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Editorial: Better education can help stop brain drain

The following is the editorial from the February 26 biweekly edition of the Budapest Business Journal.

Although Hungary’s leaders have spent a lot of time spreading fear of the phenomenon of immigration, emigration is a much bigger problem. Instead of worrying about who comes into Hungary, it is time to pay more attention to how many people are leaving. While a “family support” plan like CSOK might sound like a nice way to encourage Hungarian babies, it is not going to keep people here, and it certainly won’t stem the brain drain.

Doctors have been leaving this country at a rate of 1,000 a year, but the problem is becoming acute in other areas, like the fields of engineering and IT, where the best trained workers leave. This is a loss for local companies, and the trend makes Hungary a less interesting place for investors, who have traditionally come here seeking affordable talent.

To a certain extent, this exodus is inevitable: Hungarians can get employment elsewhere in Europe, which is a good thing. But much more can be done to make this the kind of country where young, creative people want to stay and try to make something of their lives. Even if local salaries are much lower, local costs are also somewhat lower too; many professionals might choose to stay in the country they love if some basic conditions improved.

Unfortunately, the system is set up so that an intelligent young person is likely to come to the conclusion that it is time to leave.

Not only are grammar schools so underfunded and over-managed by a centralized authority that teachers and parents are holding demonstrations and planning strikes, but funding cuts and politics have also apparently taken their toll on the country’s excellent universities. Professors and students have complained of political interference in administration and downsizing of certain departments based on apparently arbitrary decisions. Our best and brightest students will assess the situation and figure out how to get their education elsewhere. And if they cannot leave the country for schooling, they can definitely leave after graduation.

It appears that a big part of the problem is mismanagement by government authorities, which started taking greater control over all education after Fidesz was elected in 2010. In that case, the government needs to reform the management of education.

But if some or all of the problem is due to lack of money in the state budget, that should be solvable: We simply need to compare the importance of our children’s future against expensive projects like the total reconstruction of City Park, an Olympic bid for Budapest, purchases of landmark properties by the central bank – and a host of other high-profile and unneeded government expenditures.

We could also take a critical look at CSOK, a program designed to give families gifts of as much as HUF 10 million toward buying a new home if they promise to have enough children.

While CSOK is clearly meant to help the construction industry, another stated purpose of the program is to encourage Hungarians to start families. But how many families can receive HUF 10 million grants before the government runs out of money? What is the point of encouraging people to have babies when we are not doing enough to educate the young people who already live in Hungary? What kind of institutions will await these babies when they reach school age?

Before making room for new people, we should do something to stop those already living in Hungary from leaving.