A year after students blocked bridges and marched on the Hungarian parliament to protest deep cuts to the country’s higher education system, university campuses across the land are calm once more. But activists say this does not mean things have improved.
Of the protesters’ demands, the government has met just one (and that with some degree of ambiguity): restoring the number of state-funded places to roughly 2011 levels rather than following through with its plans to reduce them to a quarter of that figure.
“So that’s something that is better – or at least hasn’t gotten worse,” Dániel Prinz, one of the protest’s organisers, said wryly.
But the administration of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has continued to erect obstacles in the path of students specialising in fields other than those it considers essential to economic recovery – engineering and the sciences, mainly – and has refused to reverse budget cuts, reform the academy or drop a requirement that state-funded graduates must stay and work in Hungary post-graduation.
Even when students win state-funded places, activists complain, some universities do not have the capacity to take them. Hungary has reduced its higher education allocations by 40 per cent since 2008, according to the Center for International Higher Education Studies (CIHES) at Corvinus University in Budapest, which is more than any other European Union nation bar Greece. Activists say there are now fewer academic staff and larger class sizes, with campuses closed for weeks in the winter.
“It’s still pretty bad,” said Mr Prinz, a member of the country’s Student Network, known as “HaHa” (from its Hungarian name Hallgatói Hálózat).
“Even if you have the same number of places, the quality of higher education is declining. A lot of students are frustrated. A lot are going abroad,” he said.
If we pay, you stay, says state
This is precisely what the government hoped its so-called “student contract” would forestall. One in four new graduates in the country emigrated in 2009, the last year for which figures are available, and as many as 500,000 Hungarians are estimated to be working abroad.
Arguing that taxpayers should not have to pay for the education of people who then go on to work abroad, officials decreed that state-funded students would be required to sign contracts binding them to work in Hungary, within 20 years of graduating, for a period equal to twice the length of their university courses.
In the wake of the budget cuts, the contract and the restrictions on certain disciplines, university applications fell by 22 per cent last year – a striking contrast with those in competitor nations working to increase their student numbers.
Enrolments even fell by more than 20 per cent at the University of Pécs, Hungary’s oldest university, and Eötvös Loránd University, its biggest. From a peak of 424,000 in 2005, Hungarian higher education enrolment has fallen to 330,000, the CIHES says. It predicts a further 10 per cent drop by 2020.
The contract and the cuts to places ignited last year’s protests. In December, students occupied government offices, stopped traffic by blocking Budapest’s Petőfi and Chain bridges, and converged on Eötvös Loránd to draw up a list of demands.
They were answered with a series of seemingly contradictory statements. In addition to restoring the 2011 number of state-funded places, the government agreed to underwrite tuition for a small percentage of students in law and economics, which are among the 16 fields it regards as economically unimportant – fields that had, the year before, collectively attracted half of all university applicants.
“The government doesn’t really understand how modern economics works,” said Mr Prinz, who plans to pursue a postgraduate degree in the subject, but in the US rather than Hungary.
“It thinks that somehow Hungary can be turned into a society based on industrial production and agriculture.”
Even though the number of state-funded places has not been reduced as much as planned, budget cuts mean it is hard for universities to know how many applicants they can accept.
The University of Debrecen, for instance, was told before the beginning of this autumn’s term that it could enrol somewhere between 15 and 250 medical students.
HaHa continues to issue angry statements, but public protests have fizzled out and Hungary’s higher education system limps along without much changing.
“Now it’s small cuts, small inconveniences,” said Mr Prinz. “Students might feel it a little bit, but no one is shocked at what’s happening. You need huge changes to spark real protest.”