Modernisers race against time

March 8, 1996

As the funding crisis in Hungary's public sector deepens, government and higher education officials are working frantically on legislation to speed up the modernisation of institutions. A substantial World Bank loan being considered could play a crucial role in funding restructuring.

Time is tight for the committee dealing with the amendment to Hungary's 1993 higher education act. Its ten members, representing institution heads, staff and student organisations and the education ministry, were only appointed in mid-December. The draft amendment has to be completed this month. The committee is concentrating on financing, teaching structures, the merging of institutions and leadership. The 1993 act has led to confusion in some areas, and one of the objectives of the amendment is to iron out contradictions and regulate funding procedures.

All Hungarian higher education institutions are required by law to be assessed by the Hungarian Accreditation Committee by June 1998. The committee is an independent body whose members are nominated by the prime minister on the basis of proposals from the organisations of higher education heads and research alliances such as the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and various departmental research institutions.

Andr s R"na-Tas, president of the HAC and a member of the amendment committee, maintains that a serious accreditation system is the only feasible measure to change the situation of higher education in Hungary, given the considerable status of autonomy its highly fragmented institutions have been granted.

There are 40 subcommittees for the various types of institution. Representatives are invited from chambers and professional societies, and all cases are judged by the subcommittees plus experts. They hand in a final proposal that is then either dismissed or voted in the committee's plenary session.

In a parliamentary hearing last month, Professor R"na-Tas requested that the deadline for accreditation be postponed by two years. "There was a degree of assessment fatigue in the early stages of the exercise," he says. "But accreditation is now being accepted more generally."

Nevertheless, heads are angry with what they claim is a rough deal the government has given them so far. "We played an honest game. But the government only picked on the weak points of the system," says L sl" Freny", president of the Hungarian Rectors' Conference, and a member of the committee.

Minister of finance Lajos Bokros, who has just resigned from office, cut 15 per cent of higher education staff last year. He dropped his plans to slash a further 15 per cent, Professor Freny" claims, when the Rectors' Conference came up with a new overall concept representing a "careful adaptation to managerial structures" that would raise the prospects for World Bank support.

Participation in higher education is only half that in Western countries, and according to L sl" Dinya, state secretary for higher education, it ought to be increased to 30 per cent by 2010.

Supporters of greater integration hope the additional funding needed will be made possible through a World Bank loan that is being negotiated with government representatives and which would by accompanied by state support.

However, the World Bank has indicated that it does not regard integration as the key issue, but would rather like to see efforts concentrated on finance and institutional authority.

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