The international reputation of the Hungarian higher education is at stake. After the legislative changes made by the national conservative government in 2011 the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) has made decision on downgrading the Hungarian Accreditation Committee (HAC) from its full member status and therefore suggesting that there is something wrong going on with the condition of the Hungarian higher education.

The HAC was established in 1993 following the higher education reforms and in the following years it served as a role model for organisations alike in the region and was highly valued by overarching international higher education institutions. It has been a full member of the ENQA since 2002, successfully confirming its status in 2008.

Since 2011, it is regarded as a national body of experts, with main task to control, evaluate and assure the quality of education. It conducts reviews of both programmes and institutions and therefore gives a unique comparison of the education within the country. This is extremely beneficial also for students from abroad who are (considering) studying in Hungary. For central Europe thus Czech Republic included that is a significant number due to support from the Visegradi Funds as well as popularity of the Central European University in Budapest.

However the things have changed dramatically in the course of the past 3 years. The stumbling-block seems to be the Higher Education Act, passed in the Hungarian Parliament in December 2011 (the Fidesz party of the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has a majority of seats in the parliament since the 2010 elections). Even before the law was actually passed it had been strongly criticised by the HAC International Advisory Board who has earlier in 2011 issued a statement, warning about the “loss of independence of the HAC threatening international recognition of Hungarian degrees”.

The controversial law

Despite these statements of concern and apprehension, the draft was passed by the Parliament on December 23 2011. The controversy of the law is that half of the HAC will from now on be delegated by the Ministry for Human Resources. Also, “the president of the HAC is nominated by the Minister” (as opposed to HAC members electing him or her by secret ballot) and “the HR Minister exercises a legal supervision over the activities of HAC”.

Expectedly, passing of the Act spurred a vivid reaction from the HAC. It is doubtful whether the institution will retain its powers to fulfil the quality testing tasks according to the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG). As the law omits to classify the HAC as an independent organisation (as it has always been in the previous legislature) and it also ceases the guaranteed support from the national budget (“the minister may give support to the HAC”) the reform results in creating both personal and financial dependence on the authorities.

The fact that the pre-adoption comments by the HAC were not at all taken in account and that the ESG standards, the internationally recognized basic document of the education quality evaluation are not even mentioned in the law, results in high moral weight loss, therefore fewer foreign students will be attracted to come and study in the country, which in turn will mean a considerable financial loss to local universities.

The ENQA takes action 

As a result of the law being passed ENQA issued first warning, saying that the HAC membership might be at risk. Please note that the warning has been made as soon as in early 2012.
Despite the attempts of the HAC to improve the situation in 2013 through discussion with the Ministry for Human Resources and press for guaranteed independence and reliable funding (both de iure and de facto), the ENQA has taken action. In January 2014 the ENQA president informs the HAC that, “the level of compliance of criterion 3 (resources) and 5 (independence) is significantly low” Also “financial instability and the fact that the Educational Authority might overturn a decision of HAC and grant programmes or institutions a licence to operate without HAC accreditation are a cause of concern for the Board”.

The result was clear; the ENQA did not renew HAC´s full membership and designated it as an “ENQA Full member under review” for a period of two years from 2013. Despite the fact that quality assurance is one of the cornerstones of the Bologna Process, to which Hungary is a founding signatory and autonomous and on political influence independent quality rating is one of the key European standards, the HR Minister Zoltán Balog insists that the ENQA decision has no serious consequences.

Nevertheless, from many sources the voices are being heard (National Union of Students in Hungary, former HR Minister István Hiller etc.) that if the government´s attitude doesn´t change, the international recognition of Hungarian diplomas and degrees will seriously decrease from 2014 onwards and thus unfavourably influence many current and potential international students as well as students from Hungary dreaming of pursuing their careers abroad.

Bottom line: Have you ever considered studying in Hungary? Would it be discouraging for you not to know whether your degree will or won´t be accepted abroad?