Monday, 31 December 2012

Financing the Future

Since the beginning of December, many Hungarian students have been protesting against a series of government measures which include both a cutback of state-financed university places and an obligatory contract which requires state-financed students to work in Hungary for at least 10 years upon graduation. The decisions outraged university students, applicants and teachers alike - yet in many other countries, university costs are indeed financed by the students themselves. Who is right? What could be the optimal solution for Hungarian higher education? 

The sign reads: My future. Source: index.hu


Introduction


The current system of Hungarian higher education is clearly in a crisis. Year by year, thousands of young secondary school graduates choose to apply for higher education abroad instead of domestic universities, among them some of the most talented. (Approximately 20% of our form plans to do so.)
The main problem is unpredictability - the lack of a central concept, an educational vision means that the system suffers from administrative, financial and quality-assurance shortcomings.

Troubles with administration


In the current system, Hungarian students are admitted to universities through a scoring system, where each student can reach a maximum of 500 points, based on final form grades and the results of matura examinations. The problem is that the exact method of calculation changes from year to year - earlier methods used a maximum of 480, 200 and 160 points as well. The problem got even worse with the introduction of the quota system which maximizes the number of state-financed places in every university course, nationwide - and this quota for economists and jurists (among a series of others, representing 26% of total university places) is zero, meaning a de facto university fee is to be paid.


Troubles with financing


The quota system is yet another symptom of the lack of vision - the question whether the first university degree for Hungarian students would be state-financed ('the Austrian model') or everyone had to pay a tuition fee ('the UK' model) is still unanswered, with the current hybrid system dooming the elements of both trends to futility. 
Possibly the most controversial element of the state-financed package is the newly introduced "graduate contract", which contradicts the European basic right of free workforce movement inside the European Union. How so? When certain conditions are met (the undergraduate works abroad upon graduation for more than ten years), the state financially penalises (by requiring them to refund their tuition fee) certain graduates. Such a solution for keeping Hungarian graduates at home is a mere administrational workaround for the much more difficult problem of creating a vision and liveable future for Hungary's university graduates.
While de jure every student has an opportunity not to sign a graduate contract and instead take up a student loan, this too has it's perils. The 18-year old students signing the loan contract can't possibly predict their future income levels, yet the payback of the loan is obligatory regardless of income (the exact installments in a given year are determined by the income level 2 years before, but based on at least the minimum wage). This, in contrary to the British system, where installments are only payed after the amount of income exceeding 32,000 pounds, presents unforeseeable risks for undergraduates and in extreme cases, possible financial ruin. Not signing either the graduate contract or taking up the loan is unaffordable for most Hungarian families.

Troubles with quality control


But even if the mentioned problems above were to be addressed, Hungarian universities would still be of low quality in comparison to their Western European counterparts. Why?
This problem has two roots - the skill shortages of incoming students and the low quality of teaching. My personal experienced while teaching have shown me that regarding the former, the problems begin way before university - underpaid primary school teachers have no real motivation, or the education tools necessary to provide sufficient academic standards (not to mention the common segregation of Roma children in rural Hungary). Hence by the time of secondary school, many children can't even reach the entry standards - and those who do are faced by the same problems.
Meanwhile, low quality teaching - once again caused by the improper financial compensation of teachers, and the subsequent decline of interest in the teaching profession - is prevalent even at universities, worsened by the fact that the small number of skilled teachers are divided among several small universities.


Is there a solution?


There is no easy one - but a must is the raising of teacher's wages and increased investments to the educational sector. Naturally, that is not easy to do during a macroeconomic crisis - but in the long term, the country's economic competitiveness will be hampered by the lack of an efficient educational system.

Hopefully the year 2013 will see improvement in these areas as well - on our part, we'd like to wish a very Happy New Year for those who have followed us so far and we hope to see many new readers who are yet to join us.

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