EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Radical changes in higher education

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The Hungarian government is battling with students over a new higher education law passed at the end of 2011 that slashes the number of state-funded courses. The government believes that Hungary’s future depends on professionals in science and technology and views qualifications in social sciences, law and economics as being of little value in the labour market. It hopes the new law will halt the brain-drain, while critics believe it will drive students to seek education abroad.

Background

Before the introduction of the Bologna Process, the agreement intended to coordinate higher education throughout Europe, Hungarian higher education was mainly based on a four-year college course and a more prestigious five-year university course. The Bologna Process eliminated the differences between college and university, with the former becoming part of the BA level. Most five-year and the few six-year university courses were divided into BA and MA levels.

However, the governing FIDESZ-KDNP alliance, which came to power in 2010, has criticised the process for not taking into account the benefits of the former Hungarian system, and a senior government minister said that the professions should be able to choose between the new multi-level system and the old undivided one. Critics claimed that the new system was inappropriate for some professions, and that, for example, there should be no separation of BA and MA courses for teachers. Teachers’ BA and MA courses will be reunified from September 2012.

However, more sweeping changes are underway. A new law introduced at the end of 2011 not only changes tertiary education, but also its governing principles. It provides a framework, but leaves the details to government bodies with no obligation to seek parliamentary approval.

Cutbacks in courses

The law cuts the number of state-funded degrees by 40% (from 53,500 to 33,927). It adds 15,500 places funded at 50% by the state, with the Prime Minister personally deciding the numbers of students and the distribution of places among faculties and universities. Students can also fund their own courses.

The legal and economics fields are the main losers, failing to win any partially-funded places. Fully-funded law places are down to 100 (from 800 in 2011) while social sciences have been halved to 1,000 places. Science and technology also lose state-funded places. The government has also determined the minimum and maximum tuition fees that institutions can charge. The new minimum is about the same as the previous fees at €760 a year for a BA in education, €1,000 in sociology and €1,500 in psychology. MA prices are 1.5–2 times higher.

Student contracts

Students in state-funded education will have to sign a contract saying that they will work in Hungary after graduating. Under the new law, students:

  • have to get a degree within a fixed period (although this can be 1.5 times longer than the normal course duration);
  • must work in Hungary for twice as long as it takes them to get their degree within 20 years of completing it;
  • must pay back at least 50% of the costs if the rules are broken.

The Constitutional Court has judged the student contracts unconstitutional in June 2012. As reported in a press article (in Hungarian) on 3 July 2012, the court says it directly affects the right to free choice of occupation and the right of free mobility of workers too.

Fall in applications

Student applications for 2012 dropped by a third (109,000 against 132,000 in 2011). Most commentators have blamed the change in financing, although some experts suggest the drop have been caused by a shrinking population. The number of applicants has fluctuated wildly in the years since 2000. In 2000 and 2010, 140,000 students applied for higher education places; in 2002, there were 170,000 applications, while in 2008 there were only 97,000.

Protests and new movements

The National Conference of Student Unions (HÖOK) protested in October 2011 and again in February 2012 against the cuts and the student contract. The European Students’ Union (ESU) is urging the European Council to act, saying that the new student contract breaches human rights. The Council has started to examine the bill.

On the day of the parliamentary vote on the new bill, the members of the socialist party (MSZP) walked out to express their opposition. Members of the Politics Can Be Different party (LMP) chained themselves together outside the parliament, preventing the governing FIDESZ-KDNP members from entering. Later, a crowd of up to 5,000 protesters demonstrated outside.

After a short debate, without accepting any amendments, the government pushed through the higher education bill, changes to the electoral system and several other important issues. The rushed nature of the proceedings again raised fears about the method of governance being pursued by the coalition (HU1012011I).

The Trade Union of Scientific and Innovation Workers (TUDOSZ) said that the decision was taken without studies to show what its impact would be.

In a comment to the online education magazine Eduline (in Hungarian), the Hungarian Academy of Science (MTA) said that there should actually be an increase in funding for courses in the judiciary, economics, human and social sciences.

The reduction in funded courses came six weeks before the application deadline, and the subsequent anger quickly prompted the establishment of a new student and teacher movement Student Network (Hallgatói Hálózat) which using social media site Facebook to organise the occupation of a room at the ELTE University of Budapest, gaining huge publicity. As a consequence, other local groups and the Teacher Network (Oktatói Hálózat) were founded in the same way.

The LMP, community networks (in Hungarian) and the Student and Teacher Networks have all warned that the new system will be highly unequal. Since the Hungarian education system is highly selective, they say that applicants with better backgrounds will get state funding, while pupils from poorer families will have to pay. Without scholarships, they say it is likely that many will drop out.

Government response

The government has refused to make changes to the new law. In an interview with interview with Norbert Kiss (in Hungarian), Deputy State Secretary for Higher Education, he said that a supplementary entrance examination will make sure that students win places on academic merit.

The only concession made by the coalition is the hasty introduction of a student loan system for tuition fees – to be known as Diákhitel 2 (Student Loan 2) – with a low annual interest rate, in response to criticism of the timing and speed of the introduction of fees. However, that itself brought a warning from economist Edina Berlinger, a specialist in student financing and welfare state policies, which was confirmed by the Ministry of National Economy. She pointed out in an online article on higher education (in Hungarian) that the effect of a low-interest, state-supported loan could be fatal to efforts to decrease Hungary’s deficit. The loan fund would have to be financed by government securities at 10–12% interest, and the estimated loss to the government of operating the fund could be as high as €4.7 million in one year. It could double the deficit in nine years.

The other fear is that while the student contract is intended to stop intelligent young people leaving the country, it could have the opposite effect, persuading youngsters to study abroad where they can get their education just as cheaply, if not for free, without any restriction on where they seek work after graduation.

Márton Gerő, Solution4.org

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