The price of learning in Hungary

This is the title of an article that appeared in today’s HVG‘s on-line edition. HVG (originally Heti Világgazdaság or Weekly World Economics) is perhaps the most reliable weekly publication dealing not only with economics but also with politics and, to a certain extent, even history and culture. When I first became interested in Hungarian affairs I subscribed to HVG which then, of course, was not yet available on-line. What I learned from this particular article astonished even me who has spent quite a bit of time of late studying Hungarian higher education.

I did mention earlier that a peculiar system developed in Hungary. A few years ago the ministry of education devised a system that made a distinction between students who had to pay tuition and those who didn’t. The number of students who had to pay tuition grew substantially after the Orbán government abolished the very minimal fee most students had to pay for about three years during the Horn government because, after all, it was obvious even to them that totally free education couldn’t be maintained in Hungary. There was simply not enough money in the budget. In order to educate a student the state must lay out, on average, 1.2 million forints yearly. And if one considers that in 1990 there were only 76,600 full time university students while today there are 238,674, one can appreciate the problem Hungary faces. As it stands now, almost half of the students pay tuition. And not the modest $560.00 that the government wants to introduce but much higher amounts. As I said, I was astonished to see the figures. By American standards, of course, they are low, but Hungary is not the United States.

At the moment the government has 56 thousand spaces for students who qualify for non-tuition status every year. That is a bit more than fifty percent of the entering freshmen class. Let’s see what the other approximately 50 thousand students have to pay. It seems that the cheapest is theology. If you want to be a minister or a priest it is really peanuts: for a mere $335.00 per semester you can become a servant of God. I understand that there is a real shortage of priests especially. Just lately the Catholic Church wanted to have his priests exempt from the drunken driving laws because after all some of the priests have to celebrate two or three masses a day and drive from church to church! I think the government said no! Of course, to be a teacher is no great career choice either and accordingly tuition is relatively low: only $500.00 per semester. But if you think that the Catholic University will make a better teacher out of you, you may consider enrolling at the Péter Pázmány University for $810.00 per semester.

On the other hand, if you want to be a doctor that’s really an expensive proposition by Hungarian standards. At the University of Budapest Medical School per semester it costs the student $7,872, but if you are satisfied with some other medical school outside of the capital, you have to pay only a bit more than $4,500. In case you are musically talented and are accepted at the Franz Liszt Academy as a student of composition you will be paying over $8,000 per year. To become a student of one of the musical instruments costs about the same or a little less, depending on the instrument.

When we get to post-graduate studies, tuition on the master or Ph.D. level, especially in the field of economics, is fairly high. If you want to be really elegant and you know English well, you can enroll, if accepted, at the Central European University, a brainchild of George Soros. It has an international faculty and student body. Here the tuition per semester is almost $10,000. If you are satisfied with the best Hungarian MBA program, the tuition at the Corvinus University (earlier Karl Marx University) is over $6,000 per semester. There are other places where they offer Master of Business Administration degrees, but I wouldn’t spend the approximately $1,500 per semester. They are not very good.

So this is what free tuition looks like to almost 50,000 students out of about 117,000. I was therefore a bit angry with Olga Kálmán of ATV (Egyenes beszéd/Straight Talk) today. She is among the better reporters in Hungary, but today she wasn’t in very good form. One of her guests was Péter Szijjártó, a brash young fellow, chief spokesman of Fidesz. Most people on the other side hate young Szijjártó with a passion, and Kálmán normally gets the better of him. But not today. Szijjártó’s argument for the abolishment of tuition was extremely weak. He kept repeating: "If until now no student had to pay any tuition, then, tell me, why do they have to pay more? I don’t understand this." Or to Kálmán: "Did you pay tuition? I didn’t! Why do talented wonderful people have to pay tuition?" Or: "Let’s say that until now 100% of the students didn’t pay tuition and from here on only 15% will be exempt. It is difficult to belong to the top 15% of the class!" Meanwhile Olga Kálmán didn’t mention once: "What are you talking about? Nobody pays tuition today? You are not telling the truth. Half of the students pay very high fees." But somehow she forgot and there was no one who could have helped her out through that little microphone in her ear. Too bad!