Government policy no longer seeks to prevent the processes of social marginalization in Hungary. An interview with Eszter Neumann.

The Hungarian Government’s steps towards creating a ‘work-based society’ are likely to bring cuts and conceptual reforms in education. Eszter Neumann, in an interview for Fent Es Lent, discussed the social processes behind this policy shift.

Source: Hungary Around the Clock
Source: Hungary Around the Clock

Fent es Lent: The Hungarian government is preparing serious cuts and conceptual reforms in education. Let’s begin with issues related to the secondary education system. Viktor Orbán, the prime minister has announced his intention to build a “work-based society” instead of the welfare state, and the Secretary of State for Employment announced that he would decrease the number of students studying in academic secondary tracks and to significantly increase the student share of vocational tracks. What are the social processes behind this policy shift?

Eszter Neumann: On the one hand, the education policy of the current government is deeply inter-connected with the strong political influence of the industrial chambers’ lobby. The chambers are interested in highly specialised vocational training which serves their current industrial demands to the greatest extent, and in cheap apprentice labour for the firms who provide workplace based internship placements.

However, to understand the ongoing restructuring and the government’s underlying class policy, we should first look at the history of the development of the present division of functions among the different secondary tracks. The current tripartite secondary school structure, which follows the eight-year general elementary schooling, is the heritage of the Socialist state. The vocational school was once used to train the Socialist working class; the secondary vocational track prepared students for tertiary education and thus provided mobility for the wide masses; and the grammar school academic tracks were the domain of elite education. Compared to other Soviet satellite states, the equalizing Soviet class policy models were characteristically implemented in a lighter form in Hungary. For example, the Soviet model of ten-year long universal basic elementary education was never introduced, and the policy of the 1960s aiming at aligning secondary education to industrial production by teaching applied industrial skills to every student was also softened in grammar schools. The function of grammar schools to produce elites has been clearly distinct from the seventies onwards.

Photo: MTI – Szilard Koszticsak
Prime Minister Viktor Orban Photo: MTI – Szilard Koszticsak

However, the reshuffling that occurred after the change of the regime was clearly caused by declining birth rates. Since 1987, the number of elementary school students has steadily decreased, and had become apparent in secondary education by the mid-1990s. Since the 1990s, the education system has undergone a process called educational expansion: the number of years spent in education and the level of degrees generally rose within younger age-groups. Concurrently, the share of those students who obtained secondary school leaving exams has steadily increased since the mid eighties. In 1990, 20% of the students finishing elementary school entered grammar schools, 27%, secondary vocational schools, and almost 50% of the population was channelled into vocational schools and they would not complete secondary school leaving exams. After the change of regime, the population of the secondary vocational schools and the grammar schools bloated, by 1999, altogether 75% of the students chose paths that provided access to higher education.

This trend has only intensified in the 2000s. The share of those choosing grammar schools gradually increased and the share of those choosing vocational secondaries underwent a proportional decrease, though the latter was still the more populous.

This is due to two factors. On the one hand, as the birth rate declined more and more school spaces and resources became available to a wider segment of society. On the other hand, parental aspirations for the future of their children have changed. In small and midsize towns, grammar schools have taken on symbolic importance in the eyes of the local elites. In most places the town leadership has been eager to maintain grammar schools even when the application numbers dropped. Grammar schools and secondary vocational schools have also aimed to protect teacher jobs and thus gradually absorbed the children of the lower middle class who aimed for the matriculation exam. Thus the expansion of education has occurred as the combined result of institutional and middle class interests. Consequently, the doors of the secondary vocational schools and second-rate grammar schools were opened to the children of the lower middle and working classes. Yet in the nineties the education system continued to be extremely selective, resulting in vast numbers of educational failures among the marginalized groups. According to estimates vocational schools have been operating with dropout rates as high as 50%, and 15-20% of whole age groups have left secondary school without a diploma.

F&L: And in the meantime, parliament increased the compulsory school age from 16 to 18.

EN: Yes, that happened in 1996. It was predicted that the Hungarian economy would not need as many skilled and semi-skilled workers with low qualifications. This law about the compulsory school age applied only to those who started primary school in 1998, so its real effect could be felt only after 2008. As a result, at least theoretically, the children of the biggest losers of the change of the regime in 1989 could enter into the overcrowded vocational school classes. These new students were typically from villages: children of public workers, unskilled workers, those unemployed for several generations, and Roma people, the majority of whose parents did not have more than eight years of elementary schooling. Hence, it is not surprising that schoolteachers in every type of school, with the sole exception of ‘elite-hatching secondary schools’, complain of a ‘dilution in the level of their children’s potential’.

FL: The government reacted by lowering the compulsory school age back to 16 from 2012 on.

EN: Before 2012, all children of compulsory school age had to be enrolled in some school and those who were not admitted elsewhere had to be enrolled into vocational schools of ‘compulsory enrolment’. Effective last year, this obligation ceased, and overage students and those who were not admitted anywhere now go to so called ‘Híd’ (bridge) classes.[1] These students, typically year-repeaters or private students[2], receive 1 or 2 years of general education there, and can then proceed to vocational training. As the pupils here normally have a history of learning disorders and very little experience of socialising in the classroom, and the programme is not sufficiently funded, this type of programme is practically doomed to fail. The government is now plans to reduce the number of vocational secondary school and grammar school students, and redirect surplus students into vocational schools. At the school level, though, the consequences have not yet become apparent.

FL: Statistics show that the lower someone’s school qualifications are, the harder it is to succeed in the job market: the ratio of unemployed skilled workers tends to be much higher than of those with university or college degrees, or with completed secondary school leaving exams. You say it can be linked to the fact that secondary school leaving exams and certificates have become more accessible for many. The government, however, is not moving in the direction of providing much wider general education in comprehensive and vocational secondary schools, but is rather moving masses of students into vocational training. Do we really need more skilled workers without secondary school education?

EN: Because of educational expansion, jobs that normally did not require secondary education are now filled up with people with such qualifications. Today, a secondary school leaving certificate has become the symbol of a guaranteed level of education, of the capacity for flexibility and for skills of independent problem-solving – both in the eyes of families and in the job market. I have not seen any labour market surveys, however, which would support the claim that in Hungary there is substantiated need for more skilled workers without secondary school education. On the contrary, research shows that the basic indicator for success in the job market correlates with the level of the basic skills, i.e. to what extent someone is capable of understanding written texts and doing basic calculations, as well as how you can use these skills in everyday job situations. The declarations issued by the government seem to suggest a kind of ‘planned economy approach’, they want education today which is tailor-made to the needs of a perceived future economy. What follows from the government’s present policy aimed at developing industry is that they need an education system designed to provide cheap, disposable semi-skilled workers for the needs of the conveyor belts of multinational companies. These plans imply cheap, semi-skilled labour – you do not even need vocational school training for that. The steps taken so far also suggest, that one of the most important means to withdraw funds from public education is to reduce the length of time students spend in education programmes: lower compulsory school age, preference for the 3year vocational training, and providing a technician’s qualification after 5 years instead of the previous 6.

These plans are extremely problematic because they expose the educational system to the present short-term needs and vagaries of big companies. At the same time, too, they make it the privilege of the elite to have access to education that can equip you with stable literacy and numeracy skills that can provide the basis for further retraining and skills transfer, with stable foreign language skills, or with the enhanced capacity for critical thinking.

FL: In Hungary, social inequality started to increase as early as the 80s, and though between the mid 1990s and mid 2000s this increase was not dramatic, since 2007 it has accelerated, and concurrently the number of people in poverty increased. Both the education strategy of the EU and the public education laws in Hungary have it as their main target to prevent social exclusion from growing. How effective is the present education system in reducing inequality and increasing social mobility?

EN: The government subordinates education policy to the economic policy of reindustrialization – it comes by no surprise that the entire vocational training sector is about to be reorganized under the Ministry of National Economy. Within these frameworks education has become an instrument of the internal restructuring of society for short-term economic goals. This goes against the ideology of education in previous decades, which had promised that Hungary would, through education, become competitive with, and improve its position in, the international labour market. Preventing social marginalization and strengthening mobility via education were both stated goals of the previous ideological frameworks. These goals are now clearly being reinterpreted alongside economic limitations. Social marginalization is a theme throughout the Public Education Act, though it pays lip-service to the old aims without assuring the necessary material resources, and this is really decisive. The significant, systematic changes in this field are apparent in the fact that government policy no longer seeks to prevent the processes of social marginalization. A process of spontaneous reorganization has started (e.g. raising number of year repetitions and private learner statuses) – with a lack of additional resources (such as those for individual mentoring, tutoring), and compromising inclusive legislation, the educational failures of the children of marginalized strata add up to systemic social change.

NGOs Protest School Segregation for Roma Children in Hungary December 18, 2014 • by Hungarian Civil Liberties Union/
NGOs Protest School Segregation for Roma Children in Hungary, December 18, 2014 •  by Hungarian Civil Liberties Union

FL: What does the current educational reform promise to the different social strata?

EN: The modified rates of enrolment will probably result in losing ground for the lower middle class – instead of vocational secondary schools, they will get into vocational schools. At the same time, lowering compulsory schooling age to 16 will exclude the children of the marginalized strata. The middle class has been shaken by the economic crisis, and thus it clings desperately to the illusion of educational mobility. The Orbán government promises jobs for the lower middle class and would open a narrow mobilization channel towards specialised jobs in the field of engineering. Vocational secondary school students are also about to have more limited choices of further education pathways, since they will have mandatory vocational school leaving exams, and are thus directed towards vocational higher education. The system gives up on the children of public workers, the unemployed, and Roma people of the villages – they are to become the public workers of the future, deprived of a social safety net. The field of training intellectuals from state resources will be limited to the grammar schools and church operated schools. Church operated schools[3] will possibly be the beneficiaries of the modification of enrolment rates – if the number of grammar school classes will be decreased, the ratio of church operated schools in the grammar school sector will increase. The strata of intellectuals who are not satisfied by the ideology of the conservative middle class education will have the opportunity to pay for private or education offered by foundations, or for higher education abroad after secondary school.

Students protest against the planned reforms of Hungarian education system in Budapest, capital of Hungary, on Dec. 12, 2012. (Xinhua/Attila Volgyi)
Students protest against the planned reforms of Hungarian education system in Budapest, capital of Hungary, on Dec. 12, 2012. (Xinhua/Attila Volgyi)

FL: And what about higher education? The higher education strategy of last year, which was supposed to explicitly increase the number of students in higher education, was supported by all but the president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the Hungarian Roundtable of Higher Education. Eventually, however, the government did not even discuss the draft bill. The current concept would, nevertheless, decrease the number of university departments and the state would only finance certain fields (health care, engineering, agriculture and teaching), while the remaining ones would be self-financed. What is the purpose of that?

EN: It is clear from the strategy that the state is imposing serious austerity measures in education. The increase of university seats affects only fields where there is an intention to attract significant private, that is, corporate capital. This also means that the content of education and research would be increasingly attuned to the needs of corporations. Thus, while the government and government-friendly media launches counter-liberal ideological attacks (the “philosophers’ case, restriction of higher education autonomy etc.), actually there is a neoliberal shift, a marketization of higher education, very similarly to what is happening in higher education policy in Western Europe.

The other significant change has been the reduction of financing for humanities and social science departments, and tearing down of some privileges of the middle class that were regarded as self-evident. From now on, the state invests only into the “economically worthy” training of industrial engineers, while offering only minimal support for the education of intellectuals in the humanities. All that is in line with their ideological goals, the wasting away of intellectuals – why support the education of the potential future opposition with public money? To sum up, the big question of the future is how the lower middle class most affected by the threat and loss of status because of the crisis, would react to changes that destroy all hope for the futures of their children?

DSC00942Eszter Neumann is a sociologist of education and member of the Helyzet Working Group for Public Sociology. Her research focuses on the working mechanisms of the Post-Socialist Hungarian education system. Her research interests include educational decision-making, urban education policies, and the school as a site of exercising power. She has been a PhD student at King’s College London since 2013.

[1] Bridge classes were introduced as a new track in the school year of 2012 for students who have completed 6 years of elementary education and already turned 15. Thus the programme actually serves as a way to separate those students who are found to be the “most difficult” to educate in mainstream elementary schools.

[2] Private learners are separated from the classroom community and receive 10 lessons per week from the teachers individually. While this status originally serves the needs of long-term sick students or students studying abroad, it has long been argued that schools exploit this legal possibility to separate the most seriously norm-breaking “problem students” from the classroom community.

[3] Since 2010, the role of the church has rapidly increased in public schools – with significant governmental support and a Christian conservative ideological background. Since the school year of 2009/2010, the number of religious schools has risen by more than 50%, and they have the biggest share (22% of schools) in the comprehensive secondary school education.

The original version was published on the Hungarian (12/02/2015)

Interviewer: Tünde Komoróczki

Translated by Hajnal Fekete, Szabina Kerényi and Eszter Neumann

Edited by Gabriel Levente Pandy-Szekeres

By Eszter Neumann

Eszter Neumann is a sociologist of education and member of the Helyzet Working Group for Public Sociology. Her research focuses on the working mechanisms of the Post-Socialist Hungarian education system. Her research interests include educational decision-making, urban education policies, and the school as a site of exercising power. She has been a PhD student at King’s College London since 2013.