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Big ain’t beautiful – why Hungary has troubles with its higher education

State funding in Hungarian higher education encourages a pursuit of size rather than quality. The educational profile is in a mismatch with the requirements of the economy, which is a crucial bottleneck of development. Where is the way out from this situation?

Higher education is a perennial topic of debate. This is especially so in Central and Eastern Europe, where it constitutes one of the key problems with regards to competitiveness and convergence with the West.

The 20th century was one of success and pride as far as Central European universities are concerned. They were world leaders, especially in the natural sciences, as attested by countless innovations, patents and Nobel Prize laureates. When dictatorial regimes descended upon the region, Mitteleuropa provided a wave of highly educated immigrants to the Anglo-Saxon world. Although social sciences were explicitly discouraged, which has left behind a seemingly unbridgeable gap, the region excelled in mathematics, medicine, horticulture, biology, chemistry, nuclear physics, arts and physical education.

This heritage has been wasted since the transition to democracy. Visegrád countries’ citizens found themselves less and less confident when speaking about their internationally recognized ‘grey matter,’ until it gradually became obvious that what was once a strength has since become a liability. Everything from PISA tests through international university rankings to patents have brought home the fact that the education and research sector of the region has become outdated and underperforming.

Size is partially to blame. From the 1990s onwards, the ratio of those with a higher education degree became an international index of development, regardless of quality or relevance of education, as well as the chances of employment. The World Bank and the EU encouraged the development of bloated higher education sectors with studies and loans. Whereas only some 8% of Hungarians had university degrees at the time of the transition, at the demographic peak a few years ago, 43% of the college-age population was allowed into higher education.  While Ireland only around eight universities for its five million inhabitants, Hungary, a country only double that size, has 78 institutions of higher learning. State funding is allocated per student, encouraging a pursuit of size rather than quality. The educational profile of these institutions is in a mismatch with the requirements of the economy.

It is well recognized that standards have dropped, and the labor market effects are catastrophic. Youth unemployment is above 20% in almost every country of the region. There is no longer even one Central and Eastern European university in the top 100 according to international rankings (in fact, not even below that for quite a while). Patents from the region have dropped dramatically. While the Europe 2020 Strategy of the EU has highlighted research and education as key components of competitiveness all over the Union, some countries, especially in Scandinavia, have stepped forward to be world leaders, while Central and Eastern Europe has remained stuck. Not surprisingly, Scandinavian states spend four to five times as much on education per student on purchasing power parity as CEE states do, according to Eurostat.

Concentrating on taxes as the perceived key factor of competitiveness, no government in the region has been able to reform this sector. Poland moved towards private universities, the result of which was that the same professors spent more time at better paid private universities while also keeping their safe state jobs. No dramatic improvements can be demonstrated empirically. Now it is the Hungarian government that is about to tackle this complex issue, with various plans being discussed. Size, structure, financing and institutional questions are all at stake. Whatever the final proposals will be, we can expect a heated summer of debates and demonstrations. The issue can no longer be postponed; it has become a crucial bottleneck of development for Hungary. Let us hope that a viable new strategy can be found, which will benefit the economy as well as the social roles played by higher education.

Zoltán Pogátsa is associate professor at the University of Western Hungary.