Tibet and Hungary: A Global Education Case Study

The author at Potala Palace, Tibet, in 2012.

When comparing the educational systems of Tibet and Hungary, it is difficult for me to remain neutral in the discussion. I lived in Hungary and speak Hungarian. I was also in the last university group to visit Tibet before it closed to all foreigners in 2012. I saw only the surface of the oppression of the Tibetan people but the demolition of their monasteries, the villainization and imprisonment of their religious leaders, and the purposeful disengagement of children from Tibetan language and culture, has and will always vividly stand out in my mind. But it is for these exact reasons that I relished comparing the educational systems of these two countries.

Hungarian Education System

The education of Hungarians has been a long standing priority and tradition in Hungary. Its first universities were established in the 1200s and 1300s. Despite numerous takeovers by other countries and ideologies through history, it has managed to retain its strength and leading position in the knowledge sector of the global market. Because of its location and long desire to join the EU, the primary purpose of Hungary’s education system has been in developing global (or at least European) citizens until quite recently (European Union, 2020).

Tibetan Education System

Tibet’s education system is, quite honestly, not Tibet’s. Their traditional education consisted of free, religious instruction at the local monastery (the curriculum limited to learning enough Tibetan to read prayers). However, a significant, and quite severe, shift has been induced since China’s 1951 occupation. The purpose of education went from nurturing religious beliefs and Tibetan Buddhism’s “Middle Way,” the focus of China’s education system in Tibet today is the assimilation of Tibetan children into the Han Chinese society, reduction of civil unrest, and prioritization of Chinese language and way of life (Phuntsog, 2020; Johnson 2002).

Influence of Political Ideologies

A similarity between the Chinese education system in Tibet and the Hungarian education system is the pressing of specific political ideologies. This is not new, every country with a federally mandated education system has their share of ideological influence. As one Hungarian official put it, “There’s no such thing as a neutral education” (Thorpe, 2020). But in the more severe case of these two countries, Tibet’s children are being indoctrinated in the ruling country’s ideology with the exclusion (and often active and violent suppression) of traditional Tibetan values, language, religion, and culture (Wangdu, 2011; Richardson, 2020). In a move reminiscent of the program to anglicanize American Native Americans by adopting them out to white families, the most talented Tibetan students are shipped out to study and live in China until they reach adulthood, thus dismantling the reserve of Tibetan experts in language and culture (Postiglione, 1999). In the case of Hungary, their prioritizing European ideals and the decentralization of education in the 1990s has recently turned to a more nationalistic education (Vago, 2007). As their prime minister summarized, this program is “to reveal who we really are, to show that we are the Hungarians: with one thousand years of Christian statehood, monumental cultural achievements, a dozen Nobel prizes, 177 Olympic gold medals, a sublimely beautiful capital city, superb technical and IT professionals, and a rural Hungary blessed with agrarian genius” concluding with “That’s what public education is about” (Thorpe, 2020). However, I will point out that there is a major difference between these two state-sponsored ideologies; one is patronistically imposed from an outside nation, the other is instituted by the people’s vote.

Treatment of Minorities in the Classroom

A difference between these two educational systems is how they treat minority languages and minority cultures in the classroom. China touts a “bilingual education” model, saying that it is up to the local schools to decide on what languages to teach in the classroom. However, due to lack of qualified Tibetan-speaking teachers, the required fluency in Mandarin for employment, and the criminalization of “mother-tongue education” taught by locals or at traditional monastery schools, the majority of students “cannot read and write in [their] own language” (Johnson, 2002; Richardson, 2020; Free Tibet, n.d.). On the other hand, even though Hungarian may be largely unuseful outside of Hungary and Romania, they have prioritized their language in school. Minority schools are available throughout the country with their students taught in Romanian, Slovene, Serb, German, and Croatian (Medgyesi, 2007). It is clear to me that both systems recognize the direct link language has to culture, but China uses it to suppress cultural learning.

Nurturing Student Identities

Another difference is how these education systems nurture student identities (a byproduct of the ideologies and linguistic priorities I addressed above.) Chinese education is “based on a nationalized curriculum...to promote a sense of this national unity the nationalized curriculum policy downplays the culture and identity of ethnic minorities” (Johnson, 2002). Tibetan students are raised with near complete disregard to their cultural heritage and without their language, the freedom to follow their belief system, and too often, the legal influence from their families and communities. The recreation of Tibetan identity, or to put it more bluntly, the foisted burgeoning of Han Chinese identity in Tibet, is clearly the goal (Bass, 2008). And because language is key to cultural identity, the lack of Tibetan taught in schools is not surprising in this context. Hungary, for better or worse, is emphasizing their cultural heritage like never before. "The key to upward progress is the restoration of national self-esteem” (Thorpe, 2020). Many educators speak out against this nationalistic approach to education, warning of past eras when the “our country first!” ideology led to fascist regimes. Helping a student develop their identity is a sacred scholastic responsibility, which is why I strongly oppose the Chinese-imposed dismantling of Tibetan identity and understand (within reason) Hungary’s efforts to nurture ‘Hungarianism’.


The comparison of the Chinese education system in Tibet and the Hungarian system makes evident that while both promote ideologies in the classroom, their educational purposes and principles are distinct due to the motives of those managing their systems.


Catriona Bass (2008) Tibetan primary curriculum and its role in nation building, Educational Review, 60(1), 39-50. doi: 10.1080/00131910701794515

European Union. (2020, July 02). Hungary. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/countries/member-countries/hungary_en

Free Tibet. (n.d.). Tibet's children. Retrieved September 11, 2020, from https://freetibet.org/about/children

Johnson, B., & Chhetri, N. (2002). Current Issues in Secondary Education Reform in China. Comparative Education, 2(2), 142-153. doi:10.5998/jces.1990.192

Medgyesi, M. (2007). The socio-economic environment of education. In L. Zoltán, L. Judit, H. Gábor, & B. Zsuzsa (Authors), Education in Hungary: 2006. Budapest, Hungary: Hungarian Institute for Educational Research and Development.

Phuntsog, N. (2020). Fostering benign Tibetan nationalism: Tibetan schooling passions in the Diaspora. Intercultural Education, 31(2), 190-207. doi:10.1080/14675986.2019.1702314

Postiglione, G. A. (1999). China's national minority education: Culture, schooling, and development (Vol. 42, Garland reference library of social science). New York: Falmer Press.

Richardson, S. (Ed.). (2020, March 4). China's "Bilingual Education" Policy in Tibet. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/03/04/chinas-bilingual-education-policy-tibet/tibetan-medium-schooling-under-threat

Thorpe, N. (2020, February 25). Hungary's new patriotic education meets resistance. BBC. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51612549

Vago, I. Vass, V. (2007). The content of education. In L. Zoltán, L. Judit, H. Gábor, & B. Zsuzsa (Authors), Education in Hungary: 2006. Budapest, Hungary: Hungarian Institute for Educational Research and Development.

Wangdu, K. (2011). China’s minority education policy with reference to Tibet [Abstract]. Tibetan Review, 19-23. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://www.academia.edu/1319076/China_s_minority_education_policy_with_reference_to_Tibet

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