The other day a caller to Klubrádió, who was a college student in the seventies, claimed that KISZ, the communist youth organization, represented student interests better than HÖOK does nowadays. That is quite an indictment.
I have written about HÖOK (Hallgatói Önkormányzatok Országos Konferenciája) several times. This student association is built in a pyramid fashion. Each university has its own elected officials and each then sends delegates to a nationwide body. At the top is the president of HÖOK, David Nagy, a balding, graying thirty-five-year-old. I think it’s best not to ask what he is studying and how long he has been at it. These student organizations, at least in the past, received sizable sums of money that could be spent, for example, on awarding scholarships to fellow students. Granting such far-reaching powers to students borders on lunacy. I’ve heard stories that the money certain student associations received ended up being “invested” in stocks and real estate.
There is another problem with HÖOK. During the last twenty years it became an arm of Fidesz. Viktor Orbán used the student organization for political purposes. Fidesz first became popular among students when in 1998 the Orbán government abolished the tuition the Horn government had introduced as part of Lajos Bokros’s austerity program in early 1995. The second attempt to introduce tuition took place during the Gyurcsány government, but a Fidesz-sponsored referendum torpedoed that effort.
Then came 2010 and the Orbán government decided that tuition was necessary after all. I suspect there is more to this story than an effort to balance the budget. Orbán became enamored with the wacko idea that real value comes only from physical work. His government lowered the number of hours that students in trade schools had hitherto spent on literature, history, and languages. These people will be practically illiterate after finishing school at the age of 16 and will be let loose totally unprepared for any work requiring, for example, computer skills. He is also convinced that there are just too many people finishing college. He would prefer to go back to the Kádár regime’s practice of keeping the number of university graduates very low. By introducing high tuitition Orbán could kill two birds with one stone. Reduce the numbers and save money.
Now, the only things that had to be figured out were how they could possibly convince students and their parents that tuition was not really tuition and the Hungarian public and the politicians of the European Union that this move would not decrease the number of university students. A pretty difficult task, but until now Orbán has been quite successful at his own game. First of all, he keeps insisting that there will be no tuition in Hungarian colleges and universities because students will be entitled to student loans. Mind you, few people would believe that if you buy a TV set on credit it costs nothing. Although Hungarians’ knowledge of personal finance is low, they are not that unsophisticated. As for the decreased numbers, the government spokesman only yesterday announced that high tuition fees will actually increase the number of university students. Just as Lajos Kósa claimed that registration will expand the number of voters. All this with a straight face.
But it seems that the honeymoon between HÖOK and Fidesz is over. Of course, I don’t know what kinds of conversations are going on between members of the student body and the “officials” of HÖOK, but I have the feeling that the student bigwigs are getting an earful. These student leaders are not very popular in the first place. In fact, in certain student circles they are so unpopular that a new rival student organization was established about a year ago called Hallgatói Hálozat (Student Network [HAHA]). I wrote about them and HÖOK back in February. They were the ones who organized a large student demonstration while HÖOK at ELTE actually turned against them. But this time HÖOK also had to move because the latest government announcement that came out of the blue upset the entire academic community, including the students.
Already last year the government reduced the number of students receiving tuition-free education fairly substantially, but it affected only entering freshmen. Then about a month ago they made another huge cut: only one-third of the students, about 30,000, wouldn’t have to pay tuition; the rest would be saddled with very large loans. But then came the bombshell two days ago: the plan has changed so that only 10,500 students can study without paying tuition. Well, that was the last straw, especially since the government didn’t discuss the plan with anyone before the announcement. Not even the university presidents.
HÖOK announced a demonstration for Wednesday and HAHA will join them. They are supported by one of the teachers’ unions, and they have the backing of the Conference of University Presidents. As it is, the Hungarian government spends less money on higher education than other European countries. Only about 0.5% of GDP while the European average is 1.0%. In the future, universities will receive even less money. Some of the universities can’t even heat their buildings and will have to close for two weeks during the exam period.
In Europe there are nine countries where there is no tuition at all. The closest university that charges no tuition west of the border is the University of Vienna (the 16 euros is a registration fee). Even where there is tuition it is minuscule–with the exception of Portugal and Spain–in comparison to what the Orbán government is planning to charge. The result will be a flight to neighboring countries to attend university. The Hungarian brain drain will continue.
Some Fidesz politicians complained that the government communication is not quite up to snuff on the tuition issue. I’m sorry, but I doubt that a move from no tuition to €913.00 per semester can be politically well communicated.