Tuition fee of 2006: Viktor Orbán sacrificed the interest of Hungary for political gain

About a week ago HVG published an article entitled “Gyurcsány plans, Orbán finishes.” “Ember tervez, Isten végez” is the Hungarian version of the English proverb “Man proposes, God disposes.” The author claims that the so-called education reform introduced by the second Orbán government “sounds familiar” because it is simply a copy of the legislation of the second Gyurcsány government with respect to tuition. It doesn’t matter what the present government claims, the legislation will involve charging a tuition fee. The only difference is, the article continues, that while the proceeds of the “student contribution” of the Gyurcsány era remained with the institutions, today the money collected would end up in the general budget. So, the author says, basically the difference is as much as between a glass half full and one half empty.

Well, as we will see, this is simply not true. A week later another HVG article noticed that after all there are serious differences between the 2006 and the planned 2012 reforms. This second article even admits that in 2006 Fidesz, by launching an attack against the reform and eventually succeeding in defeating it, “sacrificed the interest of the country for its own political ends.” Moreover, the 2008 referendum came in difficult economic times when it was necessary to lower the deficit and put the country’s economic house in order. Then comes a sentence that is worth pondering: “However uncomfortable it is to confess, the concept of the Gyurcsány government would have been better for the country” than the one Viktor Orbán is trying to introduce. Why is it so uncomfortable to confess it? Perhaps because the author of the article fought tooth and nail at the time against the reform.

And let us add that the 2006 reform would also have been far better for the students and their parents. By now most people have forgotten the details of the 2006 reform effort. So, let’s compare the two systems.

In the Gyurcsány government’s plan no one would have paid a tuition fee in the first year. From the second year on, the top 15% of the student body would have received a full scholarship. The decision would have been made solely on the basis of academic achievement. In the Orbán scheme only 14% of the students won’t have to pay a tuition fee while 40,000 students would be eligible to pay only half of their fees. As far as I can ascertain, academic achievement doesn’t figure into Orbán’s scheme. Students on full or partial scholarship would have to sign a contract that would oblige them to work in Hungary for at least six years after a three-year bachelor’s degree and perhaps as many as 10-12 years in the case of physicians. This contract, by the way, most likely doesn’t conform to EU laws that don’t recognize any restriction on the free movement of individuals within the Union.

In the Gyurcsány legislation the tuition fee was set at 105,000 Ft/year (bachelor’s degree) and 210,000 for graduate students. So, in the first instance about €370.00 and in the second €742.00. However, universities could adjust this amount up or down 50%, so in the Gyurcsány scheme a student might have paid only 105,000 Ft or in the worst case scenario 315,000 for a three-year bachelor’s program. Compare that with the Orbán tuition fee for the same degree that will be, depending on the field of study, between 500,000 and 1,000,000. That is, between €1,766.00 and €4,281.00.

A very important difference between the two schemes is that the money collected through tuition fees in the 2006 reform would have remained with the institution. It was stipulated that 30-50% of that amount had to be spent on financial assistance for needy students. In the Orbán plan there is not a word about financial aid for the needy.

I don’t think that the students who have been on the streets in the last four days are fully aware that the 2006 reform would have been a great deal better for them, for the academic institutions, and for the whole educational system than the monstrosity Viktor Orbán dreamed up. At that time, however, Fidesz torpedoed the attempt with its infamous and most likely unconstitutional referendum. But I think they are starting to understand that some tuition fee is necessary, and not only for the sake of the budget. When something is entirely free it is often taken advantage of or at least not taken terribly seriously. The laxity that is characteristic of even better Hungarian universities is unheard of at good universities in Canada and the United States, the two countries I’m familiar with. Too many students linger beyond the six semesters because, after all, attending (or not attending) courses don’t cost anything. I encountered one young man who enrolled in graduate school only because he wanted to have a student ID, useful for paying less on streetcars and buses. I was astonished to learn that there is no limit to the number of courses a student can fail per year and that a failed course can be taken over and over until the student manages to scrape by.

There are problems with the teaching staff as well. As is clear from the Semjén case, the requirements are low. There are undoubtedly more people like Attila Károly Molnár who most likely “helped out” his student. There are not strict enough guidelines on the consequences of cheating or plagiarism.

I know that most students would like to have a quality education, but by forcing some students to pay extraordinarily high fees while others on scholarship are “tied to the land” is not the answer to the ills of Hungary’s higher education.

One thing is sure: in this day and age getting information about the recent past is easy. All students, including kids in high school, know what Viktor Orbán, Rózsa Hoffmann, and Péter Szijjártó said a few years ago. And they know that they were duped. They were duped in 2008 and they are being duped now.

It was in March 2011 that Péter Szijjártó, then still spokesman of the prime minister, said that “the people decided against having a tuition fee at the colleges and universities. This is our goal and we are not planning to change our position on that matter.” When a reporter asked him about rumors that perhaps the tuition fee would have to be paid later, he brazenly lied. “There are no such plans.” Or here are a few remarks of Viktor Orbán. In 1995 he knew as well as everybody else that “some kind of tuition fee is necessary,” yet in 1998 in order to get the support of the students he abolished the modest 2,000 Ft/month tuition fee introduced in 1995 as part of the austerity package of Finance Minister Lajos Bokros. During the election campaign of 2002 he warned that “there is a danger that they are going to reintroduce tuition fees at universities and colleges.” During the campaign against the educational reform, just before the March 2008 referendum, he said: “If there had been tuition I wouldn’t be standing here today. Tuition fees exclude people like us from the universities.” In July 2012 he told his audience that “I’m an enemy of tuition and will remain such.” Only a few months ago, in October, he claimed that “there will be no tuition.”

It seems to me that most of the students know these lines and came to the conclusion that the prime minister of Hungary is a liar. And these young people are  already of voting age or will be by next year. I especially liked this sign from one of the many demonstrations:

Dear Fidesz, I just mention it in time: In 2014 I will be also voting

Dear Fidesz, I mention it ahead of time: In 2014 I will also be voting

Viktor Orbán rather light heartedly said in Brussels that by the end of the week the political problem of the student revolt will be solved. Well, we will see.


  1. According to my Hungarian girlfriend, Orbán said this was not a “tuition fee” but rather a way to make students “share the costs” of higher education. Imagine!

    Pusztaranger and Pester Lloyd have a lot of coverage on the demonstrations.

  2. It is unclear to any of us if the Gyurcsany Government proposal would have raised enough money to finance education today. Their economic prognostication was also horrible. Having said that, Orban’s obvious (and usual) dishonesty is quite astounding, his lack of principle (despite demonstrating this on a regular basis) remains shocking. The saddest part of this episode is not the level of fees proposed or the fees themselves (which I fully support), but that the money is not to be reinvested (at least in part) into the system. As you note, the quality of Hungarian university education is amazingly poor. It will no doubt only get worse (which I guess is good news for the next generation of FIDESZ and KDNP politicians, as it should help facilitate their getting these very prestigious PhDs.

  3. Orbán has one paramount rule to which he adheres, no matter what. It is that he never, ever admits that he was wrong (perhaps implying that he lied) and/or that his opponent is right.

    This has two reasons. One is that it is true to a certain extent that people live in language and if you control how language is used, you exercise control over them (we all remember 1984, but Orwell was onto something as a matter of linguistics too). Images/brands do change actual perception. The most famous example is that in blind test after blind test Pepsi was consistently rated and liked, seemingly tasted better than Coke. However in non-blind test (and in real life) Coke was always more popular. It had a much better image and weird as it may sound people do register a greater visceral satisfaction from something if they know that who produced it is cooler, more prestigious (among others, this works with expensive wines as well). Fidesz also has a long history with branding, framing etc. all the techniques which are known to marketing and political science (e.g. using the term “polgár” implying a non-communist, perhaps a bit bourgeois citizen back in 1998). Since terms such as restriction (megszorítás), tuition fee etc. became very easily recongnizable brands (they succeeded in getting these associated with MSZP). You hear these and you immediately register a dislike (partly this has exactly to do with Fidesz’s politics) so these and other terms are an absolute taboo for a Fidesz politician. If you use similar terms such as cost reimbursement instead of tuition fee, you say the same thing but in a more neutral (I mean you have to reimburse the costs, right?) way, plus the expression really disappears in discourse, whereas if you say “tuition fee”, everybody’s attention is focused immediately (with questions such as when, how much?).

    The other reason is a strategic one. If you openly admit to a lie (as would be the case if Orbán would say that tuition fee is being introduced) you accumulate another “bad point” from everyone and lose another bit from your political capital (partly because everybody dislikes lying, but also because everybody dislikes tuition fee, for which dislike they did a lot). [At least that is what they think, because I think an honest admission can increase popularity, create sympathy.] But if he denied the thing until the end, then there will always be people who (A) support you and believe you and (B) others who can’t decide and give him the benefit of doubt (simply because it’s him against them, one view against the other). If he is determined enough, many people will simply assume that “he wouldn’t be so adamant if he was wrong, he must be right, otherwise he would have admitted the accusations”. Obviously, most people will think that he is an idiot not to admit that it is a tuiton fee (in this case or a restriction in another), but most people anyway dislikes him. So he comes out of this with at least some people still supporting him. If you do not admit, there will always be a doubt (a possibility, however remote) that you might be right; and in many cases it is enough if you create a situation in which people have doubts to decide whether someone is right or wrong.

    Whether or not this attitude is morally justifiable or even politically useful, I will not deal with these.

  4. NWO :

    It is unclear to any of us if the Gyurcsany Government proposal would have raised enough money to finance education today.

    Tuition fees will never “finance education.” Even in the United States only about 50% of the cost come from tuition. Only in Orbán’s crazy head lives the belief that higher education can be self-supporting. There is no such a thing anywhere in the world.

  5. Lets make one thing clear for those who support some form of tuition in Hungary (including me). I am not talking about the political stuff here. As many of us can attest, most developed countries do implement a tuition for various reasons, but that structure is in place now for a very long time. As a parent, it was my understanding from day one, that if my child will choose to go to university or college, we will have to pay. So, from the very first year, beside putting aside money for our retirement, we also started to put aside money for eduction. In Canada there is a saving plan for this purpose, and the government also chips in $200/child/year in this plan (with some small print). Hence, when my children reach age 18, they will likely have a nice start-up that would help, especially in the first year. In Hungary, no parent had a warning, and especially now, under the economical squeeze, how would anyone could come up with such money, or how would you expect that kids could just take such a huge burden on, when there are no decently paying jobs (if any) for them when they finish. Yes, Hoffman is promising the no pay back option for those who will work for the government, but those jobs, as we know for a fact, are all going to the children of Fidesz supporters, and all other jobs are going to Fidesz members, like the Head of Media Authority to a former sex magazine publisher, or MS Nemeth who became the Head of Ministry of National Development with a high school degree.

  6. @Breki: There is also a psychological reason; he is simply unable to admit it, even to himself, that he can be wrong. Never admitting to one’s mistakes could a be a smart political game, but in his case it went beyond that point. It’s pathological.

    This is actually really bad news, as it means that his moves are not based on smart politics and calculated rationality, but on irrationality. Hence the typical response of Orban: if something is clearly not working, he tends to push it through anyway (maybe in a modified or in a more sneaky form), just to justify that he is right.

    The tragedy is that this irrationality of a narcissist for a long time can in fact look like and work as smart politics… well, until reality catches up with the lies and everything collapses like a pack of cards.

  7. I was just watching the news about news re. Newtown school in Connecticut. I really hope everybody including family and friends are ok.

  8. Ron :

    I was just watching the news about news re. Newtown school in Connecticut. I really hope everybody including family and friends are ok.

    Although I know someone from Newtown but as far as I know I don’t know anyone attending the school or working there. This is pretty terrible. 26 dead, 18 are children.

  9. “This is actually really bad news, as it means that his moves are not based on smart politics and calculated rationality, but on irrationality.”

    It’s certainly bad, An, but hardly “news”.

  10. Ron :
    I was just watching the news about news re. Newtown school in Connecticut. I really hope everybody including family and friends are ok.

    Over here in the UK, we tend tohave a fairly cynical attitude towards these shootings in the US (rather forgetting that we’ve had a few of our own), but this happening in place like Connecticut was a real shock. Especially that it’s primary school aged children. Killing children is the worst possible of all crimes. My thoughts are with their parents and siblings, they must be going through hell.

  11. We’re watching the story of the school shooting on CNN – the killer’s mother (a teacher at that school) is also dead. Obama will speak soon on this tragedy.

  12. Just heard that a Rabbi is at the firehouse where police moved the children and teachers. Obama’s speech was very moving – he had to suppress tears …

    The story as it is unfolding seems unbelievable: The killer killed his brother first, then his mother and then her pupils …

    Maybe something good will come out of this: stricter weapons control!

  13. Just caught the beginning of HirTV news. Someone in a group of people was burning an Israeli flag!!! Missed the commentary.

  14. “Maybe something good will come out of this: stricter weapons control!”

    The right-wing nutters will never allow that, they’ll always put their love of weapons and a deliberate misunderstanding of the Constitution ahead of the lives of innocent children. Why does anyone in a civilised and safe country need to own guns?

    Having said that, we’ve had some pretty terrible things over here too, and we have draconian gun-control laws. In one case a guy attacked a teacher and her kindergarten class with a machete (she fought him off – imagine the bravery that took). Gun control doesn’t stop these things happening but it makes them less likely and less deadly.

  15. Just watched Obama’s speech – incredibly moving. It’s not often that you see a politician reacting like a human being.

  16. Massacre–these nutcases do it for the 3 minutes of notoriety. There should be a blackout
    on all such cases–no media coverage whatsoever; and the killer’s identity should never be

  17. News as stimulant….the great ‘achievement of CNN. Wars for arousal.

    Who said Hungarian is the only sick culture? (But it is the sickest.)

  18. Petofi1 :
    Massacre–these nutcases do it for the 3 minutes of notoriety. There should be a blackout
    on all such cases–no media coverage whatsoever; and the killer’s identity should never be

    Simplistic nonsense. You have no idea why this guy did what he did.

  19. Paul :

    Petofi1 :
    Massacre–these nutcases do it for the 3 minutes of notoriety. There should be a blackout
    on all such cases–no media coverage whatsoever; and the killer’s identity should never be

    Simplistic nonsense. You have no idea why this guy did what he did.

    Another believer in the almighty powers of psychological explanations. Sure, fill the void
    with words….

  20. By “psychological explanations” I take it you mean ‘facts’?.

    As I said, you have no idea why he did what he did. You may be right, but wouldn’t it be better to base opinions on facts – and certainly before making wild statements about it?

    Or, as you so aptly put it “fill the void with words”.

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