To understand the students’ indignation and their unrelenting opposition to these reforms, we would do well to note that the government had already reduced the amount of public funds dedicated to higher education by 35 per cent and cut the number of state-funded places by half (!) since 2010. This November, the government exacerbated the situation by freezing the payment of HUF 7.5 billion, forcing state-run universities to withhold salaries and close university buildings during the Christmas holiday season in order to save money on utility bills.
The backdrop of the conflict: Viktor Orbán’s symbolic referendum
The most absurd element of the debate sparked by the higher education reform plan proved to be the government’s desperate effort to deny that the proposal to radically cut the number of state-funded places would de facto amount to introducing tuition fees. The reason why the government refused to call the reform by its name is that Viktor Orbán had earlier fought a bitter and ultimately successful battle against the former Socialist government’s proposal to introduce co-payment schemes in health care and higher education. He achieved this with the help of a so-called ‘social referendum’ that sought to abolish these unpopular fees. ’I wouldn’t want to praise myself, but I have abolished the tuition fee twice – once as prime minister when we cancelled the tuition fee introduced by the former Socialist government, and later when we organised a referendum to abolish it,’ he said in a recent interview. These words were frequently quoted by students who caricatured the prime minister’s doublespeak by referring to the ‘non-tuition’ fee that the government was now ‘not introducing’.
Student awakening and success
Analysts had predicted that the attack on higher education would be politically more costly than earlier assaults on democratic institutions. The prime minister, however, keen on downsizing a supposedly overextended higher education sector, resisted pressure from his party’s ranks, refusing to negotiate with the moderate and historically pro-Fidesz official student union, HÖOK. This provoked a backlash, fuelling a bottom-up protest movement that adopted radical demands on 10 December (a comprehensive reform of public and higher education, restoration of state-funded places to their 2011 numbers, compensation for withdrawn funds, restoration of university autonomy, guarantees that students from lower social classes would also have a chance to get into higher education, the abolishment of the aforementioned Student Contract). Students who took part in the forum held in the ELTE building flooded the streets to give more weight to their demands. The spontaneous and somewhat disorganised demonstrators seized one of the Danube bridges and marched to the Parliament. Battling the cold, the few hundred protesters dispersed peacefully.
Many thought this would be the end of the matter. However, a new wave of protests erupted the next day outside of Budapest. Some high-school students organised sit-ins in their schools; others formed human chains in front of their colleges. This prompted another major demonstration in Budapest on 17 December. Students marched to the public radio building and demanded that their six-point petition be read out in a news broadcast. The Higher Education Coordination Board, formed by the prominent Hungarian Rectors’ Conference and a number of students’ and teachers’ groups, announced its support for the six points and called on the government to look for sustainable solutions to the problems of the higher education sector with the involvement of all stakeholders. Its move signalled the widening of support for the protest movement and prompted Zoltán Pokorni, vice-president of Fidesz and Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee of Education, to indirectly criticise Viktor Orbán’s position by calling the planned reduction of state-funded places too fast and radical.
Although government-friendly media outlets made a frantic attempt at discrediting the student movement – the op-ed of Magyar Nemzet, the major pro-governmental broadsheet, hinted that opposition political forces were pulling the strings behind the curtains – Fidesz and the prime minister clearly lost the communication battle and for good reason. The drastic curtailment of state-funded university places triggered a ‘self-reproduction’ anxiety among the middle-class, which already felt itself threatened by the potential closure of social mobility channels. It was evident that the government had to move if it wanted to avoid a major political fiasco. It took Fidesz’s leaders nearly two days to persuade the prime minister to change his stance. They were finally successful: The government’s spokesperson announced that the number of state-funded university places would not decrease and that an extra HUF 25 billion would be pumped into the crisis-stricken higher education sector to solve the most pressing problems. While the move immediately eased tensions, the official statement left a number of critical questions unaddressed. Most notably, the number of state-funded places in the 16 most popular bachelor’s and master’s programmes remains uncertain. The minister responsible for education has the power to set the required admission scores for entry. Were he to set exceptionally high admission scores for the programmes in question, the number of state-funded places could be brought close to zero artificially. Because of this pending decision as well as the government’s refusal to backtrack on the Student Contract, the radical wing of the student movement – centred around the HaHa network – could organise a second wave of direct actions as soon as early February.
The political impact of the protests and the government’s retreat also remains uncertain. The partial failure of higher education reform plans revealed the existence of a gap between Fidesz and the younger generation, which just two years ago had overwhelmingly supported the party. According to Tárki, one of the major polling companies, whereas in 2010 close to two-thirds of the 18-30 age group supported Fidesz, the party has now been overtaken by the far-right party Jobbik in this age group. Viktor Orbán, whose political success has to a great degree been based on the careful management of anxieties among different segments of the electorate, has visibly lost his connection with the mood of younger voters. Thanks to the higher education fiasco, he risks being perceived increasingly as a politician who is out of touch with the needs and sensibilities of this group, although this is far from being a certainty. Jobbik, which fervently opposes everything foreign, may eventually find itself at odds with a generation whose aspirations and lifestyle remain strongly influenced by (Western) European cultural patterns and the global cultural industry. Nonetheless, this presents an opportunity not only for Orbán but also for the left-of-centre opposition, which has hitherto been largely unable to strengthen its position among the young electorate. All in all, the higher education reform appears to have levelled the playing field and opened a space for party competition on youth-related themes at the next general election.