I guess we shouldn’t be terribly surprised that, by today, certain misleading assertions by Viktor Orbán’s currently favorite minister, László Palkovics, had to be corrected. Probing questions from journalists forced him to admit on InfoRádió that the much welcomed 70% government contribution for employees who are currently working only part time isn’t really 70%. Unlike the German program, the Hungarian government pays only 70% of the wages the employee lost as a result of his new part-time status. Government assistance for an employee earning the minimum wage would amount to between 10% and 35% of his normal salary. This ratio holds true in higher wage categories as well.
This not so generous support will last for only three months, and recipients must use their “free time” on productive activities. Instead of staying at home, “they could perform tasks for the company, be it education or useful work from the point of view of the employer.” Although speed is of the essence in dealing with economic crises, I have the feeling that eligible part-time employees may have to wait weeks or even a month to receive any money. I watched a video with Péter Ákos Bod, the former central bank chairman, who related the story of one of his friends who became unemployed in Germany. He submitted his unemployment insurance claim online, and the next morning €5,000 was in his bank account.
Then there is the mysterious 13th-month pension. Palkovics’s exact wording appeared in several newspapers; here I am quoting from Portfolio. “Beginning in February 2021, we will gradually restore pensions for the 13th month by adding an extra week of pension, which then will be repeated in 2022, 2023, and 2024. For that we will provide 280 billion forints.” Many naïve elderly admirers of Viktor Orbán initially believed that, by the end of the fourth year, they would receive the full amount of the 13th month. But calculations reveal that the 280 billion forints allotted for this purpose covers only a 53rd week of extra money for four years. This was an ugly hoax.
Another item, which I didn’t cover yesterday but which caused quite a furor in certain circles, was the news that, after years of insistence that without an intermediate foreign language examination no university diploma can be issued, László Palkovics made the startling announcement that the government will waive the language exam requirements for those 75,000 university students who in the last few years were unable to pass their foreign language requirements. The reason? “The economic structure ahead of us needs more graduates.” And the sky hasn’t fallen on him, as the Hungarian saying goes, because he was the man who as undersecretary in charge of higher education insisted in 2014 that by 2023 no one could enter university without having their language requirement taken care of in high school. In vain did people try to explain to him that most Hungarian schools are unable to ensure that their students can fulfill this requirement. Without extra private lessons the great majority of Hungarian high school graduates wouldn’t be able to enter college, especially from inferior schools in the less developed regions of the country.
Palkovics wasn’t convinced. In fact, he was certain that anyone who cannot learn a language in 12 years is just lazy. “Anyone who wants to can learn a language. … I learned to speak three languages completely alone, without teacher or school, as an adult.” In this 2014 interview, our minister of innovation and technology went on and on about the necessity of knowing foreign languages because no meaningful research in any field can be conducted without knowing English or German. Indeed, on this last point one can only agree with our multi-lingual engineer.
In that same interview, he expressed his conviction that in Hungary there is no need to have more than 30-35% of the population aged 30-34 be university graduates, although the EU goal is 40%. Indeed, the Orbán administration purposely suppressed the number of university students, mostly by introducing horrendously high tuition fees. As it stands now, there are only three member states where the percentage of university graduates is lower than in Hungary (33.7%): Romania (24.6%), Italy (27.8%), and Portugal (33.5%). Good job. He and Viktor Orbán can be proud of their achievement.
Naturally, people engaged in research were horrified to hear that 75,000 university graduates would be let loose without knowing a foreign language. Zoltán Pogátsa, a political economist, in his interview with Hírklikk hypothesized that the waiver of the language requirement “is a populist decision aimed at younger voters. Anyone who gets a university degree in today’s world without speaking a single foreign language will not really be able to set out in the world. And all this with the aid of the government. Distressing.”
György Gábor, a philosopher of religion, agrees and calls this latest gimmick “an example of the Hungarian government’s stupidity, cynicism, infinite egotism, and total irresponsibility.” Like all those familiar with the sad state of language teaching in Hungarian schools, Gábor considers making knowledge of a foreign language a requirement for college acceptance unfair and unrealistic. Yet he stands firm in his conviction that a Hungarian university graduate cannot remain unilingual because no serious scholarly work in any field can be done based solely on Hungarian sources.
At the end of his essay, Gábor points out that 62% of the members of the Hungarian parliament have passed no foreign language exams. Even a cursory look at the information given on the MPs will reveal that Fidesz MPs are especially short on language skills. As a result, they can learn about the world only through the filter of the Hungarian press. And, if they are true believers, they can read the quasi-news provided by Magyar Nemzet, for example. As Gábor puts it, “this is a real Hungaricum.” And, I would add, a real shame.
April 8, 2020