Romania is on the verge of back-tracking on a legal requirement which made Romanian the mandatory language of instruction for all students at universities and all other levels of education, regardless of ethnicity, writes Vera Rich.
Next September, the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca will open a Hungarian-taught course in the law faculty, with a target intake of "at least 50" ethnic Hungarian students.
The new faculty, which was approved by the university senate two weeks ago, will be the first stage in a series of measures aimed at implementing what is officially termed the "university's multicultural activity". The package was worked out by a special commission of academics representing the three main ethnic groups in Cluj-Napoca - Romanians, Hungarians and Germans.
Andrei Marga, the university's rector, said the new faculty did not mean the university would be divided or split. Its "structural and functional unity" will, he says, be maintained. In fact, the "unity" of the university is the result of past political decisions. During the inter-war years, Cluj-Napoca had two universities; one Romanian-taught, and one - the Bolyai University - that used Hungarian, and which was set up as part of a package of measures to satisfy Hungarians who, after the first world war, found themselves Romanian citizens.
Under the communist regime, the two universities were "merged"; however, as the resulting Babes-Bolyai University has been for more than three decades Romanian-taught only, the "amalgamation" has always been viewed by Hungarians as tantamount to closure. The "reopening" of the Bolyai University has for decades been at the forefront of demands by Romania's Hungarian minority for their cultural rights.
The new faculty will need a change to the 1994 Education Act (which makes Romanian the mandatory language of tuition), and the relevant amendment is set to go before parliament in May. Like the recent signing of the interstate "basic-treaty" between Hungary and Romania, the concession on Hungarian-taught higher education is seen as an important step in smoothing the way to Romania's admission to west European political and economic bodies.
Only a few ultra-nationalist Romanian politicians have attacked the idea of Hungarian-taught courses.
Bela Marko, the president of the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania, also opposes splitting the university. However, some Hungarian faculty members at Babes-Bolyai are doubtful about how the plan will work out.
Meanwhile, in a meeting last week with a visiting delegation from the Hungarian parliament's foreign affairs committee, Teodor Melescanu, the head of the Roma-nian senate's Foreign Affairs Committee, said of the proposed changes: "Even if they learn separately in foreign languages, our children can at least play together in the breaks between classes."