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Students Rally All Over Hungary to Save Tuition-Free Education

In Hungary, the once free-for-all education system has always been a subject of heated debates. This week, the debates have grown into student protests that are taking place all over the country.

The protests began on Monday, Dec. 10, and have so far continued through Thursday, following the government's announcement [hu] that in 2013 it would provide state-financed education to only 10,480 undergraduate students. Those who cannot afford to pay tuition are offered to take student loans, while the “lucky” ones have to sign contracts promising to stay and work in Hungary upon graduation for several years in exchange for their state-financed studies.

Hundreds of Hungarian students have taken to the streets to protest against these ‘student contracts’ (an English-language sample [.pdf] is here) – as well as against the significant cutbacks in higher education admission quotas (in 2011, the undergraduate quota was 40,610 students; in 2012 – 33,927 students).

The new figures also demonstrate the government's stance on students majoring in humanities, social sciences, law, and economics: their numbers are to decrease. The government seems to believe that the humanities and social studies are of a less productive value for the country, while degrees in law and economics normally lead to well-paid jobs and these students can, therefore, afford to finance their education [hu]. In June 2012, the Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán talked [hu] about the “humanities students [spending their time in the pubs].” The quota of state-financed informatics, engineering and natural science students, on the other hand, was increased in 2011, according to the student news site Eduline [hu].

Students rally in Budapest to save tuition-free higher education. Photo by David Ferenczy, copyright © Demotix (10/12/2012).

The current protests [hu] in Budapest and other big cities were organized by the grassroots student union called Hallgatói Hálózat (“Network of Students”) or HaHa, the National Union of Students (HÖOK), the Network of Academics (Oktatói Hálózat, OHA), the Network for the Freedom of Curriculum (Hálózat a Tanszabadságért, HAT) and the Network of Parents (Szülői Hálózat).

Up until now, the official student unions have kept a distance from the grassroots student union and its initiatives. Members of the latter occupied a university in Budapest [hu] in February, but their actions were condemned [hu] by the university's official student union. Now all student unions seem united in their support for self-organized protests.

The protests started on Monday in the southern Hungarian city of Szeged, where students held a sit-in at a government office:

Later on, HaHa and the other organizations held a forum at one of the ELTE University's campuses, where students decided on the five-plus-one [hu] core issues to promote:

1. We demand a sweeping reform in the public and higher education!

2. Admission quotas are to be set back to at least the 2011 levels!

3. Stop the decrease of funding, compensate the withdrawals!

4. Eliminate the student contract!

5. Don't limit the universities’ autonomy!

+1: The sweeping reform should provide a chance for students from low-income families to receive higher education.

Student protesters marching down the Petőfi Bridge over the Danube River in Budapest. Photo by David Ferenczy, copyright © Demotix (10/12/2012).

On Monday, the protesters blocked a bridge over the Danube River, then marched to the Parliament, where the “five-plus-one points” were announced, and then they finished the rally by blocking another bridge. According to Eduline [hu], the rally in Budapest started at around 3PM and ended at around 8:30PM at Adam Clark Square.

Kettős Mérce blog summarized the outcome of the Monday protests in a post titled “The future has started” [hu]. They pointed out that the rally wasn't only a sign of a strong democratic attitude present among the young citizens, but the “five-plus-one points” symbolized solidarity with the poor:

[...] The victory of yesterday wasn't only the thing that will be printed on every daily's front page, but two other things as well. Yesterday's protest came off in the democracy running at its fullest; always choosing the most democratic solutions, even if the organizers didn't want exactly the [same] thing that happened. Because the organizers wanted to occupy a university. But the majority of the people wanted [to occupy] a bridge. And the majority of the organizers argued in vain; democracy made the decision after a debate, after arguments, and was not led by the words of one person, but followed the decision of the really autonomous people who weren't influenced by anything.

But the victory of yesterday, in addition to this, was when the extra point came up next to HaHa's five points that had been drafted in advance. Someone came up with the idea that students shouldn't only talk about themselves, but also about the whole society. About social mobility, that if someone is poor, he/she isn't worth the same, that the education system today, yesterday and ten years ago has been confined and is becoming more and more confined, favoring the people who live in better conditions. Yesterday, this point was up against the point that said that competition was to be the basic principle of public education. And this young crowd articulated its opinion and unanimously agreed on social solidarity, and unanimously said that competition should not be the first standpoint in obtaining knowledge. [...]

The strange position that the official student unions had taken was demonstrated by the reaction of the president of Szeged University's student union, Márk Török, who tried to convince the students gathering to join the sit-in that their act was illegal. HaHa reported this on their Facebook page and demanded [hu] real representation of the students’ interests. To help the young citizens, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee posted on their blog the FAQ [hu] on the right of assembly.

On Tuesday, high school students also started to organize themselves, starting Facebook pages [hu] and protesting. HaHa reported that high school students went to the streets in the south-western Hungarian city of Pécs and in the south-eastern city of Békéscsaba as well. HaHa promised to continue to protest on Facebook [hu] in response to the press release of the Ministry of Human Resources:

[...] According to the government, what they are doing now is an “investment in the future.” No. What they are doing now is an infallible investment in a disastrous future. They are building a country where only the wealthiest children can receive higher education, a country from which the talented youth are escaping en masse, where the proportion of those holding a diploma is a snippet compared to that in the developed countries, and where there will never be a boom.

We admonish the government to stop lying and to start conceiving that what they are doing to the education, they are doing it not only against themselves but against the homeland as well. We won't allow them to take away our future!

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