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Will student protests regain momentum?

February 18th, 2013

Commentators wonder if after their surprising success late last year, students protesting new austerity measures will be strong enough to keep the government at bay during the spring.

Three weeks after a partial agreement was signed by the Minister of Human Resources and the official National Student Conference (HÖOK), the student delegation has suspended further talks in protest against government plans to enshrine some of the controversial points into the Basic Law.  The planned amendments include the contractual obligation of graduates who enjoy full public scholarships to work some time in Hungary or pay back their tuition fees, and the right of the government to appoint chancellors to all universities. A more radical student organization, HaHa (Student Network), as well as the student organization of high school students, KIHA (High School Network), neither of which were invited to the negotiating table, continued their protests and sit-ins, supported by university lecturers, most of whom are members of OHA (Lecturer Network). The sit-ins, though initially conducted with permission, provoked anger and some university officials now threaten to take legal action against participants, including teachers.

On HVG online, Miklós Tallián says it is quite fair to expect young people who receive a free education to give something back to the community in return. No one questions that – he claims – not even the protesters. Tallián condemns the obligation imposed on graduates to stay in their country as a mediaeval solution, but would not oppose a carefully calibrated scholarship-cum-tuition system. “It would just require some basic maths skills on the part of the government.” He also believes the compulsory student contract is counterproductive. The only way for Hungary to move forward is to ’take part in the global knowledge exchange.’ To block mobility is to give up on new ideas and technologies, he argues. He admits some young Hungarians may not come back in person but they will relay the knowledge and skills they acquire abroad – and force Hungarian universities as well as the Hungarian economy in general, to face their weaknesses in global competition.

In Népszava , political analyst Máté Gyömöre says the new wave of protests shows that “the government is still walking through a mine field.” Although HÖOK decided not to join the radical protests and sit-ins, divide and conquer strategies will not work in the face of the threat posed by the constitutional amendment. Zoltán Balog tried to defuse the situation by removing Rózsa Hoffmann (the state secretary responsible for education will deal only with primary and secondary education from now on). Her successor, István Klinghammer (earlier provost of ELTE, the most prestigious university in Hungary) is a competent man, notes the analyst, but his disparaging remarks about the student protesters will not help him, while the government cannot afford more student unrest in a pre-election year. Youngsters’ woes usually mobilize families, including grandparents, and dissatisfaction can easily lead to votes cast for the opponents of Fidesz. While the authorities resolutely reject negotiations with any student representatives other than HÖOK, now that the latter has also expressed dissatisfaction, the government may have to give up its plan to sign employment or tuition contracts with students who enjoy full scholarships, Gyömöre concludes.

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