It is a very old story with the usual ups and downs. If you ask economists who specialize in matters connected to education, they will tell you that the introduction of tuition would be a good thing and not only for financial reasons. For example, they point out that the value of a college degree carries a certain monetary value for the recipients which puts them above those who didn't have the privilege of attending college. And yet the burden of educating the college grads falls on all taxpayers. And, they add, this isn't fair. If you ask college professors, most of them will argue for the introduction of tuition. They claim that the lack of fees makes students irresponsible. They would appreciate their education more if they were asked to contribute to it.
The whole issue has been dragged around for sixteen years without a satisfactory outcome, and it seems to me that what the Orbán government is contemplating at the moment will not be any better. Perhaps it is even worse than the others.
It all started with the "Bokros reforms" of 1995. Hungary was close to bankruptcy. Drastic steps had to be taken and Lajos Bokros, the newly appointed minister of finance, managed to convince the very reluctant Gyula Horn to go along. Among the austerity measures was the introduction of a very small tuition fee. If I recall properly after so many years, it was something like 2,000 ft a month, which was naturally worth more then than it is now, but the burden on the student was minimal. As Bokros said: the cost of a few packs of cigarettes.
The exceptions to paying even this minimal fee were numerous. I remember that a young relative of mine was a student at the time and her father proudly announced that she didn't have to pay tuition because of her grade point average. Upon closer scrutiny it turned out that she had a double major and her grade point average reached the required number in one of them but not in the other. But, never mind, she didn't have to pay tuition. An interesting way of calculating a grade point average.
Fidesz naturally was dead set against tuition, just as it was against the whole "Bokros package." In fact, the party's objection to tuition endeared it to college students. That was the beginning of a love affair. Fidesz promised that if they win the elections they will abolish tuition. They did and they didn't. They fiddled with the totally unjust system of dividing the student population into two groups: those who didn't have to pay a penny because of the number of points they amassed at their entrance exam and those who had to pony up because they didn't reach that magic number. That was bad enough, but what was even more outrageous was that after this initial placement the student was safe for four or five years regardless of his/her grade point average. These students could do anything, have D's in all subjects, but they never had to pay anything. By contrast, the unfortunate fellow who didn't get enough points on the entrance exam could receive straight A's but he would have to pay and pay. As time went by, Fidesz raised the number of "paying" students at the expense of the "non-paying" ones.
Fidesz lost the elections and SZDSZ received the post of minister of education in the coalition government. Bálint Magyar, the new minister, had another, in my opinion, bad idea. Graduates should pay back the cost of their education after they enter the workforce. MSZP was not at all happy with Magyar as minister and in 2006 István Hiller replaced him. Hiller served during the second Gyurcsány and the Bajnai governments. Hiller had another idea, but naturally it couldn't be called "tuition." In his plan it was called "partial contribution for development" (fejlesztési részhozzájárulás). Before anything could come of it, Fidesz organized the infamous referendum on co-pay and on tuition. And millions of people voted "no" to both.
Thus, two years later, Fidesz can't possibly introduce tuition. Unfortunately, it is clear that there isn't enough money to adequately finance the numerous institutions of higher learning. So, instead, Rózsa Hoffmann and her assistant undersecretary in charge of higher education are trying to come up with solutions. The first brainstorm was to reduce the overall number of students. Hoffmann, who is convinced that only brilliant students should go to college, expressed her hope that by lowering the number of students the quality would go up. Somewhat similarly, the Orbán government decided to lower the minimum age for compulsory secondary education. It will save some money. But this is a very bad tack to take in a country where there is a very thin stratum of the highly educated and where a very large portion of the population is undereducated.
However, it seems that lowering the overall numbers might not be enough given the sorry state of the Hungarian economy. They also want to lower the number of students who can attend university without paying tuition. At present this number is 53,000, but by 2014 it would be only 25,000. What would happen to the rest? They would have to bear the entire cost of their education.
According to a leaked document, the idea is that only those students getting degrees in subjects that would lead to civil service jobs (for instance, future doctors and teachers) would be exempt from paying for the cost of their education. The rest would be on their own. It seems that the Orbán government especially dislikes lawyers and economists. They wouldn't get a cent.
This new "tuition" is called "önköltség," which in English is "cost," "price." This "cost" would be very high. It would be based on the real cost of educating a student from entrance to graduation. Hiller yesterday severely criticized the new plan and claimed that "cost" is simply called "tuition" in all languages. But I think Hiller is wrong. The situation in Hungary is worse, because even the very high tuition in the United States don't cover the whole "cost" of the student's education. In the case of state universities the individual states spend hefty sums to maintain them. In the case of private institutions alumni contributions and investments cover tuition shortfalls.
Moreover, in the United States relatively few students pay full tuition because the parents' financial situation is taken into consideration. But in the Hoffmann plan I don't see anything resembling a reduction of tuition based either on financial need or scholarly achievement. Moreover, they are talking about the whole cost of these students' education. It seems that the state doesn't kick in anything. This is really outrageous and unheard of. But perhaps this is not the end of the story. Just yesterday Zoltán Pokorni, minister of education in the first Orbán government, announced that he will make sure that his own plans will quash those of the Christian Democratic Rózsa Hoffmann. The struggle over education is far from settled. But I'm almost sure that no sane solution will emerge as far as tuition is concerned. They will just continue an unjust and untenable situation.