Thousands of students marched on the busiest road of inner-city Budapest in below-freezing temperatures last month, shouting "We are the future!," "Free country, free university!" and "Nothing about us without us!"
This was one of a number of protests by students across Hungary, who organized demonstrations, marches and strikes in schools and universities throughout December to express their anger about planned changes to higher education.
Although the government says its reforms are clear -- and has even published a press release called "University Entrance for Dummies" -- important details are yet to be resolved in talks with student representatives and rectors. With such widespread uncertainty, some students are contemplating studying abroad, with Scandinavia and Scotland among the favored options.
The student protests started after a government plan to cut the number of entirely state-funded undergraduate places from 38,000 to 10,000 a year was leaked in November last year. In Hungary, two-thirds of students currently have their tuition fees, which vary from $1,360 to $9,000 a year, funded by the state. Students with state-financed places are also eligible for merit-based grants at their university, but these grants are not enough to cover their cost of living.
The students wanted to be consulted about the planned reforms. At a series of meetings in December, conducted Occupy-style with a show of hands to signal approval or disapproval, students agreed a set of demands to put to the government.These included maintaining the number of state-funded university places that were available in 2012, stopping cuts to higher education funding, and abolishing a contract that funded students must sign obliging them to remain in Hungary after graduating. They also demanded that university autonomy be protected and that disadvantaged students be given more help to access higher education.
On December 15, a photo of the prime minister, Viktor Orbçn, sitting with about a dozen well-turned-out young people in a swanky bar in Budapest, was posted on his Facebook page. The picture was captioned "with the students." Shortly afterwards, a video was posted in which Orbçn said the number of state-financed places would not be decided by the government but that universities would admit any students who passed entrance examinations.
It is still unclear how this will work in practice. After the prime minister's statement, a list was published of fields that will not be allocated any state-funded places. These included all economics and business studies courses, legal studies, international relations and adult education. However, a compromise was later announced after talks between the government and students, meaning that there will be state financing for 10 to 20 percent of students in law and economics based on their entry grades. The government says it supports only fields that are strategically important for the nation, but at the same time it argues that expected income for graduates is higher in the excluded fields.
Orbçn has said that he wants the country to have a "work-based" economy focused on manufacturing -- which he believes will need fewer university graduates. The government says there are more than enough employees with higher education degrees on the job market. The prime minister has also said that it is unfair for Hungarian taxpayers to give students a free education only for them to leave the country after graduating to work for bigger salaries in Western Europe.
Since the start of the academic year, students admitted to state-financed places have had to sign a "student contract" obliging them to stay in Hungary for twice the duration of their studies. That means that a student who does a B.A. followed by an M.A. for free must spend 10 years in Hungary working -- or raising a family, since child-rearing will count toward this period of work -- in the 20 years after graduation. Exceptions are made for theology students and students who have three or more children. If a student does not stay in Hungary for the required time, they must pay back their grant with interest.
The government has also started a new loans system in which students who do not receive grants from the state can apply for a loan with a state-guaranteed interest rate. This covers only tuition fees and is paid directly to the university. However, the loan has not proved popular: only 17 percent of students took it out in the current academic year. The government will repay the loans of those students who begin working for the state upon graduation, although they have to sign a contract committing them to working in Hungary. It will also provide tax allowances to companies that agree to repay an employee's student loan.
"The state budget for 2013 includes [a $167 million] cut in higher education spending compared to 2012, but the government said it would give 'strategically important' universities an extra [$50 million] to compensate," says Barna Mezey, rector of Eötvös Loránd University and president of the Hungarian Rectors' Conference. The criteria for establishing which universities will be deemed strategically important have not yet been decided.
The government has made noises about backtracking on some of the cuts, but there is uncertainty about its plans. "It is clear that Hungary has economic difficulties, and we understand that they affect higher education as well, but we do not agree with such measures on higher education during an economic downturn, which is usually the time for developments in higher education," adds Mezey.
Péter Radó, a sociologist and specialist in education policy, says: "If we look at state spending on higher education, Hungary is at the level of the Third World countries. The average [state] spending is 1.6 percent in the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development], but it is certainly above 1 per cent in most of these countries, while in Hungary it will be around 0.5 percent, the lowest level in the country's history."
He adds: "We overestimate the government if we think it has a concept on higher education. It cuts funding to all public services, and it makes up its messages on the spur of the moment: there is no strategy. If there were one, it would not be changed every 48 hours. Neither the rectors nor the students know how much funding the universities will get."
All the uncertainty is leading many who stop their education to contemplate more radical solutions. "It's more responsible to decide to study abroad than take out a student loan or sign the student contract," says Sarolta Kremmer, a recent high school graduate from Budapest. In her class, 5 out of 25 students have not even considered applying to Hungarian universities, she adds.
There are nine countries in the European Union that provide free higher education for EU citizens. In Kremmer's school, some students have applied to universities in Scotland or Scandinavia, where they get not just a high-quality education but can also improve their English.
Kremmer and all the students she knows are against the student contract because they are not sure they will find a well-paid job in Hungary after graduation. She does not understand why working abroad after graduation is viewed so negatively. "Why should not we see the world? We would come back anyway."