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Hungary students block Danube bridges in anti-cuts protest

On Monday evening hundreds of Hungarian university students marched in Budapest to demand more funding for higher education and to protest government plans to drastically cut state scholarships. The students blocked traffic on Petőfi Bridge in south Budapest and marched toward Kossuth Square, where Parliament is located.

Critics say the scholarship cut will affect mostly poorer students and drastically reduce access to higher education.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's long-term plan is to make state universities fund themselves mostly from student tuition fees.

Orbán's government has also introduced contracts forcing students who accept state scholarships to work in Hungary for several years after they graduate.

The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, struggling to keep the budget deficit below the EU's ceiling of 3 percent of output, announced last week that from next year it would fully finance only 10,480 students, two-thirds fewer than this year. Partial packages have turned out to be rather unpopular – less than 2,000 students opted for them in 2012. The government, however, claims that by offering more partial scholarships, it will make higher education available for more young Hungarians in 2013.

The students briefly occupied one bridge and then marched to parliament after a meeting, carrying torches and shouting "The University is Ours" and "Free University".

They demanded the resignation of education secretary Rozsa Hoffmann and, escorted by police, later blocked another central bridge for hours. The march remained peaceful."The government has announced out of the blue that they will drastically cut the number of state-financed places in higher education, to 10,000 from next year," said László Bernáth, 26, a history student. "So Hungarian higher education will practically be transformed into a place churning out rich idiots."

Students in Budapest are planning to hold another protest on Wednesday, according to their Facebook page. Earlier on Monday students in the city of Szeged in the southeast of Hungary staged a small-scale sit-in.

"The reform of higher education is aimed at creating a high-quality, sustainable system for the long term," said a statement on the government's official website.

"We understand if students feel that they would like to express somehow that they are afraid of the changes, but we trust that this protest will turn into understanding, because changes are for them and not against them."

The government decisions on higher education reform did not come as surprise moves, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in response to an open letter by national student union HOOK inviting Orbán to explain to students his views on the education reform at a planned protest on Wednesday.Orbán said in his letter, a copy of which was sent to MTI by his press chief Bertalan Havas, that he had good memories of a meeting last year with a student delegation that also included HÖOK leader David Nagy.

"You surely remember that during our meeting about the higher education law which was then under debate in parliament, I presented to you details of the planned multi-step reform of higher education [...] I feel we have caused no surprise with our decisions," Orbán said.

Nagy said in an open letter to Orbán that during protests held on Monday, all the participating students wanted to hear the prime minister's views "on the introduction of tuition fees in higher education."

HÖOK is therefore asking Orbán to attend a forum organised for Wednesday and present the reasons why he and his Fidesz party have changed their opinion since 2008 when Fidesz initiated a successful referendum against the then ruling Socialist government's plan to introduce tuition fees.

The office of the education state secretary at the ministry of human resources said on Monday that the planned changes would serve the students' interests and expressed hope that the students would understand this. The government plans to introduce a low-interest-rate loan system to support education fees with a preferential repay option for those later employed at state organisations.

In the pro-government Magyar Nemzet editorial entitled "Shaken trust", Adrienn Csókás argues that the government aims at improving the labour market position of graduates by cutting back on funding, as under the new system students will have more incentives to finish their studies in time and choose subjects that offer better prospects. However – she notes –, eighty per cent of students will have to pay for higher education and it is questionable whether under the present economic circumstances such incentives will have the intended effect. Families opting for student loans will only postpone financial burdens and it is not surprising that students do not want to get indebted once they are uncertain if and when they find employment and employers who are ready to foot the bill. Csókás also finds protest by the provosts understandable, as universities rely on per capita grants in their finances and with an 8bn cutback already introduced, and a further 20bn reduction coming in 2013, some of them may face collapse. Yet, even „the furious" must admit that courses where full scholarships have already been almost completely eliminated – such as economics and law – are still popular and there were far more applicants in than places in 2012. Perhaps „the now shaken trust" will return in the long term – she concludes – when the first results of these „drastic and sudden reforms" materialize and employers start taking over the burden of the student loans.

Political Pest writes that the protests by students enraged by what they say is an ill-advised move to slash subsidies to higher education not only seem to have caught the government by surprise, they have also has drawn attention away from Viktor Orbán's latest populist gambit: A demand that utilities give homeowners a 10% break on their monthly bills. As the students were getting ready to take Budapest by storm, Orbán was announcing that the cut in utility bills would also apply to so-called "district heating," the building-wide (or housing estate-wide) communal heating that is notorious for its inefficiency and relatively high cost. That's him at left, using sign language to explain some aspect of government policy.

Orbán and his lieutenants have naturally insisted that the only people who will pay a price for the government's mandating of price cuts are the utility companies (for whom, naturally, no one will shed a tear). But it's hard to believe they are ignorant enough of economics and public policy to think this is true, since the first thing they teach you in college about price controls is that they always result in unintended consequences, in this case underinvestment in new technology and/or poor system maintenance.

On the other hand, now that the government is radically cutting the number of slots for people to study things like the unintended consequences of price controls, the future generation of Hungarians will be free to go home and snuggle up in their nice, toasty flats and not worry about it - Political Pest concludes.

Source: Reuters; Budapost.eu; MTI

Last Updated on Friday, 30 August 2013 09:11

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