual in such a way that devalues the title of university teacher.  Recently, it came to light that the Hungarian National Bank awarded an amount equal to one and a half times the annual higher education budget, HUF 200 billion (USD 850 million), to its own foundations with which to endow the teaching of its own “unorthodox” economic theories.  This means that state responsibilities are being funded with public money outside the budgetary process in a manner that cannot be controlled, and on ideological grounds.

As a devoted adherent to European values it may be important for you to know that the current Hungarian government does not help, but obstructs the possibility of social advancement.  The Hungarian government undertakes to strengthen the middle class, abandoning the social strata that is increasingly impoverished.  It lowered the obligatory age for attending school to 16. Instead of real programs intending to close the gap and adequate family support and scholarship system, it pursues policies that are harmful to the poor and encourages segregation in Roma schools.  With these actions it makes it impossible for socially disadvantaged students to continue their education.

In the field of education policy the Hungarian government decreased by 30% the number of students beginning their studies in higher educational institutions, which first and foremost destroys the chances of disadvantaged youth.  It is especially important to state here at the Budapest Corvinus College that the limits placed on the legal, economics and other social studies departments by the Orban government mean only those in exceptional circumstances are to be given the chance to join the economic and political elite.

Through its words and deeds the Hungarian government devalues knowledge and expertise.  Its decisions are made without broad consultation or the involvement of experts, with the exclusion of openness.   Europe must see that the Hungarian government intentionally, deliberately and systematically abandons the values of a democratic Europe and the declared goals of the European Union.

In light of the above, we ask that the European Union more determinedly stand up for its own principles, and take action in every instance when the Hungarian government works against European values.

Translated by Éva Nagy

* * *

A few years ago Tibor Navracsics unabashedly admitted that he faithfully executes all tasks he receives from his superior. Let’s hope that he will be severely constrained if he tries to inject Viktor Orbán’s ideas into the EU’s educational and cultural policies. What is happening in Hungary in these fields goes against everything the European Union stands for.

Barroso in Budapest

José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European Commission, spent a day and a night in Budapest on the way to Ukraine. During his stay he and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán signed a “partnership agreement” that seals the European Union’s 35 billion euro financial support for Hungary for the period between 2014 and 2020. In addition, he received an honorary doctorate from Corvinus University.

In the last few weeks a debate has been going on between the government and the opposition: is the amount Budapest will receive in the next six years more or less than it got in the previous six years, support that was procured by the Gyurcsány government? Of course, the current government claims that it is more while almost everybody else, including financial experts, claims that it is less. Whatever the case, it is an enormous amount of money which, according to the critics of both the Orbán government and the European Union, enables Viktor Orbán to build his “illiberal state.” In brief, the European Union is the one that is supporting the destruction of democracy in Hungary.

People who oppose the current regime were dismayed when they heard that the official signing of the document will take place in Budapest. They argued that Barroso should not sanction Orbán’s autocratic regime with his presence in the Hungarian capital. Deep dissatisfaction set in, not just in political circles but also among ordinary people who watched what they considered to be overly friendly gestures by Barroso toward Orbán. It is true that the president of the commission did make a quip indicating his awareness of the Orbán government’s untrustworthiness when he remarked that he hoped the content of the Hungarian version of the document is what he expects. In the past it happened several times that the Hungarian government falsified translations of official texts.

José Manuel Barroso and Viktor Orbán Source: Népszabadság / Photo Zsolt Reviczky

José Manuel Barroso and Viktor Orbán: We can feel equal financially
Source: Népszabadság / Photo Zsolt Reviczky

I don’t know whether Barroso was aware of what Orbán told journalists after the ceremony, but I hope that by now he is. Orbán explained to journalists why this enormous amount of money is not really extra help for Hungary. He claimed that foreign investors move approximately the same amount of money out of the country that Hungary receives from the European Union. If Hungary did not get these subsidies, the country’s financial equilibrium would be out of kilter. This reasoning is of course economically unsound, but his reference to equilibrium brought to mind a funny line from Nick Gogerty’s The Nature of Value: “The only economic systems found today that are truly at or close to equilibrium are nearly dead economies. A cow that achieves equilibrium is called a steak, and the economy closest to achieving equilibrium today is probably North Korea.”

Orbán proposed another equally unconvincing reason that Hungary needs these subsidies. They raise the self-esteem of Hungarians who can in this way feel like full-fledged members of the European community. It’s nice to know that Hungarians’ psychological well being depends on 34 billion euros. Considering that the mood of the Hungarian population is abysmal, perhaps the money is not so well spent.

Now that the Orbán government’s attacks on NGOs have been widely reported and almost all the articles compare the events of the last few months to what Vladimir Putin did in the last year and a half to Russia’s civic groups, a lot of people hoped that Barroso would have a few words to say about them. The COO of TASZ (Civil Liberties Union) told Der Spiegel that “Brussels no longer can be silent on the putinization of Hungary.” However, Barroso was silent on the issue until a question was addressed to him about whether the EU will get involved in the dispute between Norway and Hungary over the Norwegian Funds. Barroso expressed the opinion that this is “the business of Norway and Hungary, but they follow the developments.” The author of HVG‘s opinion piece seemed to be very unhappy with this answer, and I know many people who share his opinion. I, on the other hand, think this hands-off decision of the EU actually works in favor of those who would like to stop the Orbán government’s assault on democracy. From experience we know that the EU has not been a steadfast defender of Hungarian democracy, and in the past it overlooked Viktor Orbán’s transgressions more often than not. The Norwegians are less accommodating; ever since May they haven’t moved an inch in their insistence that the Hungarian government has no right to investigate the allocation of their civic funds. 140 million euros are at stake. If the EU agreed to arbitrate, most likely a compromise solution would be found that would again allow the Orbán government to play one of its tricks.

There was a small demonstration in front of Corvinus University. Népszabadság noted that Barroso as a seasoned politician knows how to handle situations like that. He acted as if he did not see them at all and marched straight into the building. Whether he read a letter addressed to him by the Oktatási Hálózat (Net of University Lecturers) or not I have no idea. It is an excellent description of what has been going on in Hungary in the field of education. To sum up: In the last five years government spending on higher education decreased by half. Hungary currently spends only 0.43% of GDP on it as opposed to the 1% that is recommended by the European Union. The autonomy of the universities will be curtailed when state appointed supervisors are placed above the presidents. It is now the fifth year that the government has no clearly stated higher-education strategy. Financial resources are distributed in an ad hoc manner, mostly to institutions preferred by the government. For example, 90% of the money received as part of the Horizon 2020 program subsidized by the European Union went to the newly established National Civil Service University. Just lately it became known that the Hungarian National Bank is spending 200 billion forints, which is one and a half times more than the government spends a year in higher education, to train people in “unorthodox economics.” Because of the high tuition fees the number of students entering college or university has decreased by 30%.  Moving away from higher education, the letter mentions the lowering of the compulsory school age to 16 from 18 and the government’s endorsement of segregated Roma schools.

It is too bad that this was the only letter addressed to Barroso. Where were the other groups? Where were the members of the opposition? Not that these letters achieve that much, but when only one group protests in front of Corvinus University and only one letter is written by a small group of university lecturers, it is difficult to stir the European Union.

After ten years Barroso is leaving his post and Jean-Claude Juncker is taking over. Hopes are high that a new era will begin, but for that to happen the Hungarian opposition must lend him a helping hand.

The new guiding light of Hungarian higher education: István Klinghammer

Since my less than flattering comment about László Gy. Tóth aroused so much interest in the quality of Hungarian education, I thought it might be a good idea to devote a post to the nonexistent Ministry of Education and its newly appointed undersecretary in charge of higher education, István Klinghammer.

Let’s start with the very structure of the second Orbán government that deprived certain key ministries of their independent existence. To list only the three most obvious, finance, education and culture, and health were all demoted. Viktor Orbán demonstrated the “frugality” of his government by having only eight ministries–as many as the first Hungarian government in 1848. Naturally, nowadays a central government has a few more tasks than the Hungarian government did in 1848. Moreover, even Lajos Batthyány’s government had a minister of finance. Moreover, not just anybody but Lajos Kossuth himself.

As a result of Orbán’s consolidation, some previously separate ministries were subordinated to mega-ministries, the largest of which is the Ministry of Human Resources under Zoltán Balog. He is supposed to take care of health, education, culture, and who knows what else. Mind you, he as a former Hungarian reformed minister knows mighty little about any of these fields.

Education was given to the Christian Democrats, who chose a middle-aged schoolmarm to be in charge. Although on paper Rózsa Hoffmann has all sorts of qualifications, she is basically a small-minded high school teacher. I wrote earlier about the nationalization of schools and her plans to turn the clock back to the 1970s when she finished her studies as a Russian-French major. Eventually it became patently clear that  this woman just doesn’t have what it takes to “reform” Hungarian education. Moreover, she was an irritant to the country’s university professors and students. By February of this year Orbán at last confronted the Christian Democratic leaders with the sad news that “Rózsa didn’t quite work out” and that, since she is so busy with education on the lower level, higher education should be handled by someone else. So came István Klinghammer, former president of ELTE.

Klinghammer was a controversial choice, although Fidesz politicians felt that “he must be better than his predecessor.” He was described by others as a tough guy who grew up in the worst section of District VIII. At the time of his appointment I noted that he began his studies at the Budapest  University of Technology but two years later transferred to ELTE to become a geography teacher. Well, for me that meant that the young Klinghammer couldn’t quite handle the work in this very tough technical college. After getting a teacher’s certificate in geography he became a cartographer and received a “university doctorate,” not to be mixed up with the Ph.D. As far as I can ascertain, this is the highest degree he received, but he made quite a career for himself at ELTE. In 2000 he became president of the university and in 2010 became a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Klinghammer Istvan magyarhirlap.hu

István Klinghammer / Magyar Hírlap

Klinghammer likes to talk and is considered to be a good communicator, but perhaps it would be better if he talked less. Ever since he became undersecretary in charge of higher education he has been giving one interview after the other, often saying things he shouldn’t. Not long ago he made great pronouncements about the nature of the university. There is a consensus in the U.S. that a university is, to quote my favorite definition (Random House), “an institution of learning of the highest level, comprising a college of liberal arts, a program of graduate studies, and several professional schools, and authorized to confer both undergraduate and graduate degrees.” The Hungarian word for university, “egyetem,” also gives a clue about the universality of disciplines taught in universities. But then comes our Klinghammer who announces that “engineering and music” shouldn’t be taught at the same university. So, an engineer should know nothing about music, art, or literature. In Hungarian there is a good word for such a person: “professional barbarian” (szakbarbár). Moreover, Klinghammer has little appreciation of any fields outside of natural sciences and engineering because they “don’t produce any value, they only please people and give them happiness.”

So, busy bloggers–I suspect students–did some research on Klinghammer’s own scientific accomplishments. He was prolific, writing according to one account 15 books and 30 chapters in different publications, primarily in Hungarian. But his work attracted little interest abroad; foreign academics referred to his works only twice. Details of his academic activities can be found here.

And how does he come across as a person? Badly. In a lengthy interview he gave to Népszabadság he gave the impression–to use the description of György C. Kálmán (literary historian and former professor at ELTE)–of a man “who finds his titles terribly important, who is a puffed-up academic with narrow views, someone who doesn’t understand the first thing about democracy, someone whose views on learning and erudition are hopelessly wrong; in brief, he is an old fogey.”‘

Another blogger, after looking through Klinghammer’s scientific accomplishments, discovered that among his many publications he even listed articles in Magyar Nemzet and in a popular science magazine, Élet és Tudomány. This blogger summarizes Klinghammer’s impact on the world: “He wrote seven books in Hungarian that inspired ten references. After forty years of work his impact is zero.” Whatever the precise number of publications and references, foreign and domestic, we can definitely conclude that Klinghammer, despite his own inflated self-image, is not a renowned scholar. Perhaps if he had bragged less he wouldn’t have elicited so many antagonistic responses. And this is the man who is supposed to make Hungarian higher education world-class.

“Reforming” higher education, Orbán style

“Zdenek” suggested today’s topic and I gladly accepted his invitation. The topic is timely, and I am naturally interested in higher education.

There has been talk about trimming the faculties at a number of universities for some time. The first piece of news I read about the dismissal of faculty members across the board was in March 2012 when it was reported that colleges and universities were in trouble because their budgets had already been trimmed by 13 billion forints in 2011. How much less money they would get in 2012 was still not known.

Today, a year later, we know that Hungarian higher education is not exactly high on the Orbán government’s agenda. Although Viktor Orbán’s twenty-year plan includes upgrading Hungarian universities to the point that they will be among the best in Europe, his government seems determined to diminish even their current state of mediocrity.

kick outOne way to destroy the reputation of a university is to fire faculty members with distinguished international reputations. And that’s exactly what the Orbán government has been doing in the last few years. I assume that long-time readers of Hungarian Spectrum remember the cleansing of the Philosophical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. If not, it is worth taking a look at the January 2010 post on the affair. At that point several philosophers were dismissed. Now it seems that literature and linguistics professors are in the crosshairs. It is not immaterial that they are liberals.

I do understand, given the government’s attitude toward higher education and its financing, that universities are strapped for funds. The problem is that the decision about who gets dismissed seems to be politically motivated.  At least this was the situation in 2011. At the moment we don’t know with any certainty who will be leaving the Faculty of Arts, just that 22 university professors who are older than 62 will lose their jobs. In addition, the university will ask 10 part-time instructors to take a half a year of unpaid leave. According to the by-laws of ELTE, associate professors can work up to the age of 65 while full professors can stay until the age of 70.

None of the people mentioned as possible targets would qualify for forced retirement under the rules of the university. Tamás Tarján (Hungarian literature) is a 62-year-old associate professor. Sándor Radnóti, a full professor, is 66. László Kálmán (linguistics) is an associate professor and is only 56 years old. György Tverdota (literature), a full professor and departmental chairman, is 65. The last person mentioned was Ádám Nádasdy (linguist), a 66-year-old associate professor; he is the only one who should, according to ELTE’s retirement terms, step down.

The news about the dismissals was first reported by NépszabadságThe author of the article specifically mentioned four names: Sándor Radnóti, Tamás Tarján, György Tverdota, and László Kálmán. Since then, Sándor Radnóti told Magyar Narancs that as far as he knows his name is not on the list. As Radnóti explained, he shouldn’t be forced to retire because he didn’t have the privilege of having a job for forty years as required by law. In the 1970s he worked for a publishing house but was fired for political reasons. Radnóti told Magyar Narancs that he has a verbal assurance that his job is safe.

László Kálmán told Magyar Narancs that he did receive a letter from the dean of the faculty suggesting that he take an unpaid leave of absence until the end of the year. However, it turned out that this is not the first time he received such a notice. Ádám Nádasdy is also among those who might be terminated, but so far he hasn’t received any word about his fate. However, he knows that things can change very quickly.

Everything is in flux, but my hunch is that the information Népszabadság received has some basis. Perhaps the letters haven’t been sent out yet, but most likely the decisions have already been made.

One problem with this allegedly mechanical approach is that the decision makers pay no attention whatsoever to quality. It doesn’t matter how famous or how valuable the faculty member is. The person must leave because of his or her age.  It is enough to take a quick look at these men’s curriculum vitae to realize that if they are dismissed the university will deprive itself of valuable assets. They all are known abroad because they either studied or taught at foreign universities. They all received high academic honors at home and abroad. László Kálmán speaks English, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, and Russian. Ádám Nádasdy speaks English, Italian, German, and French. And what a lecturer! I highly recommend listening to a lecture he delivered at the Mindentudás Egyeteme a few years ago. It is a treat. György Tverdota is the foremost expert on the poetry of Attila József and is regularly invited to international conferences. Several of his works have been translated.

I used the phrase “allegedly mechanical” advisedly in describing the process of forced faculty retirement. Do we really think that only 22 members of the Faculty of Arts at ELTE are older than 62? Presumably age is only one criterion in deciding who stays and who goes. The people mentioned above are well known liberals who frequently express their opposition to the Orbán government’s policies. László Kálmán often analyses speeches of Fidesz politicians, and Radnóti was already a victim of political harassment when Viktor Orbán set Gyula Budai loose to find dirt on the liberal opposition.

I’ve saved the best for last. The new undersecretary for higher education, István Klinghammer, came out with this startling statement: “It is not in the interest of foreigners to have high quality Hungarian education.”  It is jarring, to say the least, to hear this kind of right-wing paranoia from a former president of ELTE and a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (elected in 2010).

Klinghammer is a great fan of forcing students who receive scholarships to stay in Hungary for a number of years. However, trying to make scholarship students the modern-day equivalent of indentured servants will prompt yet another fight with the European Union. Just today László Andor, EU commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion, made it clear in an interview that Brussels will not accept the proposed bill tying Hungarian students to the homeland in its current form.

Klinghammer also has a very low opinion of certain majors. In his introductory interview as the new undersecretary in Zoltán Balog’s ministry he referred to Mickey Mouse majors. He himself began his studies at the College of Engineering (mechanical engineering) but switched to ELTE’s Faculty of Science where he received a degree in geography. His first diploma entitled him to teach geography in high school. He received a degree in cartography later. It seems that Klinghammer’s fame as a cartographer didn’t exactly spread far and wide.

I’m curious whether the Faculty of Sciences at ELTE will have similar budgetary cuts that will necessitate firing twenty-thirty faculty members. By the way, as far as I can ascertain, Klinghammer is still on the faculty of ELTE. He is 72 years old.