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The government’s chances in the tuition battle

December 12th, 2012

A centrist analyst asks if the government can avoid paying a heavy political price for its higher education reform and the communication strategy which surrounds it.

The government’s new higher education reform, which reduces the number of fully funded scholarships, has sparked unexpectedly lively protest from students and university staff. They claim that the new system will introduce tuition fees for the vast majority of new students, while the government contends that since 10 to 20 per cent of new undergraduates will not have to pay for their studies, it cannot be fairly accused of introducing fee-paying tuition. The terminology to be used is important because while in opposition, Fidesz initiated a successful referendum against the then-governing Socialist-Free Democrat coalition’s plan to introduce fees in higher education (and the health service) in 2008. See BudaPost, December 11 and December 7.

Gábor Török muses in his blog whether Fidesz advisors know something about politics that is beyond the usual toolkit – if the government can get away with the tuition-issue without a loss of credibility, he writes, political analysts will have to re-evaluate everything they have ever learned. He does not believe, however, that those who rallied around the 2008 Fidesz campaign against tuition fees will now buy the claim that the reform actually favours prospective students. Any strategy of straight denial, Török argues, is unlikely to work when citizens are directly affected. Some may speculate that prospective students and their parents still represent a small constituency, but Török does not believe that the reduction of utility fees or the protection of the value of old-age pension can offset the negative impact of the tuition-conflict. He suggests that Fidesz could have generated some consensus by presenting the expenditure cuts as a necessary consequence of the financial difficulties the country is facing. If the government refuses to change course, Török warns, it can hardly win the tuition-battle, which could turn into a fatal issue for Fidesz, with the 2014 elections approaching.

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