Higher education under threat in Hungary

The drastic higher education reforms the Hungarian government has introduced in the last months of 2012 have sparked nationwide protests. But while the government continues to implement contradictory reform, resistance from below is gaining ground.

Anti-government demonstrators wave a cut-out Hungarian flag, the symbol of the 1956 Revolution, in front of the Hungarian parliament. Demotix/Peter Nemeth. All rights reserved.Anti-government demonstrators wave a cut-out Hungarian flag, the symbol of the 1956 Revolution, in front of the Hungarian parliament. Demotix/Peter Nemeth. All rights reserved.

Situation

Since the current government came into power in 2010, changes in the education system have been generally characterized by centralization, state control, overregulation and questioning of the role of the intelligentsia and the importance of higher education.

Students are now only required to stay in school until age 16 (down from 18), schools are being nationalized, the regulation of curricula has been strengthened to tie the hands of schools and teachers, and national curricula have been rewritten to promote the Government’s ideology. This means that the special curricula of schools that work with disadvantaged children (the government has also cut funding for these schools) and the curricula of great institutions for gifted students will go into the dustbin, or will at least be rewritten according to the wishes of the government. The remuneration of teachers, like that of others working in the public sector, is very low, and has decreased with the reforms.

In 2011, the number of government scholarships was already massively cut, which led to a 25% drop in the number of higher education applicants in 2012. Students on government scholarships now have to sign a contract in which they promise that they will work in Hungary for twice the length of their course within 20 years. The only European country with a similar contract is Belarus, but even there students have to spend fewer years in the country after graduation. Tying graduates to Hungary obviously violates one of the basic principles of the European Union, namely the free movement of labour.

Budget cuts have been continuous and drastic: the 2012 government funding for higher education is only half of the 2008 figure. At the same time, the government is proposing the appointment of chancellors at universities. Chancellors would report dircetly to government, suggesting their role would be to coordinate layoffs and close down institutions. The government also wants to increase its influence on the appointment of university presidents.

The government has stated on multiple occasions that in the longer term, higher education should be “self-financing”, that is, the government wants to cut all funding for higher education. This is not only impossible and catastrophic considering Hungarian circumstances but also internationally unprecedented.

December 2012 protests and the Student Network

The government announced on December 5 that it will only fund 10,480 places next year, down from over 44,000 in 2011. This led to nationwide protests beginning on December 10, with student and faculty meetings at various universities, the occupation of government offices, and a meeting with several thousand people at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Budapest (ELTE), where participants formulated the "students’ six points":

1. We demand the complete reform of public and higher education.
2. The number of government-funded places should be reinstated to the 2011 level.
3. Stop budget cuts and compensate previous cuts.
4. Abolish the student contracts.
5. Do not limit the autonomy of universities.
6. Give a chance to disadvantaged students to enter higher education.

After passing the six points, the several thousand participants decided that as a response to the hopeless situation they will go on the streets and block traffic in Budapest by occupying the nearby Petőfi bridge. People stayed on the bridge for a while, and later decided to walk towards the Parliament, across the city. In the chilly December weather, people finally went home late at night after also occupying the Chain Bridge. In the days that followed several similar protests happened with even more protesters in the capital, while there were demonstrations in other towns organized by university and high school students. (A map of the protests and events is available here.)

University meetings and protests were organized by the activists of Student Network (Hallgatói Hálózat, or HaHa). HaHa is a non-governmental organization which does not have any leaders or hierarchy, but is instead based on grassroots democratic principles. 

HaHa first appeared in 2006 to protest against plans to close universities. It gathered more support in 2011 and 2012 as the situation became critical with cuts in the number of government-funded seats and unfair student contracts. However, university leaders and official student unions not only did not support the demonstrations until the end of 2012, but they regularly spoke out against them and tried to prevent them. Publications by HaHa and other organizations protesting against the destruction of the education system, demanding attention, addressing serious problems and proposing some solutions, were neglected and the government refused to make any response.

With the announcement of further drastic cuts in late 2012 the situation changed. Marches were now not only supported by the official representative organization of university students, National Conference of Student governments (Hallgatói Önkormányzatok Országos Konferenciája, or HÖOK), but on the following December 10 HÖOK also took parts in organizing events. On December 17, the National Higher Education Forum (Országos Felsőoktatási Egyeztető Fórum, or OFEF) was founded by Faculty Network (Oktatói Hálózat, or OHA), HaHa, HÖOK, the Hungarian University Presidents’ Conference (Magyar Rektori Konferencia, or MRK) representing the leaders of higher education institutions and three unions. The Forum unanimously supported the six points of the students and recognized the legitimacy of the networks and their important roles in delivering the opinions of everyone affected by the changes to the decision makers.

The Prime Minister’s short video message of December 15 was hard to interpret. In this message he announced that there would be no limitation of the number of government-funded places, so everyone who achieves some pre-set number of points on the qualifying exams will be admitted.

Unfortunately it was already clear back then that this was nothing but a trick of the spin merchants. Not much later the State Secretariat for Education announced that 16 faculties (including economics, management and law) which attracted half of all applicants in 2012 will have no government-funded places. They presented contradictory arguments regarding why this was necessary: "these majors are not of strategic importance", "the graduates of these majors earn a lot" and "there is overproduction of these majors". For other courses, the Government intervened when universities set their capacities, and at the end only rough figures for the number of government-funded places were published. For example, the University of Debrecen will accept 15 to 250 medical students.

The Government has changed its stance on a daily or weekly basis. Their ideas were obviously unfounded, ineffective and contradictory, but they sounded impressive enough. The 2013 budget bill made it obvious that the government wants to push responsibility onto the universities: it is possible to admit students naturally, but there is no way to finance them.

2013: ultimatum, worthless promises, smear campaign

At the January 7 Students’ Meeting, an ultimatum addressed to the government was passed: if immediate demands are not met and negotiations about higher education reform with the inclusion of all affected parties are not commenced, on February 11 protests will continue.

Immediate demands include no discrimination for the 16 courses and compensation for budget cuts. There was no government response, but pro-government media outlets started a smear campaign. HaHa was accused of being supported by opposition parties and funded by the Hungarian-American businessman, George Soros. This fits right into the government’s divisive, nationalist rhetoric.

One of the newspapers even managed to hack into the internet site that HaHa uses for decision making. However, besides the fact that some activists made funny comments about the February 11 demonstration and that they participated in a training organized by American community organizers, they did not find anything that could be used to smear the organization. Nevertheless, this was enough to fill the nominally independent (but actually heavily pro-government) public television with news about HaHa’s purpose to serve foreign interests, including those seeking the fall of the government.

On January 21, HÖOK signed an agreement with the minister, which had only two concrete, yet controversial results. The agreement was not supported by HaHa and other organizations. In the agreement the government abandoned its initial idea that it would influence the process of the selection of university presidents and it promised that it would fund some seats for the 16 majors. However, the minister had already determined the very limited cut-offs for these majors – it is now unavoidable that much fewer applicants will be accepted compared to 2011, and that universities outside Budapest which previously had lower cut-offs will now have no government-funded seats at all.

The higher education application process has already started, but applicants still don’t know how many places will actually be funded by the government, and whether there is even a point in applying for the 16 majors singled out, given the unrealistic cut-offs, even though many people have been preparing to enter one of these courses for many years.

Universities succeed each other every day in announcing layoffs, and the closing of certain colleges has already been decided by the government, even though the application process to them is already under way. The government does not want to admit that its unfounded reforms have created a huge chaos in higher education, while there is no discussion of real, quality and balanced reforms, as demanded by students. The government is only willing to negotiate with a few selected organizations, many of them with questionable competence and legitimacy when it comes to the higher education sector, such as the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an organization that has been vigorously supportive of government policies.

Some public education employees are ready to go on strike, university employees live in complete uncertainty, universities are unsure whether they will have enough money for the second half of the year and applicants cannot get even the most basic information.

The situation is not set to evolve more favourably as, on 8 February, the governing party proposed a new amendment to the Constitution, the fourth since the document came into effect only two years ago. Most of the new provisions go against previous decisions of the Constitutional Court, and further restrict the power of the Constitutional Court itself: notably, the Court would lose the power to examine any further amendments to the Constitution, and to justify its decisions on the sole ground of legal precedent.

This amendment, if passed, would have dramatic consequences for the student movement as well. The student contract that obliges the students on state-financed scholarships to stay and work in the country and the new regulations that put the universities' financial management under control of the government - severely threatening their autonomy – would be inscribed in the Constitution itself. Apart from the fact that there is no reason why these regulations should be part of the Constitution, if the amendment is passed, two of the "points" demanded by the students and the National Higher Education Forum would suddenly become unconstitutional. The proposal was signed by every member of the governing party's parliamentary group.

If the situation does not change fundamentally, students will have no choice but to continue the protests. Our slogan: nothing about us can be decided without us!

Translated from Hungarian by Daniel Prinz and András Hargitai.