Eszter Bartha: From Communism to Bologna: The Emerging Crisis of Hungarian Universities

Eszter Bartha: From Communism to Bologna: The Emerging Crisis of Hungarian Universities
By Eszter Bartha, Eötvös Loránd University of Sciences, Budapest

Today’s situation in Hungarian higher education displays the problems of transition from a model considered to be outdated by the European Union to a new structure. Just like the great political-economic transformation marked by the date of 1989 this transition is also ridden with political conflicts and diverging interests. In what follows an attempt will be made to outline the pre-1989 situation and the main reform concepts – along with an explanation of what has failed and why.

The root of many of the current problems lies in the pre-1989 structure of academic life in Hungary, which was modeled upon the Soviet concept of separating research from higher education. Thus, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences was by no means a mere honorary institution but it was endowed with both symbolic and real capital to control Hungarian academic research. It maintained – and still maintains – several research institutes, which were considered to be more prestigious academically than teaching in higher education. Top academics could, of course, lecture at universities but the locus of real scholarly prestige was the Academy and not the universities.

After 1989 the Hungarian academic system faced two major challenges. The first one was a dramatic increase in the number of students. In 1990 Hungarian institutions of higher education had around 100,000 students; this reached 400,000 in 2003/2004, and after a peak in 2005/2006 of 424,000 it started to fall again, showing that the system had reached its internal limits.

The second problem, which concerned both the universities and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, was the lack of resources to modernize the old infrastructure, reorganize  education –adapted to the needs of the increased number of students – and develop new teaching materials and courses designed for students with varying knowledge, skills and abilities. This would have replaced the older elitist system, where admission depended on a very strict selection process.

Nonetheless, the rank of university increased in prestige because institutions of higher education received state support for every student enrolled, and the amount paid for a university student was higher than for a college student. No wonder that universities started to mushroom. Before the Second World War there were 6 universities in Hungary; between 1945 and 1990 27 new institutions of higher education were founded, whereas after 1989 37 new institutions received accreditation. This seemingly contradicts the earlier claim about a lack of resources. We have to qualify the claim: next to insufficient resources, the inadequate division of the existing resources also poses a big problem to the present Hungarian academic system.

In 1999 Hungary – together with 30 other countries – signed the Bologna Treaty on the introduction of the two-level university training system (BA and MA). In the old system an undergraduate degree course lasted for 5 years, and one could obtain a degree only after fulfilling all the obligations required during this time. The new system elicited huge resistance in academic circles, and there was also a massive social mobilization against the reform of the higher education. Why? Apart from the fierce political struggle, which markedly characterized the last years in Hungary, the planned reform indeed had many elements, which not only violated many interests but also cast doubt on the benefits to Hungarian academic life.

Firstly, the new system decreased per capita state support for university students. In order to compensate the universities, tuition fees were introduced. (Students received a waiver based on their achievement and social situation). Nonetheless, this step met with the massive resistance of university students, and severely worsened the political climate for the then-ruling socialist-liberal government.

Secondly, the attempt to modernize universities and appoint a managing body to control finances (consisting of delegates of the Ministry of Education and delegates of the universities) met with strong resistance from universities – partly because of fears that the managing body would be used to reduce the number of academic and official staff currently employed in higher education. This fear was reinforced by the government’s proposal to abolish university teachers’ status as public employees (which guarantees protection from dismissal).

Thirdly, the government made it clear that they plan to transfer research to the universities, which would have meant the severe reduction of the (remaining) cultural capital of the Academy. There were plans to sell the valuable estates of the Academy – which, of course, elicited general outrage among academicians. It also left unclear what would happen to the people currently employed in the research institutions of the Academy (many of which were planned to be sold). Given the fact that there were rumors about massive lay-offs at Eötvös Loránd University, the most famous and renowned university in Hungary at the time of the reform, it is highly unlikely that the dismissed academic researchers would have – or could have – found new employment at the universities.

This helps us understand the apparent paradox: while the Hungarian academic system is in serious need of urgent reform, the planned reform that was put forward by the socialist-liberal coalition failed altogether. Since the Bologna-system was closely linked to the eventual nightmare that many anticipated  – the selling of the academic institutions, the dismissal of researchers and university teachers and the destruction of what was left of the Hungarian Academy – one can understand why many teachers, who work in higher education, showed little enthusiasm for this program. The government’s plan would have received more support if – instead of direct confrontation with all important actors: the academicians, who were regarded as senile old people, desperately clinging to their privileges; the teachers, who were threatened with the loss of their jobs; and the students, who were asked to pay – they had tried to explain the necessity for change and, even more importantly, had made concessions to at least some of the social actors. (Note, the tuition fee that was suggested by the government amounted to a monthly average wage for a year).

The story – so far – lacks a happy ending. The socialist-liberal coalition suffered a severe defeat in the election of 2010. Nonetheless, the problems continue to persist: the system of higher education has exhausted its internal reserves, the funding that the state can give to the universities is insufficient, and the opposition – in its campaign – gave the firm promise not to introduce tuition fees.

The old question returns: how can one modernize Hungarian higher education when many departments struggle with basic financial difficulties? (There is no paper, or if a computer or a copying machine breaks down there is no money to repair it, and so on.) One path towards a solution might be to create a well-endowed category of research universities. The idea would be to give differentiated state support to the 70 institutions of higher education: those who obtain the proud title of “research university” would be entitled for more support. It, however, has to be noted that even within this proposal there is the hidden intention to reduce the role of the Academy – since research universities are distinguished by the fact that they conduct internationally recognized research

In any event the process will be painful. To make things worse, the present academic system still bears the characteristic traits of “actually existing socialism”: they are saving on the infrastructure but they are not saving on human resources. If an external managing body takes over universities, massive lay-offs can be expected. Should things come to that point, it would be highly undesirable were the past to repeat itself and political interests come to determine the (re)distribution of academic positions in Hungary.

Universities in Crisis, 29/05/10