Summary of the joint conference on education by the Free Market Foundation, the Uninvited Network and the Civic Platform
On November 18 in Budapest, the Free Market Foundation together with the Uninvited Network and the Civic Platform organized a conference on education. Teachers, students, parents, recruiters and education policy experts worked together during the event to identify the issues of the education system and to formulate responses and solutions.
The first part of the conference, which was closed for the public and the press, consisted of two parallel workshops on the topics of digital education and foreign language education. According to the experiences of the participants of the workshops, the performance of Hungarian students is lagging behind the regional average in both areas. Students often need to take private lessons to develop their skills and knowledge in these two crucial fields because the public education is unable to provide them with opportunities to do so.
Participants felt that new ideas and improvements are blocked by the inflexibility of the current education system. To improve competitiveness of education, they recommended making teaching a more attractive career choice, providing trainings for instructors and decreasing the workload of both teachers and students.
The workshops were followed by two public panel discussions. Three education policy experts were invited to the first panel. All of them agreed on the negative aspects of the centralization of the education system implemented by the government since 2010. They claimed that the diminishing autonomy of the institutions was exacerbated by structural problems in both the public and the higher education systems.
Balázs Váradi explained that only autonomous market-based institutions have the capabilities and flexibility to adapt to the expectations of the labor market. According to Péter Radó, the government is attempting to centralize both public and higher education but universities are capable of resistance – students and professors may either protest or leave for institutions abroad. Dániel Deák mentioned that the system does not adapt to the needs of students or parents which prompts them to continue their studies at foreign universities. All three experts have a pessimistic outlook regarding the future of Hungarian education: They believe that it is going to prove difficult to revert the current negative tendencies.
Participants of the second panel were opposition politicians István Hiller (MSZP Member of Parliament and Vice Speaker), Zoltán Kész (Independent Member of the Parliament) and Ágnes Osztolykán (member of the LMP party); members of the governing FIDESZ-KDNP coalition and executives of the Ministry of Human Capacities were asked to participate but all declined the invitation. As Zoltán Kész summarized the situation, Hungary is losing its most capable students because of incapable policy makers. He mentioned several schools in his constituency where teachers have to secure teaching aids on their own because of the financial problems of the centralized system.
According to István Hiller, there is no education policy in Hungary, only power politics. The current level of centralization is harmful and unprecedented over the last one hundred years. Ágnes Osztolykán explained that the problems in the system cannot be solved in one electoral cycle, even though every administration tries to do so. She believes that only the effective self-organization and advocacy of teacher unions can hinder centralization efforts. All three panellists agreed that governing parties keep refusing to cooperate with them in fixing the issues. Zoltán Kész mentioned a recent draft law authored by him as an example: He proposed to amend legislation so that disabled citizens can take language exams – which is right now impossible for the deaf, for example. His draft was rejected by government parties without any consideration, based on political reasons.
The conference ended with questions from the audience. Many of them mentioned local problems that supported the claims made during the two panel discussions. Most of these included financial problems in schools and diminishing institutional autonomy.