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Transition in the Hungarian higher education system, begun with high hopes about ten years ago, has proven to be slow and difficult. Erno Zalai , professor and chair of mathematical economics and econometrics at the University of Economic Sciences in Budapest, Hungary, and a Wilson Center Guest Scholar, acknowledged that he and his colleagues greatly underestimated the magnitude of the political, economic, and cultural gap between East-Central Europe and Western Europe.

Higher education in Hungary and in most of East-Central Europe is deeply rooted in the West European tradition. Before World War II, Hungarian universities were internationally respected and produced Nobel Prize winners. But the Soviet conquest severed the links between Hungarian universities and the West. As a result, the Hungarian higher educational system did not share in the reforms implemented by Western universities in the postwar period. Their institutional and degree structures still resemble those common in Western universities in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Hungarian higher education system is composed of small, highly specialized institutions, which grant different degrees than the three-stage bachelor, master, and PhD or two-stage bachelor and professional degrees common in the West. Course offerings in Hungarian universities are limited to the humanities, sciences, and in some cases law. Professional training institutions, such as medical schools, are not part of universities, but are instead autonomous institutions. Technical training is also conducted by independent institutions separated not only from the universities but from each other, which effectively prohibits students and professors from moving between these institutuions. As a result, young people completing secondary school are forced to make lifetime decisions at the age of eighteen.

Western higher education instead experienced what Zalai described as "massification." Since World War II, it has expanded so greatly that by 1990 approximately 30 percent of West European secondary school graduates entered colleges or universities. The corresponding figures for Hungary and most other East European countries are below 15 percent. Zalai is convinced that massification forced Western higher education systems to develop a continuum of various sorts of schools and degree programs with the necessary flexibility for the next generation of well-educated people to develop their capacities to the fullest and to adjust to societal change.

Zalai recalled that in the late 1980s he and many of his colleagues believed that the Hungarian government would support a transformation of higher education along Western lines, allowing students to move from one institution to another with minimal difficulty. Anticipating such a change, his university moved in that direction. But conservative forces within universities, those who were unwilling to elevate polytechnic institutions to university rank or to let polytechnic students continue their studies at universities, gained the upper hand. They joined government officials in charge of higher education to force passage of a law which consolidated the old structure. Zalai and his colleagues were chastised and forced to reverse the steps they had taken to introduce a three-stage degree program.

Zalai is also firmly convinced that the qualification system for science degrees needs reform. Prior to World War II, Hungarian universities conferred scientific doctorates on a similar basis as German universities. In the 1950s, Hungarian higher education was "Russianized" and adopted the Soviet system of candidate of science and doctor of science as the only scientific qualification degrees. In Hungary there was a university doctorate, which became a title and was not considered a scientific degree, plus a candidate of sciences and an academy of sciences degree. In order to be fully qualified, an individual had to pass through all three stages. Although this system seemed outwardly rigorous, academic colleagues evaluated each others' achievements.

At the same time, the research capacity of universities was greatly reduced or eliminated in favor of research institutes under the aegis of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In addition to serving as the qualifying board for professors and researchers, the Academy of Sciences assumed responsibility for the financing and administration of these research institutes. As the old regime began to crumble in the late 1980s, academy members representing the research institutes struggled with university professors to control the process of conferring scientific qualifications. The result was a compromise that established conflicting standards. Universities were allowed to award PhD degrees, but the old German system of habilitation whereby a university board determines whether a PhD holder is sufficiently qualified to be deemed a professor was reestablished. The Academy of Sciences was given the right to award a doctor of the academy degree. But persons who pass the university habilitation do not need the Academy of Sciences doctoral degree, and those who hold the Academy of Sciences doctoral degree do not need the university habilitation. Zalai is convinced that the solution to this impasse is the establishment of a PhD degree with standards high enough to judge the scholarly capacity of younger professors. The market can then measure the value of professors and researchers in the later stages of their careers.

Universities also face major financial problems. During the Communist era, education was underfinanced, partly because there was no incentive to increase educational opportunities and partly because of the emphasis on industrial development and other economic issues. Whatever budget resources were "left over" were awarded to education, health, and other sectors deemed less important or productive. As a result, Hungarian universities have under-developed libraries and technical facilities and poorly paid faculties. Low salaries were less of a problem in the Communist era when the prestige of being a professor compensated for the small salary, and professors gradually grew accustomed to the necessity of earning about half of their income from other sources. Since 1989, however, new, more lucrative opportunities in areas such as economics and management have reduced the universities' capacity to attract and retain good faculty. In addition, many professors have left to go into politics and administration.

But low salaries are only part of the problem. Zalai cited a recent study of the funding patterns of his university which revealed that between 1990 and 1996 the real purchasing power of the resources provided for items other than wages has diminished by approximately 35 percent. In effect, more and more money is being diverted from higher education to other purposes, in part because government officials know that the universities can rely on assistance from sources such as the European Union and U.S. private foundations, at least temporarily. In so doing, they are ignoring both the transitory nature of such assistance and the fact that it is almost always earmarked for specific purposes and cannot be used to fund university management.

This lack of financial resources means that university administrators cannot modernize their institutions. Individual or departmental interests often take precedence over the commonwealth. Although private funding has selectively improved university facilities, it has not slowed the attrition of talented professors. The lack of resources makes it difficult to provide training in critically needed new areas such as management, business, law, and computer science. As a result, new, commercial colleges have sprung up to meet the strong demand for courses in these areas. They charge relatively large fees, which many parents are willing to pay because they are the growing areas in the economy.

Zalai believes that this development could stimulate traditional universities to reorganize their curricula. His own university began to offer Western-style training for economists and management specialists in 1988. Three-year technical training programs granting a college diploma were also introduced, and the university allowed graduates of commercial colleges to continue their studies toward university degrees. At the same time, he worried that this progress may be reversed by financial constraints. Universities receive considerably less government funding for three-year college diploma students than they do for full university students. In an effort to eliminate the three-year diploma program, the Hungarian Ministry of Education challenged the university's right to issue such diplomas and then decided that all of its students would be considered college students during their first three years of study. The result was a significant drop in the university's income. The faculty protested, and after a year, the ministry offered to restore the funding if the university would end the three-year diploma program. A compromise was reached under which the university agreed to end that program, but retained the right to accept holders of college diplomas into university degree programs. Still, Zalai fears that within two years even this option will be eliminated, and his university will revert to the old Hungarian-German system.

Dr. Zalai spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on June 11, 1997.


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Erno Zalai

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