THE first graduates of a pioneering new central European tertiary-level vocational training system will leave college this summer ready for the world of work - or to step straight into degree-level university courses.
A Hungarian experiment to bring skills training into the 21st century to meet the demands of the country's emerging market economy will be tested when 1,500 vocational diploma students graduate in June.
Since the new system was launched in 1998 in co-operation with a European Union programme, more than 4,000 school-leavers have signed up for it and ministers expect numbers to reach 10,000 by next year.
The students who enrolled two years ago on university-linked modular competence-based courses under the "Education Serving the Needs of Economy" scheme will have a choice when they receive their diplomas.
Trained to high standards in the theory and application of information technology, medical laboratory techniques and other scientific areas, they can expect to be in strong demand for jobs paying around 100,000 Hungarian forints (pound;250) a month - a good starting salary for a 20-year-old.
Alternatively, using the 30 per cent of course modules taught by professors at an undergraduate level, they can trade up and enter the second year of university courses in closely allied subjects such as chemistry or computer studies.
"Hungary has always had a very solid tradition of secondary-level vocational education, but the new demands of our market society meant we had to find a better way of delivering the skilled specialists we need," says Dr Joszef Palinkas, the political state secretary at the Hungarian ministry of education.
The old approach, still prevalent in Hungary more than 10 years after the passing of the communist regime, takes students at 16 and turns out bricklayers, car mechanics and hairdressers two years later.
But, even with these skills, the average school-leaver will still face a tough battle to get a job: with unemployment at 10 million, adut workers with years of experience compete for every job opening.
Graduates of the new tertiary-level vocational training will be more mature - the two-year training starts at 18, and better equipped to fill jobs that demand both a higher level of knowledge and wider application of skills, proponents of the system believe.
"Youth unemployment is two to three times higher among those who lack specialist training; this new system of training will help both to reduce the number of drop-outs from the vocational education system and to expand university education in the direction of skills training," adds Palinkas.
A political appointee of Hungary's ruling centre-right Fides party, Palinkas, a physics professor who taught at the University of Debrecen, is a keen advocate of a shift toward a more practical system of higher education and training.
The traditional, German-influenced system of highly theoretical academic teaching at university fails to meet the needs of today's Hungary, he believes.
"If you live in a market society, the university system must respond to the needs of that society. Ten years have passed , yet we still have the drawbacks of a largely rigid system of tertiary education - to be honest, some universities still regard this new vocational system as something of a lower level and do not want to be involved."
Dr Imre Kiricisi, a chemist from Szeged university, one of the HE institutions involved in the scheme, said a range of different subjects was involved, including food industry specialisms and environmental science.
Most of the students working toward diplomas in his department intended to stay on for higher degrees, he says.
But for those who opted to leave and find a job, the opportunities were wide:
"Hungary has a shortage of medium-level specialists in environmental protection and waste treatment. These courses will be very useful and increase the number of educated people needed in Hungary as a potential EC member country."