University tuition: a never-ending Hungarian controversy

Currently there is no tuition for about half the students enrolled in Hungarian universities. Here’s how the system works (or doesn’t). In order to be able to enroll as a student in one of the institutions of higher learning a certain number of "points" is necessary. The necessary number of points varies from university to university; even within the same university it can vary from department to department. These points can be collected from several sources: high school grades, entrance examination results, and official foreign language examinations, just to mention a few. In order to avoid paying tuition for his entire university career, the student has to earn the minimum number of points for admission plus an additional fixed number of points. Once the student reaches this magic number, he can attend university tuition free regardless of his academic performance for the next four or five years. He can barely scrape by and still be subsidized. His fellow student who failed to achieve the magic tuition-free number as a university applicant can be a brilliant university student, but he will have to pay tuition every year. This is an academically unfair system.

The system is also economically unfair. For instance, a student whose parents are college educated, where the family has a large library, where the dinner conversations are on a high level, will most likely perform better in high school as well as on the entrance examinations. Moreover, the extra points earned as a result of foreign language examinations are again the privilege of the well-off: they are the ones who can afford to send their children to private lessons or abroad to study a language. So it is quite likely that the children of wealthier families will receive a free education while those of poorer families will have to pay tuition.

As far as the students are concerned, the tuition controversy isn’t cast in these terms. The students who aren’t paying tuition right now don’t want to have to pay tuition in the future. I assume they’re also advocating on behalf of the students who are currently paying tuition.

To give some background to the tuition question: In the spring of 1995, when Gyula Horn, the socialist prime minister, at last realized that if the government didn’t do something the country would go bankrupt, he reluctantly asked the economist Lajos Bokros to be minister of finance. Bokros didn’t hesitate, and he introduced a series of belt-tightening economic measures, including tuition. This tuition was more symbolic than real, amounting to approximately $10 per month . Morever, if a student achieved a certain grade point average he or she was exempt. Bokros’s plan was to drive home the fact that "there is no free lunch." He was also hoping that tuition would have a beneficial effect on the educational standards in institutions of higher learning.  There was an outcry, but eventually things calmed down. Although the students weren’t happy, they paid. (Mind you, I thought that either the universities interpreted the law rather loosely or the law itself allowed peculiar loopholes. For instance, a relative of mine proudly announced that his daughter didn’t have to pay tuition because of her high grade point average. I inquired what this grade point average was. It turned out that the girl had two "majors." In one of the majors she did reach the necessary grade point average but not in the other. However, for the university that was enough: no tuition.)

The Fidesz during this period began their shift from left to right. In their bid for election they received wide support from young people, in large part because the party promised that if they won the elections they would abolish tuition. And indeed, they were true to their word. But after four years of a Fidesz majority, the socialists and the liberals returned. Under Bálint Magyar, SZDSZ minister of education, a lot of reform took place. Everybody knew that Magyar was in favor of the reintroduction of tuition, but the government had enough trouble without stirring up the university students, who overwhelmingly supported the Fidesz. When Gyurcsány became prime minister about a year and a half before the new elections, his first trips were to several large universities. From the videos of these appearances one knew that he was addressing a largely antagonistic audience.

However, the tuition question couldn’t be postponed and Gyurcsány’s new socialist minister of education, István Hiller, formerly a very popular college teacher of history, tackled the problem again. He managed to convince the university presidents that tuition would benefit them directly because it would remain with the university. Half of it they would have to spend on scholarships, but with the rest they could do whatever they felt was needed. He also remedied the problem of the anomaly of free tuition status regardless of performance. The first year there would no tuition because performance in high school, given different standards, could not really be compared, but from the second year on, exemption from tuition would depend on academic performance. After a lot of haggling he even managed to convince the HÖOK (Hallgatói Önkormányzatok Országos Konferenciája), a nationwide organization of university students, to accept the notion of tuition. Prime Minister Gyurcsány boasted about Hiller’s success and somewhat maliciously remarked that Hiller’s diplomacy was the right way, not like the minister of health’s heavy handedness. After all, Hiller managed to convince the students and the university presidents, while the SZDSZ minister of health didn’t get anywhere with the doctors. Well, he spoke too early. Yesterday the busybody president of the HÖOK (I would love to know how much time he has for his studies) announced that, sorry, the students had changed their minds and would organize a huge demonstration. And, of course, one of the vice-presidents of the Fidesz, the former minister of education, already announced that if they win the next election (whether in 2010 or earlier) they will abolish tuition. So, here we go again. Good luck, Mr. Hiller.