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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Education's Future is Secure! Five new student teachers sign up to study chemistry

First, State secretary Bence Rétvári gave the good news (well, what else?) in early August: More than 18,800 young people applied to take up teacher training courses this year, of whom some 10,500 have been accepted - that's double the intake of 2003.

But over at Népszava, journalist Dániel Juhász did a little digging into the numbers.

Bar chart: Science in Hungary? Be prepared for a grim future! A screen shot taken from ATV news which was the first I saw on this story. It shows (left to right) that, from this autumn, at ELTE, the most prestigious Hungarian university, 191 students have been accepted to study to be English teachers, with 118 for history, 105 Hungarian, 42 for biology, 41 mathematics, 12 for physics and a grand total of five will take on chemistry. These five represent the only students studying to be chemistry teachers across the country.

[NB: I've had to correct this caption - I initially thought it depicted the national numbers for all these subjects. Apologies - it's only for chemisty that the number is for the entire country.]

It's difficult to know where to start when talking about education in Hungary these days. For years, under different governments, arguments have raged about falling standards and teacher shortages. But the raging has become more frequent and the shortages ever more acute since the election of the first Fidesz government (rather than coalition) under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2010.

Since then, after initiating massive “reforms”, which have included nationalising the text-book market and drastically reducing the choice of text books (many of which, critics now say, are unusable), stories of doom in the classroom have proliferated.

You've got a biology teacher taking your chemistry class? Lucky you, we've had neither subject taught in our school for the past year. Stories like this are commonplace.

In the latest, ongoing and most controversial upheaval, new legislation has stripped teachers of their civil service status and tightened working conditions, the government arguing it will make education more responsive to modern needs and make the profession more attractive.

Teachers will also get pay rises, or they will if the European Union releases subsidies to Hungary. (Funny, I thought most modern countries treat their education systems as a priority for their budgets, paid for by the tax-payer, not from external subsidies, least of all by the dreaded, leftist-liberal Brussels mob?)

Whatever, the teachers, or a very large chunk of them, say the burdens imposed by the new regulations are unbearable and pedagoically unsound.

They also scream that this legislation has been introduced with no meaningful consultation with their own professional bodies, in direct contradiction with government pledges to the European Commission (which has insisted on such consultation as a condition for any funding).

Yes, they had meetings the teachers admit, sometimes, but not with officials entitled to make the decisions. Hence, such meetings were a waste of time at best, and a smokescreen for genuine consultations at worst.

In fact, the more radical teachers argue that such meetings are nonsense from the word go.

The reason? Because Hungary, surely alone among the 27-strong EU nations, doesn't even have a separate Education Ministry. The various Orbán administrations have, step-by-step abolished the former Education Ministry and put the future tutelage of Hungarian youth under the Interior Minister.

Yes, that's correct. Jaw-dropping as it may seem to those newly acquainting themselves with today's Hungary, schools here are overseen by the same former policeman – naturally, inducted into the profession during the Communist era - who has political control of the nation's cops!

(And, if you are new to things Magyar under Orbán, prepare to retract your mandible once again – because the Interior Minister is also responsible for Hungarians' health. Now you know why health and education are the two main worries brought up by every genuine opinion poll done in Magyarland over the past few years.)

We want our Ministry back, the teachers demand, and led by someone who at least has some understanding of handling a bunch of children in a classroom rather than a former cop used to issuing orders to adults in a semi-military organisation.

But what of the news item with which I began all this? Well, assuming the numbers are genuine, there is some good news there.

First of all, if only 10,500 students were accepted from 18,800 plus applicants, it implies the colleges and universities are applying some basic academic standards, rather than just dropping the bar to tick political boxes with regard to the numbers.

And if the 10,500 student freshers is a six-year high, as state secretary Rétvári claims, that's another plus. As even Dániel Juhász admits in his story, that is 3,200 up on the 7,300-intake of last year, a leap of 44%.

But that's more or less where the good news ends, at least if the Népszava journo has got his numbers correct.

The biggest issue is that nearly 5,600 of these new students – a little over half the total - are training to be kindergarten, nursery or special needs teachers. Now these functions are, naturally, important for society, but the courses are shorter and less academically demanding than for school teaching levels, especially secondary schools.

Far more critically, only 1,550 are to take up the full, five-year teaching degree courses, and as, Juhász puts it, “among these there are precious few who are studying to teach natural sciences”, which is where, for years now, educational experts have been pointing to inadequate teacher numbers.

Photo: A Budapest wall mural depicting Katalin Karikó, the Hungarian bio-chemist who played a key role in the discovery and use of the MRNA molecule in the most effective Covid vaccines. The caption reads, modestly: "Hungarians write the Future".

Hungarians, especially those leaning towards the government side, love to speak of their successful scientists, mathematicians, engineers and IT innovators. But if these are the numbers training to be teachers in 2023 - and with dire warnings of the numbers set to retire in the next decade – unless something radical and effective is done, and quickly, there will be very few such champions to cheer about for the greater part of this century.

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