Why doesn't Viktor Orbán want to spend money on education and healthcare in Hungary?

February 11, 2016

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Translation of “Why doesn’t Orbán doesn’t want to spend money on education and healthcare?” (Miért nem akar Orbán az oktatásra és az egészségügyre költeni?) appearing in daily online index.hu on February 9th, 2016.

Simply because he has better plans than to pump money into services that affect the lives of every Hungarian. For some reason, neither issue was ever close to him. Education and healthcare do not even have their own government ministries. The reason education is suddenly such a big deal is because he “reformed” it. The reason why healthcare is suddenly such a big deal is because he never even addressed it.

Two weeks ago, during his weekly interview on state-run media, the reporter told Orbán that if Hungary’s economic figures continue to meet expectations, then the country will succeed in reducing its public debt-to-GDP ratio, which, in turn, would help Hungary’s debt once again become investment-grade. The statement was followed up with the following question: how will you use the country’s newly obtained elbow room? Education? Healthcare? Debt reduction? Orbán replied by saying: the heavier ball has already been rolled away, which was home creation.

Orbán then went on to say that “in the coming years opportunities arising from Hungary’s expanding economy will be used to help strengthen Hungarian families and help them acquire homes”. He did not even mention education or healthcare.

A European politician’s country

Viktor Orbán had a difficult but successful year in 2015. His actions during the refugee crisis elevated him to the European stage. Regardless of whether he was depicted in a positive or negative light, he became a household name in Europe and it seemed that he was able to keep everything in order at home.

Except the poorly managed problems at home did not get resolved, nor did the neglected problems. Especially not in the areas of education and health. When Orbán assembled his government in 2010, neither of these areas received their own ministry. He wanted fundamental changes to the education system and scandal-free healthcare. He miscalculated in both areas.

The education reforms caused tensions so great that there has already been a casualty, former undersecretary Judit Bertalan Czunyiné was sacked and replaced by undersecretary for higher education László Palkovics. In healthcare, a system that has been rotting for decades, the level will soon reach a critical stage.

These two areas will certainly be ticking time bombs for a prime minister with sights on the European stage. The issues concerning education are already considered solved because serious changes were made in primary, high school, college education and concerning trade schools. Except that these changes did not bring the expected result, they resulted in huge failure after failure — all of which led to the sacking of Czunyiné, whose predecessor was Rózsa Hoffmann.

The public education crisis

Teachers and students alike are drowning in the mandatory curriculum. Instead of attending school all day, there is a mandatory and senseless day care. Workers in education are paid peanuts. Instead of focusing on ensuring a quality education, teachers are weighed down by administrative burdens. Students are required to have mandatory daily physical education in gyms that do not exist. Teachers can no longer select between poor and good textbooks, the new system introduced a newer system of mediocre textbooks in their place.

In this totally centralized top-heavy system everyone looks and points upward. Just how successful is that “reform” which results in it taking days for a classroom window to be repaired or for a teacher to acquire chalk? A study performed by a Ministry of Human Resources-owned institute found the Hungarian public education system’s new overseeing body, commonly known as KLIK, is not even able to realize the very purpose for which it was created: to reduce inequality in education. KLIK is now drowning in debt, which has even led to gas being shut off at schools, resulting in their temporary closure.

Healthcare: peace in the final stages

What has happened to the plans of the Alliance of Free Democrats reform for “peace in healthcare”? The healthcare system is slowly but surely inching its way toward collapse. The healthcare system is still struggling with the exact same problems it had 50, 25 and 10 years ago: huge disparities across regions and hospitals in incredibly poor conditions. Gratitude money is still very prevalent and patients often do not receive adequate care or information.

All this is exacerbated by yet another significant problem: physicians and nurses are leaving in droves for the West and this has compromised the safety of treatment at hospitals. The vast majority of clinics at hospitals are functioning without specialists and equipment — they are operating despite not meeting the minimal standards set by the state. Here, the government is trying something that did not work in education: it nationalized all the hospitals and made them into the state’s assets. Serious cuts to healthcare funding have resulted in mounting arrears which are further accruing more debt.

The prime minister’s vision for education

While the education reforms are associated with Rózsa Hoffmann’s name, it is well-known that she was only the face and main executive of pushing the reforms through. It was Viktor Orbán who laid out the plans during the government meetings. The Orbán-Hoffmann-style of education reforms were not preceded by any kind of consultations with stakeholders or roundtables. The entire thing was carried out in a top-down approach to management:

  • total centralization, and
  • adjusting education to the needs of the labor market.

People with insight into Orbán’s ideas on education say the prime minister really put his stamp on the sector. There are those who suggest that Orbán has an anti-higher education attitude, according to which not everyone should graduate from high school or go to college. Those who are not good students should learn trades and get to work as soon as possible. Other suggest Orbán is greatly influenced by the president of the chamber of industry, László Parragh, and his visions of a Hungarian workfare society and the country’s industrialization.

What is sure is the anti-higher education mentality is also reflected in statistics. Against the recommendations of all professional and European recommendations, the second Orbán government really limited access to higher education. This is clearly evident based on the statistics showing what percentage of Hungary’s GDP was spent on which sector.

A comparison of OECD countries shows that Hungary belongs to that small group of countries who, between 2005 and 2011, actually reduced funding to primary- and high school education. In 2003, 5.9 percent of Hungary’s GDP went into education. Spending on education began decreasing during the Medgyessy (2002-2004) and Gyurcsány (2004-2009) governments in 2004, but this policy trend was continued by the Orbán government. Today, only 3.93 of Hungary’s GDP is spent on education. This decrease is not warranted by a decrease in the number of children. Will Hungary ever return to the level of education funding it had in 2003?

Centralization everywhere

The Orbán government is committed to centralization and nationalization in all areas. It nationalized tobacco retailing, the textbook industry, grant-writing, the savings cooperatives and public utility providers. They will now nationalize trash collecting and have their eyes set on centralizing the tourism industry, sporting events, concerts and festivals.

With respect to education being the most attacked centralization thus far, the idea initially did not seem so bad. Previous years had shown that it was becoming increasingly difficult for municipalities to pay for the upkeep of schools, and the disparity between schools in richer and poorer municipalities was leading to very noticeable inequalities. Just before Gyurcsány’s downfall, then-education minister István Hiller recommended that the national government take over the upkeep of financially drained schools, leading to a unified education plan being implemented in those schools.

But the Hoffmann style of education reforms really went too far. An inoperable, overly-bureaucratic monster was created which could not even manage its own affairs. The prime minister’s earlier claims that there are huge disparities between rural schools and those in Buda, as well as the students attending the schools, initially seemed to justify the notion that something should be done to draw them all under a single entity which would balance out the differences and make them more effective and cheaper to run, as well as improve the poorer schools.

What did this lead to? Since the creation of KLIK, billions have been allocated to it every year. In 2013, they underestimated its budget by HUF 100 billion. In 2014, another HUF 20 billion was needed to feed the money-consuming beast. By 2015, schools twice had to be bailed out of their serious debts to utility providers costing billions. Earlier, it had happened once or twice with schools in smaller municipalities that teachers did not receive their pay on time. But now, public procurement mix-ups, payroll and technical problems are affecting every teacher in the country. With respect to the original intention of fixing the problems of inequality in education, the current situation shows that KLIK has only accomplished ruining the well-functioning operations of previously well-operating schools and it has not even improved the poorer schools.

One teachers’ problem is a problem shared by many voters

In November, the teachers in Miskolc tried to show that they are having problems, but that was back when the refugee crisis dominated the public airwaves. By January this year, the problems in education had rapidly gained traction around the country with the help of Miskolc teachers. This is because the Miskolc teachers are sending signals about the very problems that other schools are having. More than 500 schools and 30,000 individuals have endorsed the proposal of the school. Thousands attended a protest in Miskolc and other protests erupted around the country thanks to the Miskolc teachers’ efforts. It is evident that the government has now noticed them, too.

In the centralized system, anyone who tries to point out the system’s flaws quickly becomes an enemy. The state media tried comically to depict the protesters as being the pawns of NGOs funded by George Soros. It is comical because anyone possessing even a semblance of sobriety, or has friends who are teachers, or has kids who go to school, knows that these problems are very much evident in the everyday operation of schools.

Governments must be careful when addressing issues related to education. If they are not careful enough and cause problems for teachers and students, they suddenly turn a very large group against them. It is no mistake that long ago it was Orbán himself who campaigned against the introduction of tuition fees. That is when he realized that he can garner support from right- and left-wing supporters on a nonpartisan issue.

There are two important questions:

Does the government want a genuine negotiation, or does it really believe that its public education roundtable forum can be used to silence critics with minimal corrections?

Is the government willing to dig in deep and re-assess Hungary’s education system and is it ready to recognize that its KLIK system has failed?

There is nothing to suggest so at this point. One portion of the protesters already does not accept the legitimacy of the Public Education Roundtable forum called together on February 9th. This is understandable because considering the Teachers Democratic Union and other independent teachers’ associations were not invited. Among the participants in the forum, however, are the Catholic Teachers Organization and Continuing Education Institute and György Fekete’s Hungarian Artists Association. But why?

In the interview with Viktor Orbán cited at the beginning of this article, Orbán also said that Hungary’s education system must not return to the financially bankrupt system of 2010 and that the education system is on the right track right now. He told state-run radio that the government is interested in everyone’s opinion and these professional disagreements should be settled within the National Faculty of Teachers. This does not reveal the extent to which the government is willing to make changes, if at all.

Whether or not KLIK remains does not change the fact that we are talking about a change of the system. There is no talk yet of how the [government’s financial subsidies to families] will usher in masses of newborn children into the country, what kind of schools these children will attend, how motivated their teachers will be, and within that, what kind of mentality these children will have, what foreign languages they will speak, or whether they will grow up to be competitive participants of the Hungarian and European labor market.