Before the communist assumption of power in 1947, religion was the primary influence on education. The Roman Catholic Church sponsored and controlled most schools, although some other religious denominations (Reformed, Lutheran, and Unitarian) as well as the government ran some schools. The social and material status of students strongly influenced the type and extent of schooling they received. Education above the elementary level was generally available only to the social elite of the country. In secondary and higher-level schools, a mere 5 percent of the students came from worker or peasant families. Only about 1 or 2 percent of all students entered higher education.
Before the communist educational reforms, secondary education was traditional. The curriculum stressed the humanities, often at the expense of the sciences. Technical education received relatively little attention, despite the existence of technical and vocational schools.
In 1946 the government established the principle of free education as a right of all citizens, even before the communist assumption of power. In 1948 the new communist government secularized almost all schools and placed them under state control, giving oversight to the Ministry of Education. The churches retained only a few institutions to train their clergy.
The Marxist-Leninist government made major changes in the education system. Its goal was to mold citizens to work for the benefit of society. The reforms stressed technical and vocational training. Political education also became a high priority. Young people were to receive a thoroughly Marxist-Leninist education both within and outside the school framework. Education also sought to promote a thorough understanding of the political system, an understanding fostered also by youth organizations functioning outside the formal educational process. Russian-language study became compulsory from the upper levels of the general school (also known as the elementary school) through the university. Many Soviet professors taught at Hungarian universities, many textbooks were adaptations of the work of Soviet authors, and Russian-language clubs were established.
Marxism-Leninism had become the backbone of the curriculum by the early 1950s. A brief period of liberalization followed the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953. After the failure of the Revolution of 1956, authorities reverted to their former emphasis on Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. However, they did modify the earlier policy of Sovietization in favor of a more Hungarian orientation.
The regime's ideology also dictated the need to increase the total number of students enrolled in higher education, primarily through recruitment from the working class and the peasantry. Whereas in 1939 only 13,000 students were enrolled in higher education, by 1970 this number had grown to 86,000. To be sure, some of these students were participating in correspondence or evening courses rather than regular daytime classwork. Adults were encouraged to study through schools at the workplace and correspondence courses. Authorities also tried to expand the proportion of students from lower social strata by setting a worker and peasant quota of about 60 percent at all places available in higher education. Students seeking admission to these institutions were assessed according not only to their abilities but also to their social origins; the children of families belonging to the formerly privileged classes rarely were given the opportunity to study. When students from modest socioeconomic backgrounds lacked the requisite academic training, one-year remedial courses were available to assist them. In 1963 this class-oriented system of recruitment was abandoned. Nevertheless, political considerations continued to play a role in admissions procedures at secondary schools and universities.
In 1986 the country had 3,540 elementary schools, 587 secondary schools, 278 apprentice schools, and 54 institutions of higher education, of which 18 were universities with several faculties and programs extending five or more years. Of the latter, four were general universities, three were technical universities, six were agricultural universities, four were medical universities, and one was a university of economics. The country had five specialized university-level institutes for the arts and physical education.
Attendance at school was mandatory from age six to sixteen. All students attended general schools for at least eight years. Tuition was free for all students from age six up to the university level. Most students actually began their schooling at five years of age; in 1986 approximately 92 percent of all children of kindergarten age attended one of the country's 4,804 kindergartens. By 1980 every town and two-thirds of the villages had kindergartens. Parents paid a fee for preschool services that was based on income, but such institutions were heavily subsidized by the local councils or enterprises that sponsored them.
By 1980 only 29 percent of males aged fifteen years or older and 38 percent of females aged fifteen years and older had not completed eight years of general school, compared with 78 percent of such males and 80 percent of such females in 1949. About half of the students who completed the general schools subsequently completed their education in two years, through vocational and technical training. The remaining students continued their studies in a four-year gymnasium or trade school.
In 1985 about 98,500 undergraduate students attended the country's higher educational institutions. Almost 10 percent of the population aged eighteen to twenty-two was enrolled in regular daytime courses at institutions of higher education. In the 1980s, about 40 percent of regular students came from worker or peasant families. Most of these students either were exempt from tuition payments or, more often, received financial assistance. In the 1980s, applicants outnumbered places available in the colleges and universities. As a result, many persons enrolled in evening and correspondence courses, although these courses were not considered to be equal in quality to regular day instruction.
In the 1985-86 academic year, about 2,500 foreign students studied full time in Hungary. About half were European students; the remainder came from developing countries. In the same year, about 1,300 Hungarian students were studying in foreign institutions of higher education, most of them in neighboring countries.
In the 1980s, the average educational attainments of Hungarians ranked in the middle, in comparison with those of citizens of other European countries. The quality of Hungary's education system was substantially inferior to those of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Sweden and was somewhat lower than those of Austria, Belgium, Finland, Norway, Poland, and West Germany. Many Hungarians voiced concerns about the quality of their schools. Critics noted, among other things, that although Switzerland spent 18.8 percent of its national budget on education, Brazil 18.4 percent, and Japan 19.2 percent, Hungary allotted only 6.6 percent of its state budget to education. In the 1980s, the country experienced shortages of both classrooms and teachers, so that primary-school classes sometimes contained up to forty children. In many areas, schools had alternate morning and afternoon school shifts in order to stretch facilities and staff. Moreover, not all teachers received proper training.
At the university level, in the late 1980s some students and faculty were calling for greater autonomy for institutions of higher education and were demanding freedom from ideological control by both the government and the party. They decried the prominence given to the study of Marxism-Leninism and the Russian language in university curricula. The public was also distressed over the fact that, despite the government's remedial measures during previous decades, in the 1980s children of the intelligentsia had a far greater chance of entering institutions of higher learning than did the children of agricultural workers and unskilled industrial workers.
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