How Centralization of Education Fails in Hungary

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John via flickr || Creative Commons

Hungarian educational institutions have been struggling with insufficient funding for a long time. Yet, the reforms aiming to tackle these challenges ended up damaging the education system. Tension is increasing between teachers and the government, with no solution in sight.

Whereas most countries agree that education is of key importance in the era of knowledge-based economy, in Hungary, government expenditure on education has been declining since 2004. Thus in recent years it became increasingly harder for municipalities to pay for the upkeep of schools, especially in the poorer regions of the country. This led to inequalities between institutions and noticeable differences in the quality of education. In 2013, the Hungarian government decided to take over the upkeep of public schools and bring all the institutions to the same level by drawing them all under a single entity, a body that would oversee the public education system.

Although the creation of this central body, commonly known as KLIK, seemed like a good and much-needed idea for the country’s education system, it quickly became the most criticized and attacked measure of the reform yet. Instead of meeting its original goals – creating an effective and cheap way to run educational institutions and balancing out the differences between schools of poorer and richer areas, the KLIK became the head of an inoperable, over-centralized and opaque system. A system in which teachers find it easier to buy chalk sticks or stacks of paper themselves, because alongside with the central overseeing body came such high bureaucratic burden that even the smallest operational tasks are obstructed. Not to mention more serious responsibilities such as the mending of a broken school window, which now can take days, even weeks. In addition, KLIK is in the red ever since its first year, despite annually receiving billions of forints. This results in teachers not getting their pay on time or even in schools having to close temporarily because they were unable to pay the gas bills.

As for evening out the quality of education across the country, the government aimed to demolish disparities by introducing a unified education plan. Schools now have to follow the National Core Curriculum, the textbook industry was nationalized, and new subjects introduced. As a result, students and teachers alike are overwhelmed by the increased number of hours spent in school, educators complain that the growing load of administrative duties prevent them from concentrating on providing quality education, and the textbooks schools are bound to use contain errors, misprints or uninterpretable passages.

Needless to say, all the measures were planned without any prior consultation with stakeholders, and introduced so rapidly that many schools found themselves unable to meet all the requirements. Taking the installation of mandatory daily Physical Education as an example: most schools do not have the facilities needed to provide P.E. lessons for each class every day. Many students are now forced to have P.E. lessons ‘in theory’, meaning they watch videos of the Olympics or learn about the muscles of the human body. Even worse, in some schools students have to run around the corridors during P.E., as the gym is occupied by another class.

The first to publicly speak up about the terrible state of the education system were the teachers in Miskolc, a city of 160.000 in north-eastern Hungary. They issued an open letter summarizing their criticism and demands in the beginning of 2016. Their proposal was endorsed by more than 500 schools and 30.000 individuals in the following weeks, showing clearly that the damages of the education reform are felt nation-wide.

The growing tension could no longer be overlooked. A Public Education Roundtable forum was called together on February 9, and the undersecretary for public education, Judit Bertalan Czunyiné was replaced by László Palkovics, undersecretary for higher education. The public, however, feels that these steps will not lead to any significant improvements but are rather feeble attempts to quiet the discontent protesters. Their fears are not ungrounded, even the roundtable discussion was organized without inviting important independent associations, such as the Teachers Democratic Union.

The most recent poll shows that two-thirds of Hungarians agree with the protesting teachers’ and students’ crowd. Even those otherwise supporting the ruling party are against this totally centralized, top-heavy system. Despite such level of discontent, the question remains: is the government willing admit that the KLIK turned out to be a failure and is it ready to carry out radical improvements in the Hungarian education system, or will it continue to reply to the protesters’ demands with meaningless changes?

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