Very unhappy university students in Hungary

It was on February 18, 2012 that I reported on the meeting of the leaders of HÖOK, the nationwide student association that I described as Viktor Orbán’s “willing instrument” and his “regime’s KISZ.”

A day before I wrote about Hungarian higher education and pointed out Viktor Orbán’s devilish plan to divide the students by introducing tuition fees (for the sake of my British friends!) only for incoming freshmen and leaving upperclassmen to finish their education free of charge. Knowing the unfortunate lack of solidarity in Hungarian society it was predictable–or at least Viktor Orbán so assumed–that this strategy would be a kind of insurance policy for avoiding mass protest and indignation.

For a while it seemed to have worked. HÖOK and Rózsa Hoffmann had some fruitless negotiations, but there was no widespread outcry. The upperclassmen didn’t give a hoot about how many students were eligible for tuition-free education, and when the numbers were reduced from about 60,000 to 30,000 there wasn’t a peep. Mind you, at this point the exact size of the tuition fees was not yet available. It was at this point that after negotiations between HÖOK and Rózsa Hoffmann broke down, Orbán sent Tibor Navracsics to talk with Dávid Nagy, the chairman of the student organization. Nagy was enthusiastic about the encounter. He announced that in one hour more had been accomplished than in the previous five months. Moreover, Nagy was also gratified that the prime minister agreed to meet with him. Obviously Orbán charmed the two student representatives, Nagy and Imre Csiszár. I think the picture that I’m republishing here says it all.

Aren't we friendly?

Aren’t we friendly?

However, when about a week ago the size of the fees was divulged and when it was announced that instead of 30,000 only 10,000 students would be eligible for subsidized studies even HÖOK had had enough. An account of David Nagy’s change in attitude between November 2011 and now can be found on this blog. Another blog published this picture of Tibor Navracsics and David Nagy, the generously rewarded student leader, taken after their successful meeting:

"So, you will quiet then my dear little David?" "With several hundreds of thousands one can easily get by."“So, you will quiet then my dear little David?” “With several hundreds of thousands one can easily get by.”

Nagy’s alleged answer recalls an old song from the 1930s that says that if someone has a monthly salary of 200 pengős all his troubles are gone. Attila József used this line as a reference in his famous poem “For my birthday” where he wrote that, although thirty-two years had gone by, he never earned 200 pengős a month.

Even some conservative commentators, for example the editor-in-chief of Mandiner, are outraged because after all four years ago Fidesz forced a referendum on the issue. The results of a referendum tie the government’s hands for three years, but after that they can do anything they want. Or, at least Viktor Orbán thought that he could redraw the map.  But it seems that his latest move may have outraged too many people, including the professors and administrators of the colleges and universities.

Yet even as the government is cutting the number of university students and slashing financial aid, his “right hand” spun a different story. Only yesterday György Matolcsy in a speech delivered on the occasion of signing yet another “strategic contract,” this time with GE, told those present that the Orbán government is planning to double the number of university students in the fields of engineering, natural science, and computer science. He added that in two or three years’ time the number of students in these fields would reach 40,000. Upon hearing these “fairy tale”  figures a Hungarian speaker would exclaim: “And the ceiling didn’t fall on him!”

Yesterday afternoon about 1,500 students demonstrated. The demonstration was spontaneous, decided on after a meeting organized by HaHa, the smaller student organization comprised of students dissatisfied with HÖOK. For a while the students even closed off Petőfi Bridge. HÖOK and HaHa are organizing another meeting at the engineering school in the same hall in which students drafted their famous twelve points in October 1956. The choice was deliberate. In Szeged about 50 students occupied a government office and today they were followed by students in Miskolc. The students in Pécs are also organizing.

The students in Budapest invited Viktor Orbán to attend their meeting tomorrow but naturally he declined. He would be going into the lions’ den. Instead of accepting the invitation he wrote a letter to Dávid Nagy in which he told the student leaders that he, Rózsa Hoffmann, and most recently Zoltán Balog have always been completely honest with them. They were told about the government’s plans. The only problem is that the student leaders don’t remember any of it. Orbán suggested that the student leaders talk with Zoltán Balog, who immediately extended an invitation to them. The students refused to meet Balog.

Yesterday the students demanded Rózsa Hoffmann’s resignation. And this afternoon Népszabadság published an article entitled “What a surprise! Rózsa Hoffmann doesn’t resign.” The short news item also reported that “they are planning to negotiate with HÖOK, the legitimate representative of the university students.” Oh, yes, divide et impera! But I don’t think that will work.

I certainly don’t expect another ’56. But, as we know, there are tipping points, where a tiny immediate cause can have a relatively massive effect.

by Eva S. Balogh /Hungarian Spectrum

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