Leave it or save it - when studying abroad means escaping your country
HUNGARY - Four years ago now, just a few days before his 20th birthday in August, Dániel Krizsán was sitting in his room on pins and needles, about to open his e-mail inbox. He had been checking it for weeks, almost ritualistically, every single morning, noon and evening, waiting for the message which could change his future forever. As the screen lighted up, he took a deep breath, crossed his fingers, and clicked on the little envelope icon.
He wanted to study law ever since he participated his first debating competition at secondary school - the question was where he would study. He knew very well that getting a state scholarship for a legal course would tie him to Hungary forever: he would be most likely to find a job there, live there, build his whole grown-up life there, not in another country.
The page slowly loaded in. In the next moment, he felt a great sense of relief: finally, there it was, the e-mail stating he had been offered a place at Freie Universität in Berlin, Germany.
A recent reserach by the Engame Academy, an educational institution preparing pupils for studying abroad, discovered that the number of Hungarian pupils continuing their studies in another country increased by about 12% between 2016 and 2017. Currently, there are more than 13 000 of them and this number is likely to grow even faster in the following years.
“When we asked our 12-year-old pupils how they imagine their futures, half of them said they would live abroad, not in Hungary.”
- said Mrs Edit Gadó, a secondary school principal in Budapest.
Although most high schools don’t keep statistics of their pupils’ higher educational choices and the government does not collect such data (as it is hard to define the exact number), four principals of the best secondary schools in the country - ranked every single year based on academic results - confirmed that there has been a significant growth. Mrs Gadó recalled that no students from her secondary school applied to foreign universities 20 years ago, and only one or two did so ten years ago. Back then, teachers recommended them to go on an exchange semester instead, as they saw it emotionally and also financially easier for a 18-year-old. But that has since changed.
“In our (Christian) institution 4-5 pupils out of 60-66 start their studies abroad,” she said. “But I’ve also heard from the principals of elite state secondary schools that one fourth or even third of their pupils leave right after graduation.”
When one asks why the Hungarian youth is so keen on leaving, the reply turns out to be rather alarming. A representative survey carried out this August by Publicus, a Hungarian opinion research institution revealed a contrast. While last year most people said they believed that low salaries drove Hungarians to leave their country, now the majority of respondents blamed it on Viktor Orbán’s government. The non-representative survey by the Engame Academy had the same findings: their student respondents ranked political and social climate as their second main motivator to leave Hungary.
According to Katalin Molnár, principal of Radnóti Miklós Secondary School in Budapest, the education policies of the Orbán government have driven Hungarian youth abroad in recent years. In 2012, she said, the government cut the number of students who could enter law and business schools, and also introduced tuition fees.
„Since then, the rate of pupils starting university abroad has been unequivocally growing,“
- Molnár said.
Although Krizsán still had two years left at secondary school back in 2012, these moves of the government convinced him to move abroad right after graduation.
What annoyed him the most was the government’s newly-introduced “student contract”, which, quite paradoxically, aims to keep bright students on the Hungarian labour market: in return for receiving state-sponsored university places, students must “work off” the length of their course (usually three to five years) in Hungary. According to Krizsán, this is “a pseudo-legitimate tool of compulsion”, which can even ruin one’s carrier path, as he explained:
“Let’s say I commit myself to work in Hungary for at least five years after I graduate from law school. That’s all very well. But what if my commitment is in vain because I can’t find a job in my field due to the ill-functioning Hungarian labour market?”
The government is in great fear of brain draining, losing the best minds of the country. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that they have already spent 100 million Hungarian Forints (about 310 000 Euros) on “tolling back” the youth from abroad with their “Come home, Youth” campaign between 2015 and 2016 – not with roaring success: only 105 young adults returned. They also introduced a law exempting women having three or more children from paying back their student loan.
But the government’s growing list of other, strongly questionable moves seems to be counter-productive to these efforts. On 12 September, the European Parliament voted to sanction Hungary for violating EU rules on democracy, civil rights and corruption.
Academic life is also threatened. Nationalist politicians are currently aiming to change the research funding system of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and specify „the most important fields of research”. Pro-government media have accused scientists of „caring too much” about immigration, rights of LGBT people and gender studies.
This latter is despised by the government so much that this August they decided to close down all gender studies courses in the country, only two years after their inauguration. It was another one of “all the dangerous government threats to academic freedom and autonomy that are unprecedented in the European Union,” as The Guardian reported.
Krizsán also feels that Hungarian academics are in danger: he said if he was studying law in his home country, he’d refuse to have his full name published in this article, fearing that his political standpoint could ruin his carrier. But being on the side of the government doesn’t always seem to be beneficial either.
“Let’s say I’d like to work as a lawyer for an EU Institution,” Krizsán said. “I’m quite sure that if I was studying law in Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s infamous moves and overtly anti-EU-ist attitude would make it much harder to land a job there.”
Some would say that students going abroad to study is not a problem, moreover normal within the EU, as long as they return to Hungary and “import” Western knowledge. However, this does not seem to be the case, said Mrs Gadó. Most parents are also aware of this, and ask her not to advertise foreign universities to their children.
“They don’t want them to move abroad right after high school, because they know that leaving at such a young age means never coming back. Those children build their career abroad, fall in love abroad, start a family abroad - not here.”
- said the principal.
In contrast, other parents like Krizsán’s mother see this differently: she said that knowing her son has a safe future is more important than having him close.
For some, leaving Hungary is not a solution – not even for those who could easily do it. Imre (who asked his real name to be changed for personal reasons), a researcher in his twenties at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences used to be actively engaged in politics, but finally quit, as he couldn’t sympathize with any of the existing parties anymore.
In a few months, he’s heading to Ireland for four years to get his PHD, and plans to apply to a globally renowned university in the US afterwards. Given that he has quit politics, one would easily come to the conclusion that he is leaving to “get the fuck out of this hopeless country”, he said. But that is not true.