Receiving Subsidized Studies -- at a Price ; Hungary Tries to Keep Graduates in Country with Work Contracts

Article excerpt

A student group is protesting a rule under which students who attend state-funded universities must stay in the country to work for two years for every year of studies.

Daniel Szabo and Gergo Birtalan are both optimistic about their job prospects in their native Hungary, which has a low unemployment rate for college and university graduates. But the two Hungarian students are in totally different situations.

When Mr. Szabo, 24, graduates soon from law school, he will be free to go wherever in the world he wants. But Mr. Birtalan, 18, was required to sign a contract at the beginning of his first year as a sociology major because of a new rule introduced in September. As a beneficiary of the state-funded university system, he will be obliged to work for two years in Hungary for every year of his subsidized studies.

Such contracts, the only ones of their kind in Europe, have met with broad opposition and street protests from both high school and university students.

If Mr. Birtalan finishes a typical three-year degree, his movements will be restricted for six years after graduation, when he will be in his late 20s, or even older if he pursues post-graduate studies domestically. The rule applies to all students at state universities, as well as those at state-funded places in private institutions.

If Mr. Birtalan finds a good overseas opportunity before his allotted time, he will have to pay back his tuition. A three-year undergraduate degree would cost him about 900,000 Hungarian forint, or about $4,100. A two-year master's degree in communications would be another 900,000 forint.

While those sums pale in comparison with tuition at state-funded schools in the United States or Britain, they are considered significant in Hungary, where the average monthly salary, after taxes, is 140,000 forint, and where citizens are accustomed to subsidized education.

Officials said it was not an unreasonable amount for Hungarian students who studied free under the state and then found lucrative work in Western Europe.

"It's not impossible," Ferenc Kumin, a representative of the prime minister's office, said of repayment. "A salary in Norway or in Great Britain could finance the payback of this tuition fee."

Still, students were not convinced.

"I signed it, but I felt really bad and angry about it," Mr. Birtalan, the sociology student, said in a small Budapest cafe near the Danube River, which serves as the unofficial headquarters for HaHa, a student movement that has demanded the removal of the contracts.

In December, several months after the contracts were initiated, about 2,000 students held a demonstration against the new rules, according to local news reports.

After the demonstrations, the Ministry of Human Resources began a series of roundtable talks with teachers, student groups and Chamber of Commerce representatives in late January.

HaHa was not invited, and Mr. Szabo said that if their demands were not met, they would protest with civil disobedience. According to local news reports, about 30 to 40 students occupied the faculty of humanities at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest last Monday. The faculty was occupied at least until Friday, and HaHa leaders said they had more protests planned.

The Hungarian government sees the contracts as necessary means to combat "brain drain," said Zoltan Balog, the government minister in charge of human resources, referring to graduates' choosing to work abroad.

"How can it be that we are training several hundreds of doctors every year -- which costs the taxpayers a whole lot of money -- who after graduation immediately go to Norway, to Sweden, to England? …