skilled workers

“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.


Training skilled workers and teaching foreign languages in Hungary

My post today deals with two aspects of Hungarian education. One is the training of skilled workers and the other, the still sorry state of foreign language education.

The first topic was inspired by an article I read in Népszabadság, which relates the woes of a German firm that just established a factory that needs skilled welders. Although the company was enticed by government propaganda proclaiming that Hungary has a highly skilled workforce, the company at the moment can’t find workers who can perform the simplest of tasks.

The second topic is the age-old story of Hungarians’ inability to handle at least one foreign language. But this time the criticism comes from an academic, a professor of chemistry, who looks at the problem from a practical point of view. He proposes solutions that are pretty drastic. It is also worth mentioning that the Demokratikus Koalíció’s program contains suggestions for eventually moving to an educational structure built on bilingual instruction.

So, let’s start with training skilled workers. Anyone who knows anything about the zeal of the Orbán government should have guessed that the law regarding this aspect of education couldn’t have remained untouched. Until September 1, 2013 private firms could run their own training programs. But Viktor Orbán is a fan of nationalization: practically everything has to be run by the state. So, claiming that these private training programs became far too expensive due to the increase in the number of hours required for certification, the private companies will no longer get any applicants. After all, the state-run programs “within the walls of schools” will be free. While earlier one could get certification, let’s say, in six months, from here on the skilled workers of the future, including waiters and sales clerks in department stores, will spend two years in school. This sounds wonderful, but let’s see how well these state schools performed in the past.

The disappointed German firm is Europakraft GmbH, whose headquarters are in Metzingen, Germany. Not long ago the firm decided to open a new branch in Nagytarcsa. In addition to engineers, they are also in need of a skilled blue collar labor force. Europakraft is looking for qualified welders, pipe fitters, and disk roller specialists. And they can find mighty few. The manager of the Hungarian branch of the company, Stefan Körmendi, is terribly disappointed. The firm came to Hungary because they believed the Hungarian politicians, who said that a highly trained workforce exists in Hungary. “By now I know that not a word of that is true,” said Körmendi to the journalist of Népszabadság.

In the last few months they have been actively looking for welders and CNC-cutters. There were many applicants, but when they had to show their skills, most of them were unable to perform even basic tasks. Keep in mind that these people had a piece of paper that attested to their competence in these particular skills. The firm tested 600 people, out of whom 60% couldn’t weld at all. Fifteen percent of them were able to weld but could do so only with one particular method. A mere one out of ten was actually qualified to perform the kind of work Europakraft demands.

The building is there. Now what they need is skilled workers

The building is there. Now what they need is skilled workers.

The management was stunned. How is it possible that 90% of certified welders can’t weld? It turned out that some of them never welded at all because “the money ran out at school and they couldn’t afford buying the gas cylinders.” The management also found out that most of the experienced teachers left not just the school but the country and found good-paying jobs abroad. Moreover, those few who passed Europakraft’s test are actually half way out of the country already. While the firm pays 300,000 ft/month (which is 20-30% higher than the Hungarian average), abroad they can make more than double that. The firm now, at its own expense, has begun a month-long training program for those few, about 15% of all the applicants, who more or less passed the test. The firm cannot charge anything because it is not certified as a training center. If the firm were to receive a good size order today, they would not be able to fill it because they don’t have enough men who could immediately begin work in the Hungarian factory.

Zoltán Homonnay, the chemistry professor, talks about the same thing that the Germans encountered among welders. He complains about the authorities who, instead of demanding the best from students, simply want to lower standards. University students are required to know at least one foreign language before they can receive their diplomas. Thousands of students have finished all their coursework and written their senior essay but still don’t have a college degree because they couldn’t pass the language exam.

At first there was talk about lowering the standards: devise a new test that students could pass without much work. The easiest way out. That idea was eventually dropped. The new idea is to offer financial incentives to encourage those people who didn’t pass the language exam to work harder the next time around. If a college degree was not incentive enough, why does the government think that throwing a wad of cash at them will transform them into assiduous students of English or German? Hommonay calls this kind of interference “pampering.” Hungary is not globally competitive at the moment. In order to catch up, Hungarians need something extra: hard work, extra knowledge, whatever, but not coddling.

Instead of giving money to the laggards, the government should force people to learn a language by, for example, putting an end to the dubbing of films and television series. Homonnay would even get rid of subtitles after a few years. He would forbid the translation of software. He would introduce English-language instruction in certain subjects at the universities. If that can be done in German, Turkish, Czech, and Portuguese universities, why can’t it be done in Hungary?

The Demokratikus Koalíció’s program goes even farther than that. Its politicians advocate the gradual introduction of bilingual education from first grade on, not only in Hungary but in all European schools. DK, to the horror of the right, wants to have a United States of Europe, and the promotion of English and other languages fits in well with a more centralized United States of Europe.

The current Hungarian administration does not encourage bilingual education. In fact, one of the first moves of Rózsa Hoffmann was to reduce the number of subjects taught in a foreign language in bilingual schools. And who can forget the idea of promoting French and German at the expense of English?

Unfortunately, I fear there will be no change for the better in the next few years, either in producing more skilled–really skilled–workers or in having all final-year college students be truly bilingual. Meanwhile, Hungary is losing ground on all fronts, even among the countries of the region. The prospects seem quite bleak.