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"You lied, Viktor"

Renewed protests against the government's higher education reforms saw several thousand students, parents and teachers march from Budapest's Technical University to Parliament on Wednesday, demanding reversal of plans to slash state-funded scholarships and introduce tuition fees.

Smaller crowds gathered throughout the country in Szeged, Sopron, Nyíregyháza and Gödöllõ, the latest in a wave of more or less spontaneous protests and sit-ins that started on Monday and also saw actions in university towns Debrecen and Pécs.

The demonstrators want the number of state-subsidised university places to be brought back to the 2011 level, for the decrease in financing to be halted, restrictions on university autonomy to be lifted, student contracts to be abolished and state secretary for education Rózsa Hoffmann to resign.

They were reacting to the cabinet's announcement last week that numbers of fully funded scholarships would be cut to 10,480 from September 2013 (down from 27,000 this year and 55,000 in 2010), a decrease partly compensated for by a rise to 46,330 in the number of partial grants available.

The announcement was the latest move in the government's comprehensive overhaul of the higher education sector that its numerous detractors say is both poorly planned and communicated.

A particularly sore point is that the new policy means funding for university studies will shift almost entirely from a state scholarship basis to tuition fees. Between 80 and 90 per cent of students entering higher education without any scholarship in September 2013 will be liable to fees per semester ranging from an estimated HUF 150,000 (EUR 529) to HUF 325,000 (EUR 1,147) per semester depending on the subject studied, according to news portal index.hu. Partial funding would leave recipients with a bill per semester of HUF 70,000 (EUR 246) to HUF 160,000 (EUR 564).

Critics see this as a cynical reversal in governing party Fidesz's stance. "You lied, Viktor,"some protesters chanted in front of the Parliament building on Wednesday, four years after Fidesz and now-Prime Minister Viktor Orbán forced in 2008 a referendum on a tuition fee policy favoured by then-Socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.

Government officials have strenuously attempted to deny the accusation and, especially, to reject the tuition fee moniker. "There is no tuition fee (tandíj), there is self-funding (önköltség)," Hoffmann told Parliament on Monday. A statement from the Education State Secretariat the same day said students will eventually understand the changes are in their interest rather than against them.

The government's policy should come as no surprise, Orbán wrote to national student councils organisation HÖOK on Tuesday after declining to meet representatives. He "recalled his pleasant memories of last year's meeting with a HÖOK student delegation about the act on higher education, which was under discussion in the Parliament at the time," according to a statement of the Prime Minister's Office about the open letter. "The new higher education concept is based on a system in which the State will finance everyone's studies, either by granting them scholarships or a new type of student loan", while under the previous system "when someone did not get a state-financed place, they could only attend higher education if they were able to finance their studies from their own resources", the statement read.

But promises that studies will be financed through full or partial scholarships, and tuition fees through student loans, are not free of drawbacks. Scholarships are tied to student contracts that, already introduced this September, require students to remain in Hungary for twice the length of their period of study after graduation, a measure whose legality is under challenge both in Hungary and from the European Commission over fears that it restricts mobility rights.

Under its new student loan formula, Diákhitel 2, the government would repay students' loans if they join the Hungarian public sector after graduation, while tax incentives would be offered to companies to repay their newly graduated recruits' loans. Students will face a very affordable two per cent interest rate on the loans, Hoffmann has said, though some reports indicate interest rates could also be reduced to zero.

The cabinet may make changes to its plans for higher education funding, including in the number of state scholarships, and the formalities for the repayment of student loans have not been fixed upon yet, Human Resources Minister Zoltán Balog told news channel M1 on Wednesday. There has been no official confirmation of the number of state-funded scholarships and students' reactions are based on press reports and drafts, he said.

Reassurances have left students unimpressed. "Plagiarism is cheaper than a university degree,"a placard at a student protest in Gyõr read, a barely veiled reference to Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, whose dissertation was declared by an ELTE university committee last Friday to have included such a significant amount of copied material as to amount to a "serious ethical mistake".

Bénédicte Williams; Budapest Times; December 14. 2012.

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