Reforms of higher education
Hungarians are drawn to German universities

Entrance to the Audimax of the Ludwig Maximilians University;Photo: Südpol-Redaktionsbüro / A. Vierecke
Entrance to the Audimax of the Ludwig Maximilians University | Photo (detail): Südpol-Redaktionsbüro / A. Vierecke

The right-wing government of Viktor Orbán has drastically reduced the number of state-financed student places. Hence many young Hungarians are drawn to German universities.

It is about the future of a young generation. The reforms of higher education in Hungary are therefore making waves. Under the label of “System for National Education”, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has curtailed, or so critics see it, the fundamental right to education of young Hungarians. Even the EU is alarmed by the higher education policy of its member state. For example, in late 2011 the Hungarian government passed a law that cut 40 percent of state-funded student places. In 2012 the state subsidized only 34,000 student places, whereas in 2011 it was still 54,000.

Moreover, the so-called “study contracts” oblige Hungarian students to work within the country after their graduation, and this for twice as long the time they have needed to complete their studies. If they take work abroad, they must retroactively repay tuition fees. “The educational reforms have pulled the rug out from under our feet”, Anna Buzál, a high school graduate of the German School in Budapest, told Spiegel Online. Many Hungarians are considering whether they should go abroad, and if they do so decide it is then only a question of practical problems. The 20 year-old Buzál would like to study law in Munich and is also applying to Heidelberg, Freiburg and Passau. “If I were to study in Hungary, I’d have to work here for ten years.”

Those who can, flee this educational policy with a nationalist thrust. At the German School in Budapest, more than half the graduates in the past school year chose to study abroad – mainly in Germany or in German-speaking countries, reports András Kulcsár, a teacher. He recommends to his Hungarian pupils to get in touch with the universities of their choice as early as possible, so as to learn which subjects have admission restrictions and to be able to estimate the costs of study.

Universities in the south of Germany are most popular

“The southern regions of Germany are among the most popular with Hungarian students, since they are the closest”, says Sax. The most attractive school for young Hungarians is the University of Munich (LMU). But, says Monika Sax of the Budapest Information Center of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), “when we mention the tuition fees and living expenses, Bavaria drops out of the options in most cases”. The tuition fees scare off Hungarian students, whose country has been particularly hit by the financial crisis. Many young Hungarian are therefore interested in universities in the east of Germany.

Hungarian high school pupils who want to attend German universities should carefully prepare themselves for their studies. This especially applies if they want to study at an excellent university such as the LMU. “First and foremost”, explains Katrin Gröschel, spokeswoman for the LMU Press Office, “they should be fit in the German language. They should also inform themselves early on about admission requirements and restrictions.” Helpful in the evaluation of foreign school and university degrees is the information portal of the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, “Anabin”.

Young people who are planning to study at German universities should also calculate whether they can finance this. The cost of studying in a university city such as Cologne comes on an average to € 791 per month – of which € 330 go to rent. The University of Cologne has no tuition fees.

Side job or scholarship?

Since May 2011, Hungarian students, like all EU citizens, can study at German universities under the same conditions as their German fellow students – which means that they can work up to 20 hours a week. The regional offices of the Agency for Employment generally provide a job placement service for foreign students. At large universities, the Student Union also has a job placement service. Often jobs are posted on bulletin boards in universities.

The best way of financing university studies is a scholarship, says Thomas Zettler, Head of the Southeast European Division of the DAAD. Funding programs available to young Hungarians may be found through the scholarship database of the DAAD. “Student scholarships” are intended for graduates who want to enter a master’s degree program in Germany, while “research scholarships” are reserved to those who are doing a doctorate in Hungary and are planning a research stay in Germany.

The effort that must be invested in a scholarship application should not be underestimated. Réka Tóth, 25, a student of linguistics at the Free University of Berlin and a DAAD scholarship holder, applied in November 2009 for a place in a master’s program and could begin her studies only in October 2010. “Then I had to submit countless documents – for example, my CV, copies of my high school diploma, language certificates, curricula, copies and translations of my course record book and confirmation of admission at the university of my choice.” The German translation of a course record book, says Tóth, costs a fortune in Hungary.

Room free?

Conscription has been suspended for young Germans since mid-2011. Instead of slipping into a steel helmet, they go directly from school into the lecture hall. Moreover, at the same time double the number of high school graduates – pupils that completed their diplomas in twelve and in thirteen years – are currently streaming into the universities. As a result, German university cities are overrun by freshmen. “The housing situation in most German university cities is very tight”, says Julia Eggs of the Munich Student Union. The more flexible you are, the easier it is to find something suitable.

“It’s difficult to find a flat at all”, reports Réka Tóth’s 25 year-old twin sister, Anna. “Since so many people are looking for a flat in Berlin, the landlords are picky. You have to apply for a flat. I moved to Berlin together with my sister and her friend and in the end we were very lucky and found a flat in a nice neighborhood that was also conveniently located in terms of public transportation. I pay about € 230 for my room.”

German manners take some getting used to for Southeastern Europeans. “At first glance, the people here in the north seem closed and cool”, says Réka Tóth. “But once you talk to them on the street and ask for information or help, they’re incredibly friendly and helpful.”