Higher education as a whole has been a prominent focus of the current and the previous governments as well, with tertiary education often becoming a battleground. It should come as no surprise that political leaders, regardless of their party affiliation, attribute significance to universities, as they are the institutions from which the professionals and the intelligentsia of the future emerge. Improving the quality and international standing of Hungarian higher education is of primary importance for the Fidesz government as well. The Orbán government has engaged in a rather radical transformation of the university system in Hungary which has provoked ample criticism at home and abroad. Of course, while many actors on the left indeed attempt to undermine the efforts of the government at all times, fears that some may end up not having access to higher education for financial reasons as a result of the privatisation of several major universities should not be completely dismissed.
Perhaps also to address those fears, changes to the university application system have been announced. However, to see the changes clearly, and understand their background and context, it is worth to take a brief look at Hungarian higher education as such.
A Brief Look at Higher Education Past and Present
Hungarian higher education has a rich and colourful past. For over 650 years, the institutions of Hungary have been representing academic excellence. The first university was founded in 1387 in Pécs. Currently there are over 65 institutions in Hungary that range from minor universities of applied sciences to top research universities in the region. Hungary has 28 state-funded, 11 privately funded and 26 church-funded establishments.
With a wide range of classes and languages, all universities are internationalised, offering more than 500 courses in foreign languages, the most prominent of those being English, German and French.
Compared to their rivals on the continent, the foreign language programmes are of a very high calibre and the tuition costs are relatively reasonable.
While smaller universities have programmes in a few focused areas, bigger colleges offer courses in all study categories. Through joint degree programmes in which some Hungarian universities collaborate with European higher education institution, students can even achieve double degrees. Students who apply for these programmes enrol in both colleges, earning a degree from both.
Hungarian universities also offer a range of scholarship possibilities to international students. Students can apply to the EU-funded Erasmus, the Stipendium Hungaricum Scholarship Programme, launched in 2013 by the government, to CEEPUS, to Bilateral State Scholarships which includes around 68 countries, and to the Scholarship Programme for Christian Young People.
Restructuring the System and Facing Backlash
Viktor Orbán’s government has always been keen on improving education, with ambitious plans to restructure the system in Hungary. In 2021, they announced a set of laws that set in motion one of the largest changes in higher education since the system change. A number of public universities were transferred to private foundations established by a law that was passed in parliament in April 2021. The change essentially meant the privatisation of some universities, that would thus be controlled by various foundations, largely financed by private corporations. According to the government, the new format allows universities to manage their funds in a more sensible manner, while being monitored independently from the leadership of the universities.
Earlier the same year, in February László Palkovics, who held the position of innovation and technology minister at the time, announced that a new three-pillar funding scheme will be implemented by the government in September 2021 to better support various aspects of university activity. The state financing of universities would from then on be allocated separately for education, research and infrastructure development, and upkeep. All this basically meant that going forward, the amount of taxpayer money universities receive would not depend solely on the number of students they teach, but also on their research and development activities as well,
a logical incentive to institutions to enhance their research activities and boost their impact.
Reactions to the Changes
Some of the universities affected by the privatisation instantly announced that they would transition, while others contested the changes. The first institution that implemented the new system was Corvinus University (BCE). They served as the pilot institution, and as the other universities, mostly in the capital city, followed in their footsteps, it seemed that the transition was going smoothly, without major disruptions.
However, some universities were not convinced about the restructuring, and refused to accept the terms of the government. The strongest resistance was put up by SZFE, the University of Theatre and Film Arts, as its leaders and students believed that the government was trying to force its own agenda on the university. After a heated debate between SZFE and the ministry in charge of the transition, the medical universities of the country also started to oppose the new system, however, thanks to the clear and open communication between the sides, the transformation went ahead without the drama witnessed at SZFE that, thanks to the international media, was disproportionately amplified.
Criticism of the Boards of Trustees
Most of the criticism the transformation faced came from the fact that the foundations running the universities would be led by a board of trustees consisting of close-to-the-government individuals and in some cases government politicians, and that their mandate would be indefinite. The government argued that Western examples show quite similar practices in higher education, emphasising that the issue of competitiveness in this field does not only affect universities, but the Hungarian economy as a whole.
It was not only opposition parties in Hungary that found fault with political figures sitting on the university boards, but the European Commission as well, which has warned that should the situation not change, private universities may not have access to EU-funded grants and scholarship programmes going forward. After some back and forth between the Hungarian government and Brussels, it seems that a compromise will be reached, and the composition of the boards is likely to change.
The Latest Changes Announced Affect the Admission Process
As of 6 February, another set of changes is about to roll out regarding universities in Hungary. While these changes are not about funding, one would expect that they will be received with some resistance as well. State Secretary for Innovation and Higher Education Balázs Hankó announced on Monday that the application process for universities in Hungary will drastically change in 2023 and in 2024. Hankó gave remarks in Budapest on Monday, addressing students who are about to apply for university. The event aimed to help youngsters decide what careers they can set their sights on and which universities would be best suited for their ambitions.
Hankó reminded his audience that starting this year, students who are taking their school leaving exam are not required to sit at least one of them at an advanced level.
The universities will now have the freedom to decide whether they will request an advanced level Matura exam or not from applicants.
Another new element in the process is that applications are going to be completely electronic, with students even able to apply for admission using their smartphones.
As for the application process, 2024 will introduce rather drastic changes to what we have known before. Hankó explained that starting next year, universities will be granted a lot more freedom in hand-picking their applicants. Institutions will be allowed to decide what specific grades from high school and grades from the school leaving exams they take into consideration when calculating admission points, while also being able to decide what other activities will make them grant the possible 100 plus points. In the standard point system of applications in Hungary applicants can obtain a maximum of 500 points. Previously, of the 500 points one needed to achieve at least 280 to be able to apply for a state-funded spot at an institution. This regulation is going to be erased now, meaning that a university can now allow applicants to apply if they are under this limit as well. The 500 points are made up of the following: one can achieve a maximum of 400 from their high school grades and school leaving exam results, while the other 100 are considered as ‘bonus’ points that are granted for other activities or statuses. For example, a language proficiency exam, or even a successful advanced level school leaving exam both grant bonus points to applicants. As part of the new system, however, these bonus points can be awarded for a one-to-one oral exam organised by the university, or even for achievements in sports, or arts.
Another change announced previously is that students will not be required to have an officially recognised certificate of an at least intermediate level knowledge of a foreign language before the university they attended can issue their degrees. While the exams are not required anymore, students still need to take a school leaving exam in at least one foreign language if they want to apply to a university. It must be noted that while the language proficiency exams are not a sine qua non requirement anymore, institutions have the freedom to decide whether they require it or not before granting a degree to their students.
The Issues with the Lowering Entrance Expectations
While generally speaking, tertiary education in Hungary is of a high standard, and is internationally quite well known and coveted, the number of students entering higher education and the number of degrees obtained have started to fall drastically in recent years. It is debated why the numbers fell so harshly, with critics of the current system suggesting that it is partly due to the reduced access to state-funded places at universities. Another factor may be that a growing number of students decide not to chase higher education, but start working at a younger age, as blue-collar jobs might pay better than many occupations requiring a college degree that have notoriously low financial recognition, in publica education and health care in particular. As a result, jobs that would require people with university degrees remain unfilled.
Granted, easing the entrance requirements might change the mind of those who did not want to go university in the first place,
so the changes could in theory improve these numbers in the near future. My personal experience, however, suggests that studying and earning money are not mutually exclusive to begin with. The Hungarian system of classes in higher education allows for flexible time management. If the argument is that one would want to start to work instantly after high school, good programmes that find jobs for students and companies that specifically cater to university students allow for both. During the three years I attended university, I worked full time on the side, along with many of my peers.
The fact that the numbers should be improved is undeniable, and the government may now be fine-tuning the drastically transformed system. These latest changes may make university admissions even skyrocket in short term. But the fact remains that the system is already helping those who may be at a disadvantage because of their socio-economic status. The aforementioned bonus-point system in fact awards extra points already to marginalised students to get into the school of their dreams. If working or money is the question, universities can help their students with that as well. Those studying under a state-scholarship are eligible for a separate scholarship from the institution itself. If their grades are of a certain standard at the end of a semester, they will receive monthly grants for the next semester from the university. Schools also provide social welfare grants for their students if their situation at home justifies it, not to mention the state-guaranteed student loans accessible to all at very low interest rates.
In short, lowering the bar for university admission is questionable, to say the least.
When I applied to university, I needed about 430 points to get the state scholarship. Checking the data, now one only needs 391. A roughly 40-point drop shows that it is already easier to get into higher education than just a few years ago, and the process is accelerating.
At this point, we can only wait and see. Allowing people who fumbled their exams or grades in high school but are able to finance their studies to get into a higher education institution is not necessarily a bad idea. Those who continue to underperform and are unable to fulfil the academic requirements of the institution they attend, they will, I guess, fail sooner or later and drop out. However, there is a chance that they are taking spots from those who would deserve them more. Also, I think it is a legitimate concern that degrees are going to start to depreciate more and more, turning three years of the blood, sweat and tears of those who studied hard and excelled into a piece of paper that one can only utilise as a cupholder for a poker night.