“Too many young people go to university! They just waste their time drinking and learning useless things. Why can’t they learn a trade instead?!”
So said every pub bore ever. But in Hungary, as I discovered when I visited Budapest, the prime minister Viktor Orbán has expressed this view, and it is now government policy.
Hungary appears to be making dubious history by reversing the expansion of universities, once seen as a prerequisite of economic modernity.
Aside from huge cuts in student numbers, research spending has taken a hammering too: down about a fifth since 2010, making Hungary the only country in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to fund university research well below pre-financial crisis levels.
The government riposte is that it is moving towards a more vocational system, with the subjects young people study based on “market need”. This sounds defensible, but for the fact that enrolment in all forms of tertiary education, not just higher, have tumbled about 10 percentage points under the right-wing Fidesz party.
Why does this all matter to the rest of the world? Nobert Sabic, a higher education researcher from the threatened Central European University, told me that what is happening in Hungary is a “clear demarcation” of what a right-wing authoritarian higher education agenda looks like. Could Hungary’s highly utilitarian policies be adopted in Poland, or even the US?
This might seem far-fetched in the case of the US, but there are echoes of Orbán – who speaks of his “respect” for manual workers – in Donald Trump’s focus on creating more jobs for coal miners. Both lionise jobs for which no degree is necessary.
If higher education does come under increasing attack from figures such as Orbán, it is arguably quite vulnerable. Survey data have found that Europeans are much more likely to support more spending on vocational training than higher education, following decades of university expansion.
But, a word of warning for Orbán-like figures. Ending mass higher education, even if an economic case could be made, would cause an almighty backlash from the middle class. It is interesting that China, which is far more repressive than Hungary, has expanded higher education at a furious pace, despite students being some of the regime’s most courageous opponents. Partly this is because Beijing still believes in the “knowledge economy” – the idea that you get growth through education – which critics say Hungary has given up on. But I suspect there’s another reason too: scaling back higher education would thwart the dreams of millions of parents who want middle-class status for their children. That would be a risky move.
In Hungary, though, the middle classes and their children can simply emigrate, aided by the European Union’s freedom of movement rules, and enjoy tuition-free study in other countries, notably Germany.
About one in 13 Hungarians between 18 and 49 lived abroad in 2013, according to UN data, and the pace of emigration is accelerating, forcing the government to promise graduates jobs and housing assistance if they return. This exodus could be a safety valve preventing real opposition to Fidesz at home.
David Matthews is a reporter for Times Higher Education. Read his in-depth feature on higher education in Hungary.