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Government to rewrite higher education reform

December 17th, 2012

In the wake of a week-long series of student protests, the main pro-government daily urges new policy priorities.

After several days of student demonstrations, PM Viktor Orbán met a handful of students behind closed doors on Saturday.  Half an hour after their meeting ended, he posted a message on his Facebook page announcing that “there will be no caps on the number of students,” and that all high school graduates who hit the benchmark and agree to work in Hungary will be admitted without having to pay for their studies. Under the previous regulations, the number of students who could be admitted free was determined by the government in advance for broader subject areas such as engineering or law. The government set clear priorities by declaring a “zero cap” for law and economics, arguing that higher education output should be aligned with labour market needs. As universities received per capita funding according to the number of their students, the elimination of the capping system will require a new funding model. Mr Orbán asked Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Resources, to submit a new proposal for higher education financing on Wednesday.

Some reversal of the government’s stance appeared highly likely after Péter Csermely published a passionate editorial in Magyar Nemzet on Friday, arguing that it was still not too late to withdraw decisions already taken on funding. He acknowledged the need for a reform in higher education, but warned that bad decisions in such a sensitive area must be avoided, “and drastic cuts are a bad decision.” Csermely went on to say that State Secretary for Education Rózsa Hoffmann and the government had “succeeded in forming a coalition against them,” and perhaps the government should accept her resignation, “in case she decides to step down.” The proposed reform, Csermely continued, was more than a political blunder: it ran counter to the government’s policy to support the middle classes who “have a key role in shaping Hungary’s future.” In the midst of an economic crisis, a government must take the hard road and cut back benefits and services, Csermely wrote, but the government’s priorities were wrong. Instead of cutting back on education, they should have had the courage to cut benefits to the inactive parts of society – either way, there will be some dissatisfaction, but the first road is the right one, while the second leads to a catastrophe.

On Index Gergő Plankó remarks that the behaviour of students has changed in the last ten years and the young now model their protest on OWS practices even when the events are officially organised by Student Unions. Instead of clear statements and long speeches, characteristic of other demonstrations such as those of Milla (see BudaPost,  October 25) or the recent demonstration against the anti-Semitic proposal of a Jobbik MP (see BudaPost, December 4) student protests are “chaotic” and “funny”, without leaders and schedules. Plankó says this spontaneity reminds him of the Madrid protests last year. Even if the demonstrations end up in unexpected places (such as an attempt to enter the building of the Hungarian Parliament on Thursday), and have contradictory messages, this hilarious “teen chaos” promises a new way of experiencing democracy, Plankó suggests.

By way of contrast, Zsolt Bayer in Magyar Hírlap scrutinizes the backgrounds and motives of the student leaders. He claims that HÖOK leaders (HÖOK is the official elected student representation body) did not manage to complete their studies in time, remained students for eight or ten years, which undermines their legitimacy. Bayer also attacks protesting students in general, asking if their solidarity extends to the country as a whole, considering that several graduates plan to leave the country upon completing their studies. He then addresses lecturers, and asks if they really think that “in future everyone should enter higher education”, even though “quantity will never become quality.” Why did the provosts and professors not protest against the higher education fees planned by former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány?, he asks, and reminds readers that provosts’ salaries were even raised during that period.

The left-of-centre blog, Kettős Mérce describes PM Orbán’s sudden decision . The unprecedented turnabout of the Prime Minister shows that he understands there is no two-thirds majority behind his policy. This is why in his short Facebook message upon leaving the pub where he consulted a few young people he used the phrase “I understood,” twice – an expression not typical of his speeches. What he came to understand, Kettős Mérce argues, is not that the radical cuts in higher education are bad policy – rather, the prime minister realized there was no way out of the dilemma presented by the protests. He had to try and minimize the damage. Even if the outcome seems a fortunate one for the young, no one should forget that it was a matter of tactics, not of policy.

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