Education for Roma: The Key to Equality in Hungary?

By Malina Saf
Even though Europe has a high level of access to education, certain groups remain notably excluded and discriminated against. According to
Minority Rights Group International, globally, the majority of children who do not take part in school programs belong to a minority. The European Commission on Human Rights notes that school segregation, especially regarding the educational disadvantage and the widespread stigmatisation of Roma is a problem in many European countries. Several documents within the human rights framework explicitly attempt to ensure that Roma fully enjoy equal rights within Europe. But can economic, social and cultural rights contribute to the fight against rising inequality for Roma?

Ensuring a better inclusion of Roma in the education systems of individual Member States of the Council of Europe could be one step towards fulfilling equal access to rights. Within the European Social Charter, the second paragraph of Article 17 of the Revised Charter mentions equal access to education for children from vulnerable groups. It highlights that: “special measures for Roma children must not involve the establishment of segregated schooling facilities.”

Situation of the Right to Education for Roma in Hungary 

According to “Statista”, Hungary is the country with the fourth highest Roma population in Europe. Approximately 600,000 Roma live in Hungary.   Considering the European Social Committee’s concluding observation of reports submitted by Hungary under Articles 16 and 17 of the Convention in 2007, one can infer that there is a systemic discrimination and segregation of Roma pupils in Hungary’s school system. The Committee shows concern about the high number of Roma who are sent to special schools for children with mental disabilities, or in separate substandard “catch-up” classes within schools. On its website the European Commission on Human Rights draws attention to the fact that 45% of Roma children in Hungary attend a school which is segregated from the majority of society. Taking a closer look at the concluding observations, one can see that mainstream schools frequently apply pressure on Roma parents to apply for private student status for their children. In addition, there is a higher dropout rate among Roma students at the secondary level and a lower enrolment in higher education when compared to the general population..

Education to Escape Inequality

The International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights says that education is a crucial point for the full development of the human personality (International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural rights). To support this argument the Committee of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated that: “a well-educated, enlightened and active mind, able to wander freely and widely, is one of the joys and rewards of human existence.” As the enjoyment of education leads to the enjoyment of other economic and social rights, it can also function as an empowerment right by helping economically and socially marginalised people to raise themselves out of poverty. This shows that education is likely to enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society. Thus, the disadvantaged position of Roma in European societies cannot be overcome unless equal access to quality education is guaranteed for everyone.

States Obligations to Fulfil the Right to Education for Roma

The handbook of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights describes the way how States should implement the right to education on a national level to comply with the Covenant. Education must be available, accessible, adequate and of a good quality. Furthermore, States are required to establish and maintain an education system that includes monitoring school dropout rates and measures to be taken up if there is a significantly high number of school dropouts. Besides the European Committee of Social Rights, the European Roma Rights Center is monitoring the compliance of national governments with laws protecting Roma.

How could Hungary Improve the Situation?

To end inter- and intra-school segregation of Roma children in Hungary’s education system the European Committee of Social Rights suggests that the state party should distribute adequate funds to freely provide textbooks, mentorship programmes and scholarships for disadvantaged students. The Committee also requests that the State party provides disaggregated data on enrolment, attendance and dropout rates of Roma at all levels of education, as well as on the extent and forms of segregation. The recommendation of giving funding to minority self-governments to exercise their cultural autonomy and promote initiatives and programmes in the fields of education and culture could lead, in the eyes of the Committee to the fulfilment of adequate opportunities for Roma. Further improvements could be increasing education in Roma’s native language of Romani. This could  lead to a higher appreciation of the language and thus possibly to a heightened self-esteem of the Roma, as can be witnessed after similar programs for other ethnic minorities, such as the Maori within New Zealand.

In conclusion, successfully implemented equal education for all could indeed be the key for less inequality in a society as it not only empowers pupils and therefore enables them to participate effectively in a free society but also promotes understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups. Nevertheless, as the current situation shows, this point of view does not correlate with Hungary, as inequality for Roma within the education system is still very high.

Malina did her undergraduate degree in Social – and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna and Copenhagen, Denmark. Throughout her studies she was particularly interested in human rights cinema and involved in two film projects. Over the past few years, Malina worked for an NGO in the field of international relations and journalism. One of her eager future aspirations is to bring mindfulness and compassion into peacebuilding.