Students protest against introduction of tuition fees

Hundreds of students blocked a bridge over the Danube in Budapest last Monday and several thousand marched to parliament on Wednesday to protest against cutbacks in scholarships and the introduction of tuition fees for 80% of Hungarian students from 2013.

Most new entrants to Hungarian higher education institutions will have to pay fees of between HUF50,000 and HUF100,000 (US$232 to US$464) per semester from next year.

Students will also have to sign a contract with the government under the student loan scheme, Diakhitel 2.0, pledging to stay and work in Hungary for at least twice as long as their studies lasted. If they leave Hungary, they will have to pay back outstanding tuition fees. This clause will apply for 20 years after graduation.

Four years after a referendum rejected the introduction of tuition fees, the government has introduced another model for fees. Student unions are calling for a new referendum.

The Hungarian Union of Students, HÖOK, and the European Students’ Union, ESU, were “outraged” by the government’s decision, David Nagy of HÖOK stated. It reversed the popular vote in 2008 and he expected a “drastic decrease” in the intake of students.

ESU Chair Karina Ufert said the government decision “would counteract socio-economic growth in Hungary”.

Simultaneously, the OECD released figures showing that only 41% of 15-year-old Hungarians now aim to achieve a degree – a 12% drop since 2003 – the Budapest Times reported.

The tuition fee issue is being seen in a context of high student dropout rates of 50%, according to ETI-Econews, and a high proportion of emigrants: Budapest Times reported that emigration in the 25-44 year age group had increased by 150% since 2010.

In July, Prime Minister Viktor Oban outlined the government’s higher education policies at a meeting with the youth political group Fidelitas, and said he was in favour of a system in which “the state enables the poor to attend higher education with the help of a long-term loan”.

According to the Budapest Times, he told Fidelitas that the reforms would attract young Hungarians back and that if it went well, “we will receive talented Westerners who want to study at affordable prices”.

At the Hungarian Rectors’ Conference in October, Oban said “reform of a system that has focused on mass education rather than quality is inevitable”. He described the reform as a “highly preferential student loan system”.

The state scholarship level for 2013 will be 10,480 full scholarships, down 60% from this year and down from 53,450 in 2011. The number of partial scholarships will increase from 5,000 to 46,330.

Preference will be given to students in technology, health, medicine, natural sciences, agriculture and information technology. Students in business economics will be particularly affected by the cutbacks.

Hungarian-born Professor Stevan Harnod of Québec University in Montréal told University World News: “Orban's super-majority has been systematically mismanaging Hungary's economy with ‘unorthodox’ and increasingly high-handed and self-serving methods that are failing miserably but that require continuous deception to conceal the facts that would erode popularity.

“It is impossible to say whether the present student tuition hikes (scholarship cuts) are economically necessary, but it is transparent that Orban's government is engaging in its signature demagoguery and double-talk here too.

“Orban rose to power on the wave of the ‘social referendum’ he organised in 2008, in which the overwhelming majority voted against the introduction of medical visit fees and university tuition fees. Hence double-talk, to avoid any hint of calling tuition fees ‘tuition fees’."