Hungary’s Public Education Passes to Higher Grade

The ultimate goal of the government’s education policy is to ensure a more accessible education of higher quality – and one that is attuned to the demands of the labor market.

As Hungarian youngsters say goodbye to summer and the new school year gets under way, we get to see the government’s reforms roll out. Changes to Hungary’s education system, introduced over the past six years, have undergone a good deal of scrutiny and have sometimes stirred controversy. As some 1.6 million students return to school this week, we can now begin to point to some achievements from all these changes.

The ultimate goal of the government’s education policy is to ensure a more accessible education of higher quality – and one that is attuned to the demands of the labor market. Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Capacities, pointed out in his speech during a ceremony for the opening of the academic year that a better and more competitive, but at the same time value-based, education is in the common interest of Hungarians.

In 2010, the Orbán government inherited an education system in disarray. It was on the verge of bankruptcy, and our first task was to extinguish the flames as fast as we could by covering the bills and the education-related debt of the municipalities facing default. Understandably, the difference in the financing capabilities and level of indebtedness inevitably affected the level of education provided to local pupils. Therefore, the principal aim of the reform was to reduce and – ultimately – balance the level of education services by setting national standards, in addition to freeing the public education system from debt.

We realize that standards alone may not be enough. Many families lack the financial means to send their children to school. They cannot afford to buy textbooks and other educational materials. As a result of the government’s reform, this year, more than two-thirds of students gain access to school textbooks for free, for a total value of 12 billion HUF. This figure increases to 90 percent among the youngest. Moreover, the cost to families for educational materials has decreased by 30 percent from 2013 to 2016.

For a striking number of families in – mainly – rural Hungary, school is of utmost importance. From an overall budget that is 400 billion HUF more than in 2010 during the Socialist-led government, the Orbán Government managed to grant free school meals for an unprecedented 68 percent of pupils, while the budget for this purpose more than doubled. Public kindergarten meals are provided free of charge and even throughout the summer break.

The burden of regular absences is not new to the educational system, especially in the poorest regions, where kids may have an obligation at a very young age to help out at home or take jobs instead of finishing school. It leads to a cycle of inherited poverty, out of which the only way is quality education.

In general, Hungarian families receive monthly financial assistance based on their social and economic circumstances. As an incentive to motivate parents – from this year on – this sum is linked to the school attendance of their children. If attendance is not verified, payments can be interrupted. Free dormitories and financial aid to children from large families and talented youngsters from poor families are provided. The goal is not to have young talent wasted because of financial hardship.

An important new aspect of education goes hand in hand with employment policy. Huge numbers of smart, talented students struggle to join the labor market because their qualifications and skills do not match those required by employers. So, we have introduced reforms in the vocational training system to equip graduates with skills that can be utilized throughout their careers.

The upcoming years will challenge the new system and there will be areas that will require some tweaks along the way, but the government remains open to teachers, students or parents who express new, different or opposing ideas as before. There was so much to fix with the old system that our government is still fine-tuning the reforms, but the renewed emphasis on quality and results is headed in the right direction.