Hungary: Vocational training system gets major overhaul

Hungary is undergoing a major transformation of its education system. The number of Vocational Education and Training (VET) schools needed is under review and responsibility for their supervision is being transferred to the Ministry for National Economy (NGM).

Background

Since July 2015, responsibility for more than 300 Vocational Education and Training (VET) schools that train around 200,000 students has been gradually transferred to the Ministry of National Economy (NGM). Hungary has around 700–800 VET schools, and eventually each will have their training profile reviewed and some will be closed. This will result in a major transformation of Hungary’s institutional structure of education; at present, many VET schools are part of mixed-profile public education institutions which also offer grammar school (and even primary school) programmes.

A complex restructuring of the education system has been underway since the Orbán Government took power in 2010 and was reelected in 2014. All sectors of education and training are affected. Major changes to the VET system were introduced in 2013, modifying the structure of VET schools, their courses and entry requirements. The way the schools organise and deliver practical training is also being changed. These reforms are intended to better serve the demands and needs of the labour market and the economy, and to increase the attractiveness of VET as part of a career pathway. In 2013, central government took over the maintenance of VET schools, as well as all other primary and secondary public education institutions from local government. In early 2015, further restructuring plans were announced by the Government and their gradual introduction began in midsummer. The plan is to create two types of VET schools – secondary vocational schools (szakközépiskola) and vocational schools (szakiskola) – which will offer the option to continue studying in higher education while the VET content will be strengthened and students have the opportunity to gain more work-based practical training.

Government restructuring plan

In February 2015, the Government adopted a concept paper, VET in the service of the economy. This describes the next stage of VET restructuring which focuses on the country's long-term shortage of well-educated skilled workers, technicians and professionals. Companies are facing increasing difficulty in hiring workers with the right skills and competencies. Enrolment in school-based VET has not increased enough despite measures introduced in recent years, and vocational schools have remained unable to attract students with better results than the minimum acceptable primary school grades.

The Government hopes that its restructuring of the VET system will ensure that vocational graduates will be well-educated and highly skilled, and also able to find a job in their chosen profession. The government is also committed to reestablishing the prestige of VET – as underlined by the Prime Minister in his weekly radio interview. On another occasion, the Minister for National Economy argued: ‘A quality vocational certificate is worth more in the labour market than several diplomas which lead to no jobs.'

Act LXVI of 2015, adopted by the Hungarian Parliament in May, has introduced several modifications in the legal rules and institutional setting of VET. It has amended, most importantly, Act CLXXXVII of 2011 on Vocational Training.

Overview of new system

New training centres 

Since September 2013, the public education system has offered students three pathways from upper secondary level (from Grade 9): grammar schools (gimnázium) and two types of VET schools, secondary vocational schools (szakközépiskola) and vocational schools (szakiskola). The numbers of students enrolling for each of the three types of schools are currently more or less equal.

Secondary vocational schools provide a general education parallel to vocational theoretical and practical training in a given sector of the economy in school years 9–12, leading to a vocational secondary school-leaving exam (SSLE) (ISCED level 344). Students who pass this exam do not receive a vocational qualification listed in the national qualification register (OKJ). They do, however, obtain a certificate that qualifies them to enter at least one occupation in the sector of their training. Should students wish to continue their studies, they can pursue an (ISCED 454 level) OKJ vocational qualification in years 13–14 in their secondary vocational schools, or apply for higher education studies.

Vocational schools (szakiskolák) have followed the dual VET model since September 2013. They provide general education subjects in year 9, followed by primarily work-based training in years 10–11, leading to the vocational exam that awards an OKJ qualification (ISCED 353 level). Since vocational schools do not award the SSLE, graduates can continue their studies in higher education only if they complete two more years of a follow-up general education programme.

From September 2016, there will be two slightly different types of VET schools.

  • vocational general schools (szakgimnázium)
  • vocational secondary schools (szakközépiskola)

New qualifications, subjects and age limit

Current vocational secondary schools (szakközépiskola) will be transformed into vocational general schools (szakgimnázium). In this 4+1-year type of school, students could learn a profession and take an SSLE in a range of subjects beyond their profession. Students would also be able to obtain an OKJ-registered qualification at technician level (from September 2019, after due modification of the curriculum). The current vocational schools (szakiskola) will be transformed into 3+2-year new vocational secondary schools (szakközépiskola), where the basic aim will be to acquire an OKJ-registered qualification in years 9–12, followed by another two years of studying to take the SSLE.

The vocational school training curricula will contain only 60% of general knowledge subjects instead of the current 70%.

To provide more time for young people to enrol in VET and also to encourage students who have dropped out of higher education to return to VET, the age limit for enrolling in school-based VET has been increased from 21 to 25 (in Hungarian). Since adult training has become fairly expensive in recent years, this may well prove an incentive for older students. Obtaining a second OKJ qualification will also be free if it is acquired in the framework of adult training.

In addition to their profound organisational restructuring, the relationship of VET schools to state administration and their integration into an overall institutional setting (in Hungarian) has also been reconsidered.

As of 1 January 2013, the state took control of all public schools, including VET schools, previously maintained by local governments. The state is now directly responsible for providing education and training, hiring teaching staff (including head teachers) and paying their salaries. Until recently the central government had done this through the Klebelsberg Institutional Maintenance Centre (KLIK), established in January 2013 under the auspices of the Ministry of Human Capacities (EMMI).

Transfer of control

However, from 1 July 2015, pursuant to Government Decree 120/2015 (V.21.) and Government Decree 146/2015 (VI.112), the maintenance of all public VET schools is being gradually taken over by the Ministry for National Economy (NGM).

The Government aims to:

  • make the maintenance and professional management of VET schools more efficient;
  • make VET even more responsive to the needs of the economy;
  • further strengthen and increase dual VET.

NGM exercises its control through the National Office of Vocational Education and Training and Adult Training (NSZFH), a government institution established in December 2014, and the Training Centres, established by the NGM in July 2015.

The transfer of VET schools from KLIK is phased. By July 2015, more than 300 VET schools with around 200,000 students had been transferred to NGM control. The total number of VET schools (currently around 700–800) will be reviewed and is likely to be reduced, based on a review of each school's individual training profiles.

While taking control of VET schools, NGM has established 44 Training Centres (Szakképzési Centrum) (of which five are in the capital city); the transferred VET schools are affiliated to these. Training Centres are responsible for determining VET priorities, deciding related developments and investments, and helping coordinate more efficient functioning of VET schools. VET schools themselves are responsible for the basic smooth daily running of education and training.

Social partners’ positions

Interestingly enough, it is not the national employer organisations which have played a crucial role in restructuring the VET system, but the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MKIK). MKIK has become a key actor in shaping VET policy in accordance with its 2010 agreement on VET reforms with the Government, further detailed and reconfirmed in 2012. MKIK also performs important duties, including developing standards and setting out framework curricula and exam procedures for the majority of qualifications required for blue-collar jobs. It also participates in the organisation of initial VET exams, and performs quality assurance functions.

Trade unions in the education sector have expressed serious concerns about the reforms. They are afraid that the Government’s ultimate aim is to increase the share of students in VET to the detriment of grammar schools, limiting the function of the latter to preparing students for higher education studies. The unions argue that this will lead to a lower proportion of highly qualified employees and the ‘underqualification’of society. They also argue that unemployment is lowest among highly qualified people, and a practice-oriented VET does not prepare students for lifelong learning.

Preliminary information from the government suggests that changing the profile of the secondary VET schools as part of their move from KLIK’s umbrella could result in the gradual cessation of grammar school education in more than 80 schools. Grammar schools will continue to be maintained by KLIK and overseen by EMMI. All the schools affected are in rural areas and trade unions, along with education experts, have argued that the planned changes will reduce opportunities for rural young people, leading to increasing regional educational and social disparities.

The Democratic Union of Teachers (PDSZ) has said it is totally unacceptable that certain regions would be left with no grammar schools. The President of PDSZ, László Mendrey, declared that reducing the number of grammar schools will lead to the redundancy of many secondary school teachers. He believes that VET students who acquire an SSLE from the new vocational general schools will have less chance of successfully enrolling in higher education because the secondary programmes of these schools will place much more emphasis on providing practical VET and OKJ qualifications. It is also unlikely that those enrolled at the new secondary vocational schools will stay on to study for the additional two years required to gain their SSLE if they have already acquired an OKJ qualification. (There has been a similar option available for some years which has been little used).

Most education experts share the assumption that the recent changes will be implemented to the detriment of secondary general education and, consequently, that of higher education. They are not fully convinced that the reforms will efficiently serve the government’s declared aims. Policy-makers and decision-makers are also frequently reminded that too-frequent institutional and organisational changes do not provide a supportive environment for good quality education and training, irrespective of the content and direction of changes.

Commentary

The process of VET restructuring now underway has come somewhat unexpectedly since these major structural changes were introduced only two years ago and students studying under the new system have not yet graduated. Nevertheless, it is a shared view that VET can always be improved, and the current aims of making VET more responsive to economic and technological challenges, and of bringing VET closer to the world of work and increasing the prestige of skilled labour, are widely supported.

Although the Government provides all secondary students, whether in VET or other types of education, with access to the secondary school-leaving exam (szakmai érettségi) which is a prerequisite for advancement to higher education, most experts believe that this option will not be widely taken. The parallel changes in the curriculum, the growing emphasis on practical, work-related training, and the stronger ties to labour market needs, all point to the intention to train better skilled workers in the new types of VET schools rather than preparing them for further education.

The major, if not the exclusive, pathway to higher education will therefore continue to be the secondary school-leaving certificate (érettségi) acquired at grammar schools. Should enrolment possibilities shrink because the number of grammar schools is reduced, young people will have less chances to move on to higher education. Most experts assume that this is not too far from the Government’s intention. A sharp increase in vocational school enrolment (and, in parallel, a sharp decrease in grammar school enrolment) can easily be achieved in the near future within the new institutional setting. No doubt this shift could better serve the acute, short-term needs of the economy. The longer-term, knowledge-based future of the economy and society might, however, be at risk. 

 

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