About a week ago HVG published an article entitled “Gyurcsány plans, Orbán finishes.” “Ember tervez, Isten végez” is the Hungarian version of the English proverb “Man proposes, God disposes.” The author claims that the so-called education reform introduced by the second Orbán government “sounds familiar” because it is simply a copy of the legislation of the second Gyurcsány government with respect to tuition. It doesn’t matter what the present government claims, the legislation will involve charging a tuition fee. The only difference is, the article continues, that while the proceeds of the “student contribution” of the Gyurcsány era remained with the institutions, today the money collected would end up in the general budget. So, the author says, basically the difference is as much as between a glass half full and one half empty.
Well, as we will see, this is simply not true. A week later another HVG article noticed that after all there are serious differences between the 2006 and the planned 2012 reforms. This second article even admits that in 2006 Fidesz, by launching an attack against the reform and eventually succeeding in defeating it, “sacrificed the interest of the country for its own political ends.” Moreover, the 2008 referendum came in difficult economic times when it was necessary to lower the deficit and put the country’s economic house in order. Then comes a sentence that is worth pondering: “However uncomfortable it is to confess, the concept of the Gyurcsány government would have been better for the country” than the one Viktor Orbán is trying to introduce. Why is it so uncomfortable to confess it? Perhaps because the author of the article fought tooth and nail at the time against the reform.
And let us add that the 2006 reform would also have been far better for the students and their parents. By now most people have forgotten the details of the 2006 reform effort. So, let’s compare the two systems.
In the Gyurcsány government’s plan no one would have paid a tuition fee in the first year. From the second year on, the top 15% of the student body would have received a full scholarship. The decision would have been made solely on the basis of academic achievement. In the Orbán scheme only 14% of the students won’t have to pay a tuition fee while 40,000 students would be eligible to pay only half of their fees. As far as I can ascertain, academic achievement doesn’t figure into Orbán’s scheme. Students on full or partial scholarship would have to sign a contract that would oblige them to work in Hungary for at least six years after a three-year bachelor’s degree and perhaps as many as 10-12 years in the case of physicians. This contract, by the way, most likely doesn’t conform to EU laws that don’t recognize any restriction on the free movement of individuals within the Union.
In the Gyurcsány legislation the tuition fee was set at 105,000 Ft/year (bachelor’s degree) and 210,000 for graduate students. So, in the first instance about €370.00 and in the second €742.00. However, universities could adjust this amount up or down 50%, so in the Gyurcsány scheme a student might have paid only 105,000 Ft or in the worst case scenario 315,000 for a three-year bachelor’s program. Compare that with the Orbán tuition fee for the same degree that will be, depending on the field of study, between 500,000 and 1,000,000. That is, between €1,766.00 and €4,281.00.
A very important difference between the two schemes is that the money collected through tuition fees in the 2006 reform would have remained with the institution. It was stipulated that 30-50% of that amount had to be spent on financial assistance for needy students. In the Orbán plan there is not a word about financial aid for the needy.
I don’t think that the students who have been on the streets in the last four days are fully aware that the 2006 reform would have been a great deal better for them, for the academic institutions, and for the whole educational system than the monstrosity Viktor Orbán dreamed up. At that time, however, Fidesz torpedoed the attempt with its infamous and most likely unconstitutional referendum. But I think they are starting to understand that some tuition fee is necessary, and not only for the sake of the budget. When something is entirely free it is often taken advantage of or at least not taken terribly seriously. The laxity that is characteristic of even better Hungarian universities is unheard of at good universities in Canada and the United States, the two countries I’m familiar with. Too many students linger beyond the six semesters because, after all, attending (or not attending) courses don’t cost anything. I encountered one young man who enrolled in graduate school only because he wanted to have a student ID, useful for paying less on streetcars and buses. I was astonished to learn that there is no limit to the number of courses a student can fail per year and that a failed course can be taken over and over until the student manages to scrape by.
There are problems with the teaching staff as well. As is clear from the Semjén case, the requirements are low. There are undoubtedly more people like Attila Károly Molnár who most likely “helped out” his student. There are not strict enough guidelines on the consequences of cheating or plagiarism.
I know that most students would like to have a quality education, but by forcing some students to pay extraordinarily high fees while others on scholarship are “tied to the land” is not the answer to the ills of Hungary’s higher education.
One thing is sure: in this day and age getting information about the recent past is easy. All students, including kids in high school, know what Viktor Orbán, Rózsa Hoffmann, and Péter Szijjártó said a few years ago. And they know that they were duped. They were duped in 2008 and they are being duped now.
It was in March 2011 that Péter Szijjártó, then still spokesman of the prime minister, said that “the people decided against having a tuition fee at the colleges and universities. This is our goal and we are not planning to change our position on that matter.” When a reporter asked him about rumors that perhaps the tuition fee would have to be paid later, he brazenly lied. “There are no such plans.” Or here are a few remarks of Viktor Orbán. In 1995 he knew as well as everybody else that “some kind of tuition fee is necessary,” yet in 1998 in order to get the support of the students he abolished the modest 2,000 Ft/month tuition fee introduced in 1995 as part of the austerity package of Finance Minister Lajos Bokros. During the election campaign of 2002 he warned that “there is a danger that they are going to reintroduce tuition fees at universities and colleges.” During the campaign against the educational reform, just before the March 2008 referendum, he said: “If there had been tuition I wouldn’t be standing here today. Tuition fees exclude people like us from the universities.” In July 2012 he told his audience that “I’m an enemy of tuition and will remain such.” Only a few months ago, in October, he claimed that “there will be no tuition.”
It seems to me that most of the students know these lines and came to the conclusion that the prime minister of Hungary is a liar. And these young people are already of voting age or will be by next year. I especially liked this sign from one of the many demonstrations:
Viktor Orbán rather light heartedly said in Brussels that by the end of the week the political problem of the student revolt will be solved. Well, we will see.