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Hungary - History & Background

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceHungary - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education


The Republic of Hungary is one of the oldest nations in Europe, tracing its roots to the invasion of the vast Hungarian plain from the east by King Árpád the First around A.D. 1000. This cultural group, the Magyars, was the forerunner of today's ethnic Hungarian population that constitutes more than 90 percent of the current population. In addition to a long settlement history, Hungary also boasts a long history of formal education. The University of Pécs was established in 1367 to study law and medicine, and a number of other universities were established as early as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1777 the first university was established in the capital Budapest. The blossoming of the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1848 and 1920 saw significant achievements in the educational, scientific, and cultural life of the nation. This period also saw significant exchanges with other European universities that contributed to the vitality of the Hungarian educational system. The end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the significant reduction in the territorial area of Hungary in 1920, as a result of the conditions of the Treaty of Trianon, created a large diaspora of ethnic Hungarians outside the present boundaries of Hungary. The welfare of these people, particularly in the preservation of their Hungarian identity, has been an issue since 1920. Education has played a significant role in preserving this identity; for example, the demand by the Hungarian government for the creation of Hungarian language universities in present day Romania has been a feature of inter-ethnic and international relations.

Language is the single most unifying feature of Hungarian identity. Hungarian is a language of the Finno-Ugrian group of Uralic languages. It is therefore a non Indo-European tongue with its nearest linguistic relatives being Finnish and Estonian. As a result speech, writing, and comprehension are more difficult for Indo-European speakers. Thus the Hungarian education system is marked not only by an emphasis on studying the mother tongue but also on preparing students to communicate in the Indo-European tongues, particularly English and German, of the nations that surround them. Religion is also important in Hungary, and the Catholic Church in particular plays a large role in the educational system. More than two-thirds of the population are Roman Catholic, 20 percent are Calvinists, and 5 percent are Lutheran. A major exception to the Hungarian linguistic and religious majority is the presence of 500,000-700,000 Roma, often called "Gypsies," representing approximately 5 percent of the population. The educational system and achievements of this cultural group represent a major exception to the overall excellent standard of education in Hungary.

The other significant development in the Hungarian educational system has been the effects of demographic trends. Demographically, Hungary is one of the few nations in the world experiencing a negative natural increase. In other words, the death rate is higher than the birth rate. This pattern has been present for more than 20 years and as such has important repercussions for school enrollment and ultimately the future labor force.

All of these cultural and historical trends must be seen in the light of political change in Hungary in the twentieth century from a European system between 1920 and 1948 to a socialist system between 1948 and 1990. From 1990 to the present, the restructuring of the system to reflect a more democratic system of government and privatization of property and the demands of a market economy occurred.

For many years the Hungarian system of education was seen as one of the finest in the world. Indeed at one point Hungary had produced more Nobel Prize winners per capita than any other nation. It particularly excelled in science, where such important figures as Dr. Leó Szilárd and Dr. Edward Teller, atomic scientists on the Manhattan project, and Van Kaman, the helicopter pioneer, were all Hungarian born and trained. Perhaps more recognizable are Ernö Rubik, the Hungarian mathematician who invented the Rubik's cube, and József Bíró, who invented the Biro disposable pen. Finally, Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel Corporation and the 1998 Time magazine Man of the Year was born in Budapest. Today the challenge presented by the need to restructure the Hungarian educational system puts this legacy of educational excellence at serious risk.

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