This interview appeared on the New Voices column on June 11th. Giacomo Manca is an intern at New Eastern Europe. Currently, he is studying for a MA in International Relations at the University of Bologna. The interview is held with Katalin Vida and Csaba Jelinek from Hallgatói Hálózat, a student group involved in the Hungarian opposition.
GIACOMO MANCA: What role does the Student Network, which arose about a year ago in Hungary and which has been at the core of the protests against Viktor Orbán´s government, play in the anti-governmental protests?
KATHALIN VIDA: The Student Network was set up in 2011 due mainly to the financial cuts included in the higher education reform, which at that time were just rumours. The movement then evolved with a much more ambitious purpose: to activate people and increase students´ awareness of what’s going on in both the field of higher education and at the political level.
CSABA JELINEK: We want to promote the idea of direct action based on participatory forms of democracy. The Student Network itself is not a formal organisation: it uses participatory democratic instruments. We base our actions on assemblies and deliberative decision making.
How would this higher education reform bill transform Hungarian universities?
CJ: I first would like to make clear that this reform is an example of centralising the decision-making processes that the current government is pursuing in many other fields. A very important actor in the preparation of the draft of the law was the leader of the Hungarian Chamber of Industry, i.e. someone who stands outside the sphere of education and represents the interests of the private sector. One of the main points of the proposal has been the attempt to shape the education system according to the needs of Hungarian industry. It seems that they don’t want to invest in human capital in the broadest sense, but want to produce disciplined workers for Hungarian factories and enterprises.
KV: Another pillar of Fidesz´s educational programme is the “student contract”, which is also part of the constitutional amendments. In Hungary, higher education is not completely free. We have state-funded places in universities which are allocated directly from the government; the “student contract” says that people who complete their degree on a state-funded place should stay in the country for twice as long as the the duration of their studies, and work in Hungary in order to pay back the state back. Of course, the contract doesn’t assure that you will get a job in your field, and doesn’t contain any real social compensation. We have already achieved quite a good result in keeping the same number of state-funded places for the next academic year (around 55,000), as the government was planning to reduce them to 10,000.
It seems that the reform is threatening the right to education…
KV: Indeed! Together with the reduction in state-funded places, the government has also limited the faculties that can be attended through this system: they appear to be regulating what people can and can´t study. The reduced number of state-funded places would drastically limit the freedom of choice of many new students who count on this support for their studies. Fidesz has decreased the amount of money which goes into state education by 30 per cent. Moreover, they don’t invest in faculties such as economics or law. It seems that the government wants to decrease the number of students in higher education, although the number of well-educated young people emigrating has increased a lot in the last few years. I feel that this “student contract” will encourage more and more people who emigrated straight after their studies to stay abroad, and prevent potential students from enrolling in Hungarian universities.
CJ: The financial situation of the universities is significantly worsening due to the reform, many of them are close to bankruptcy as a significant amount of money has been withdrawn from the system.
Are there any student groups which support the government´s decision?
CJ: There is one: the Student Union, the official representative student body. During the last 20 years they have basically lost the trust of the students, but the situation is really fragmented and varies on each faculty and each university. In some universities they are directly connected to right-wing parties, while in others they are more independent.
And what about the far right organisations?
CJ: There is also Jobbik, the far-right party, which founded its own student movement, the “Hungarian Spring” directly after the start of the wave of student demonstrations. They’re trying to imitate the instruments used in the Student Network and to speak for conservative and far-right students who don’t feel really represented by the Student Network. Currently, they are not really successful, but they are getting more effective in terms of organisation.
What strategies are currently being undertaken in the student protest? How is the network organised and how is the movement influencing the Hungarian media?
CJ: What is really important is the idea of participative democracy in the Student Network. Regarding the political strategy, in December 2012 and January 2013 we appeared in the media almost every day because of the protests: we were every day on the streets, occupying bridges and the entrance to parliament everyday, and there was a huge demonstration at the headquarters of the national radio.
KV: From February we occupied the main university in Budapest for 45 consecutive days, the first real occupation for such a long period. This made us realise that we were modifying the representative system of students in Hungary. Since 2000, protests on the streets has been always organised by right-wing parties such as Fidesz, and since 2006 the main party able to mobilise strikes has been Jobbik. So, this is the first time that left-oriented people have mobilised people and the Student Network has become one of the engines behind this mobilisation.
What has the occupation achieved over the last few months?
CJ: The official Student Union has just been shut down in the liberal art faculties of the ELTE University of Budapest because of their irrational and unacceptable practices, such as publication of the list of supposed Jewish employees of respected faculties. There is now an opportunity for the Student Network to successfully break into the student representative system and build up a multi-party system in academia. The system only often allows students to vote for the Student Union, which has always created a single party system in universities. So, there is now an opportunity to democratise the system.
And what plans do you have for future actions?
KV: Hungary is really centralised; we will try to verify how much the main universities outside the capital city can take part in the movement. We need to upscale our movement into a nationwide organisation.
CJ: And the good news is that many high school students have joined the movement. They have established their own organisation called the Network of High School Students, which is possibly the best goal we could have achieved.
How do you approach the students and young people who are not involved in the protests or do not share the same values and principles?
KV: It is important for us to be open to all other young people that would otherwise join other student organisations such as the Jobbik one. They often come to our assemblies and we are really open to friendly conversations. However, of course in order to get into the organisation it is crucial to first share the same values.
CJ: What Jobbik and the far-right have done is to construct a whole subculture over the last 10-15 years. They have their own rock bands, newspapers and news websites, magazines, and brands of clothes. This subculture, which exalts the nationalistic attitude, is becoming rather dominant. Our task is to create a subculture which is based on different values: inclusion instead of exclusion, egalitarianism instead of class or race-based privileges, solidarity instead of oppression.
Is Jobbik becoming popular among teenagers?
CJ: It is quite clear that in many small towns Jobbik provides something tangible in places where there are hardly many opportunities for youth development. It provides fantastic summer camps which don´t just focus on politics, but also cherish the actions aimed at forming a community. Our strategy should be to also focus on these community goals.
Have you ever had any problems with other groups of young people?
KV: Once, during the occupation, a group of right-wing football fans entered the university. They wrote on their website that they wanted to “kick our asses”. At the beginning we didn’t want to let them in, but finally we did, and nothing bad happened. Fortunately, we managed to channel their voice into a discussion at a student assembly. By the end of the assembly, they were raising their hands when they wanted to say something. It was quite incredible that they accepted the rules of our discussion. This all happened during a lecture, which aimed to explain why Jobbik was formed, and how the whole Jobbik phenomenon has its roots in social exclusion and the dispossession of less affluent people. They were expecting to hear that they were seen as Nazis, while instead they heard that we were concentrating on their social background and on the fact that their frustration has clear social origins. We showed that we could find a common background, and although we clearly didn´t accept their exclusionary, racist and sexist ideas, it was a really consensual assembly and they couldn’t believe that we didn´t mention the word “Nazi” at all – we tried to build up a more nuanced, leftist argument.