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If anyone reads my previous posts, they may wonder why I don’t live and work in Hungary, instead of criticizing some features of education in the Netherlands. Instead of pointing to economics too much, I’d like to point out two of the latest ‘developments’ in Hungary, whereby, however, I have to turn towards politics first I’m afraid.

All through the sixties, seventies and eighties of the previous century I had to witness the power of politics over the lives of masses and individuals. As an individual, I didn’t have to witness much, we (I and those I knew) didn’t stick our necks out, and so we could get by. Promises for a brighter future remained the basic tenet of everyday life, but ordinary people had quite rich means of culture in the form of all classic literature properly published (except a few that overly criticized socialism, but we didn’t get to know about them for a while), a rich theatrical, operatic and music life, and a relatively good system of higher education for those very few (1-2% of school-leavers) gifted or fortunate enough to pass the entrance tests. We sang praise to the power of the people and of the Soviet Union in schools, but we also sang our rich heritage of folk songs, all adults could get jobs, and the best artists annually received their rewards for their achievements in prestigious prizes.

All this changed little with the change of the political landscape in 1989, except that the prizes inflated along with the prices. The ruling elite also changed somewhat but the methods of ruling changed little, which led many to point fingers to new forms of the same politicians as before, then back, and so forth. The lives of ordinary people didn’t change much, except that universities opened up their gates to a huge influx of the new young generations without receiving suitably more financial means to cater for their further education. Some campuses had to move over because the old ones had to be given back to former owners, mostly one of the churches, but personnel didn’t get boosted in numbers or finances and had to make do in about the same size lecture halls as before. Still, numbers of students have swollen to about 35% of the annual school-leavers.

It goes without saying I’m afraid that the quality of services rendered both by universities and their graduates have declined. I see a number of good reasons to reducing the number of entrants myself, largely because their job prospects after graduation are anything but bright, what with the slowly further growing unemployment rate (also among the young) and the also slowly further inflating salaries for them if they get into a job, and because good skilled workers are disappearing in large numbers, not only with the disappearance of whole industries but also because of the declining numbers and quality of school-leavers from technical schools.

Enter the new, rightist government with a huge bang and 2/3 majority in 2010. Gone is the influence (and balance) of opposition, common sense, ideas and methods of democracy. All is substituted with new laws and a new Constitution that requires any change to them with a 2/3 majority in the future. Besides political, economic and financial question-marks over their policies and their dealings with European and world institutions, about which the world gets briefed from time to time, they’ve now turned their hands on cultural decisions.

Their new law on the media has received lots of criticism first, at home as well as from abroad. Then a few weeks ago, the conservative government decided to invest most power in acknowledging artistic merit in the country to MMA, the Hungarian Art Academy, and this fact has been entered into the law as well. It’s not simply this fact that may irritate anyone interested in Hungarian culture, but mostly the ideas behind this organization. Its very outspoken leader has rushed to clarify to all that art and artists not conforming to their conservative ideals centered on Hungarian-ness, artistic merit and political and religious requirements will not receive space, funding and acknowledgement in the county.

Remarkably, the first criticism from abroad is already in, from the Rat für die Künste, the association of arts and artists in Berlin, which issued a public letter voicing strong criticism in the matter, mentioning, among others, that the issue fits into the line of impoverishing all independent theatres, museums and artists in Hungary. An interesting by-product of the ensuing debate is that a critique tried to find out who the new leader of the MMA as an artist is and why he received prizes in the 1960’s and 70’s, but mainly found very new pieces by the person, Fekete György, on a level which he wrote would mean he should be expelled from his own Academy on account of lacking artistic merit. The article shows a few pictures of his work here (the text is in Hungarian).

The latest ‘development’ on the cultural front is that the new conservative government has decided a drastic cut in state funding for university students. Although I mentioned above that a reduction in the numbers of university students would be prudent, but full funding for 10 thousand entrants following year instead of 38 thousand this year is outrageous. Equally outrageous is to make it seem a logical step for reducing state deficit. Education in general has never been a priority in Hungary, and although the education sector is one of the large sectors of the service industry to be funded from state and local government coffers, its cost is simply a result of the large numbers of people necessary to work there. But if a government seeks to rule by force and not through the ideas of its citizens forwarding the cause of the country, education becomes an obstacle to governance. It was so during the socialist regime and it seems increasingly so under the new one, which looks back to the history and nationalism of the country instead of looking ahead towards solving challenges of the future saying that the future can only be solved by looking back to our history. This in a small country that has had very little independence and success in the last 500 years.

To translate some of this from national level to the level of the common people, we have to understand first that university education used to be free in Hungary during socialism. After the ‘changes’, the right to a free degree became the right to a first degree, that is, if someone followed two major courses, which was compulsory at arts and sciences faculties before, he/she had to pay for the second course and degree. This, obviously, has reduced the flexibility of the graduate on the job market compared to those with two degrees from the old system. Now comes the drastically increased financial burden to getting even the first along with the complete lack of funding for law and economics and a very law numbers funded in technical subjects, informatics and science subjects. Almost everyone who would like to follow these subjects in higher education, would have to pay full, or in a small number of cases, half price of the education.

To understand the financial side, gross salaries in the service sector, mostly for those working in education and health services for state-run institutions, vary somewhere between €6000 and €10000 per annum in a country whose nominal annual GDP is around €10000. Most teachers and health service providers get by on a monthly net income of around €4-500. The new reduction of state funding for university studies means that a student willing to study but not getting state funding has to pay between €650 and €1200 a semester, but to follow medicine, one has to pay nearly €4000 per semester. This further means that most families where parents work in the intellectual sphere will not be able to finance their children to follow similar studies to theirs. Student loans can be obtained, though, resulting indebtedness for half a life, because student work, paid even worse than others, is hardly a solution for the masses with the growing unemployment.

One interesting side to the matter is that those using full or partial state funding have to sign a contract forcing them to stay and work inside Hungary for a period double the time for their studies. Similarly to serfs in feudalism, bonded to their places. Looking back to our history indeed.

Another interesting, political, side to it is that current Prime Minister Orbán Viktor has always maintained that he won’t introduce tuition fees, he won’t allow people to be hindered in their future by the burden of having to pay for their education. The article, which quotes him at the end saying such thing over the years, can be read here – Google may translate it well enough for my readers to understand the main ideas there.

That such contradictions prevail, and such laws can be brought upon Hungary any day, I’ve suspected for a long time. It’s not a war-torn country, civilian unrest is not yet on the horizon, but I’d prefer to try to find a place for myself somewhere more humane, logical and calculable.

by P.S.

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