BUDAPEST — University students and administrators are complaining of a climate of uncertainty as the government rolls out changes in the higher education system, including sharp cuts in the number of state-sponsored students and an obligation for them to work in Hungary after graduation. (New York Times, 5 March 2012, by PALKO KARASZ – http://nyti.ms/wBV7vm).
Education Minister Rozsa Hoffmann traveled to Brussels last week to discuss the changes, which have raised concerns in the European Commission, the European Union’s executive body.
“The education and higher education reforms intend to serve modernization and equal access to studies and culture while the country has to fight a heavy debt burden,” Ms. Hoffmann said after meeting with the E.U. education commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, the MTI news service reported.
But Ms. Vassiliou said the new laws, which went into effect Jan. 1, might not allow Hungary to reach the Europe 2020 education targets. The targets include lowering the dropout rate to under 10 percent and increasing the qualifications for degrees in Hungary to 30 percent, said the commissioner’s press service.
The minister said Hungary wanted to “prevent the appearance of not willing to comply with obligations it took on.”
Hungary began the overhaul with the aim of making universities more effective and degrees more competitive. When the laws went through Parliament last December, opponents argued that the measures were taken hastily and without proper public consultation.
In January, the government cut entry-level places getting full state sponsorship to just over 33,000 from more than 53,000 in 2011. A subsequent decree required those benefiting from state sponsorship to work in Hungary for twice the number of years they spent at university.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in February that higher education needed reform because “thousands of graduates every year thought their degrees were of great value, but it turned out not to be the case.”
“Those who study on taxpayers’ money should accept to stay working at home for a while,” he said.
Cuts in the number of state-financed places will affect certain areas more heavily than others. Only 5.1 percent of last year’s spots will be available for those starting economic studies.
Zsolt Rostovanyi, the rector of Corvinus University of Budapest, which specializes in economics, said, “The cuts were drastic, and they came down hard on our university, and certainly on the students preparing for these careers.”
While Mr. Rostovanyi praised the government’s intention to improve the system, he said important measures were taken by decree, without consultation, which left students unsure whether they would get state money. His university was trying to put in place alternative ways of financing, Mr. Rostovanyi said, but it was hard to plan ahead with decrees still pending.
“We can’t foresee what the government is going to do next,” he said, “We don’t see a coherent strategy.”
He said university fees would not be so controversial if there were other student aid. Students who would no longer be sponsored would take state-financed student loans that would leave them with substantial debt, he added.
Annual tuition for an economics undergraduate this year will be about 550,000 forint, or about $2,500, roughly two and a half months’ wages for the average earner.
Andrea Kobor, 22, is a master’s student in international economics at Corvinus and one of the founding members of Hallgatoi Halozat, or Student Network. They started the movement last May, she said, “when we saw that the reform was being rolled out lacking social consultation and transparency.”
Ms. Kobor, who spent a semester studying in France, said her experience there was “incomparable” to her Hungarian course. She highlighted doing research, debating and looking for solutions independently. “This is completely lacking from Hungarian education and shows in our political culture as well,” she said. “People are shy to express their opinions, to stand up for themselves.”
“The biggest appeal of Hungarian universities used to be quasi-free education, proximity to home and wider accessibility,” Ms. Kobor said. If students are no longer sponsored by the state and have to pay tuition, “a rationally thinking student will rather go with Western European schools,” she said.
Hungary is not the only country in the European Union struggling to improve an old education system that relies heavily on state financing. The European Students’ Union said several E.U. members, like Estonia and Malta, were looking at ways to slow the departure of graduates from their countries, while others planned to limit access to state scholarships.
“Hungary is, however, the first E.U. country with such a strong and visible restriction for state funded students,” said Allan Pall, chairman of the European Students’ Union.
To Mr. Pall, the new law introduces an “unjustifiable restriction of freedom of movement for workers and is a violation of Article 45” of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, for which the students’ union has requested a European Commission investigation.
Applications for Hungarian universities closed in late February, with a first estimate of 70,000 applicants, officials said. They will be processed together with final exam results this spring.
Gergo Birtalan, 17, from Kecskemet, in southern Hungary, applied to study law in Budapest, a subject also heavily affected by cuts. “It was an awful surprise to learn about the cuts, just a month and a half before application deadlines,” he said.
Unsure if he is going to make it into the state-financed quotas, he is now considering last-minute options, including going abroad. “I see quite a dire future,” he said. “I can’t plan anything ahead.”
Others, meanwhile, see a brighter future abroad. Haszon (Profit), a business weekly,just featured a self-assured young man on the front page. “Degree? For free!” read the headline, referring to places like neighboring Austria that welcome Hungarian students, tuition free. “There is still time to apply – career and living in five fashionable countries.”