"Hungary is strengthening; more and more people are working in the country," the ruling Fidesz party commented proudly on January 5, pointing to yet another new set of record low unemployment figures.
At the same time, as employers increasingly struggle to find skilled workers, further improvement on the tightened labour market is unlikely without in-depth reform of the public education system. Hungarian education stands out as an under-achiever in the region, according to the latest results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released in December.
The performance of Hungarian students in the PISA tests - organised every three years - has been deteriorating since 2006. Alarmed by the poor results in the 2012 version, the government sought to renew and centralise the public education system. In 2013, the state took direct control of schools from local authorities and created a new central body (Klebelsberg Intezmenyfenntarto Kozpont, KLIK) to regulate most aspects of education.
Schools were stripped of their right to employ personnel and manage their budgets. They could only choose schoolbooks recommended by the cabinet. At the same time, the number of classes was increased due to the introduction of daily P.E. lessons and compulsory religious and ethical classes.
The reform, however, has not brought the results Fidesz hoped for. The drop in performance at the PISA tests between 2012 and 2015 was more dramatic than ever before. Hungarian 15-year-olds fell short of the OECD average in all three main categories - reading comprehension, mathematics and natural sciences.
They also fared worse than Polish and Czech students. However, they did outperform their Slovakian peers, whose PISA scores also dropped drastically compared to 2012.
In response, the government has attempted to blame the digitalisation of the tests. Fidesz also points its finger at the governments in power between 2002 and 2010, claiming they “destroyed Hungary’s public education system”, and that its still too early to see the results of its reforms.
Opposition parties, however, call the results shocking and disastrous, and have demanded the resignation of Human Resources Minister Zoltan Balog. “The result represents the total bankruptcy of the government’s dumbed-down educational policies,” Agnes Kunhalmi of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) said.
Critics also point out that the current government is spending less on education than other developed countries. While in 2009 – one year before Fidesz came to power - 4.83% of GDP was spent on education, the proportion decreased to 3.8% of GDP by 2013, according to the most recent data released by the OECD.
The spending is largely similar to the level seen in Slovakia (3.8%) and the Czech Republic (4%), but well below the OECD average (5.2%) and the outlay in Poland (4.8%). In terms of expenditure per student, Hungary registered the sharpest decline among OECD countries (18%) between 2008 and 2013.
Meanwhile, the results have not helped quash criticism of the government’s policies by both teachers and students. A series of demonstrations by educators rattled the government during the spring of 2016. Protestors demanded increased spending and reduced hours, the reduction of nationally prescribed compulsory teaching materials, and the scrapping of the widely criticized KLIK.
"It seems that there is a growing consensus that besides healthcare, education is Fidesz’s most serious government failure,” political analyst Zoltan Cegledi told bne IntelliNews earlier this year, adding that such articulated failures damage the party's popularity.
After having offered only partial reforms, the cabinet managed to divert public attention from education by running a harsh anti-immigrant campaign during the summer, ahead of a national referendum organised against the EU’s migrant quotas in October.
Weak PISA results, however, have put the problems of public education back under the spotlight. That could threaten to spark a new wave of protests. Leaders of the Tanitanek (I want to teach) Movement organised a demonstration on December 19, gathering a couple of hundred protestors in front of the Hungarian parliament.
While the government said it would hold consultations about the PISA results and possible reforms in January, Tanitanek gave an ultimatum to the government: if the human resources minister does not resign by January 31, teachers will protest on the streets again on February 1.