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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Hungary: We Lurve Foreign Students (It's Official) - Just We Lurve Christian Visitors a Bit More ...

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

.... so sorry about this, but freshers may have to give up their beds for a few nights on arrival in Budapest next month.

Photo: Shiny Happy People - A scene from the Eötvös Loránd University's (Elte) promotional video on the university's website - Just keep smiling if your're on your friend's couch for the first week of term - or having to slum it in a bus shelter.

​Hungary welcomes foreign students with open arms and they love it here too. That's official, so it must be true, right? It means universities and colleges put their students, especially from abroad, first, right? Well perhaps, but sadly not when officially sanctioned “Christian” gatherings take place. (Let's not mention reports of how Hungary mistreated Iranian students at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. As for the Central European University, that one didn't go too well either.) Rather, in the spirit of much modern 'journalism', ie ignoring such inconvenient facts (as I've only just learned this skill from Fox News) we are assured that Hungarian universities are becoming ever more attractive to foreign students – at least that's what Tamás Schanda, state secretary of the Innovation and Technology Ministry, said in May, as reported by the pro-regime website Indeed, government policy puts the strengthening of the international role of Hungarian universities as a priority goal. This is largely why foreign student numbers have jumped from 23,000 in 2013 to 38,000 in the 2019-2020 academic year, that's up by 15,000 or 66%, Schanda said (although it must be noted, granting 11,000 state scholarships helped boost numbers somewhat).

Not only that, but the state secretary reckoned half of all international students here believe a degree from a Hungarian educational institution is more valuable than one awarded in their home country.

Not that he produced any evidence to back this claim, but there again, it's quite likely some canny students, if asked, kind of knew the answer they were expected to give, especially if they were on a state scholarship. (It's not clear if Schanda understood that though.)

But let's not quibble here, according to the article, the continuing renewal of higher education with the change of university model (presumably referring to the transfer of most universities into “foudation” ownership) and by developing “quality training infrastructure”, Hungary can become a “regional knowledge center”, states, though it is not clear if this is the state secretary's opinion or editorial comment. Now, naturally, accessing affordable accommodation is a major concern for any student not able to live at home during term, especially in a high-rent city like Budapest, and most especially for foreign students coming into the city for the first time. Eotvos Lorand University – commonly termed by its acronym Elte, and one of the country's most prestigious institutions of higher education - has some 3,100 dormitory places, which sounds hopeful until you realise it boasts 27,000 students. Still, it's doing its best. Budapest University of Technology and Economy (BME), another claimant to academic prestige, also has dormitories, although your correspondent failed to find any mention of them from a perusal of its English-language website. That should all mean a good few out-of-town freshers, along with any foreign student arriving in Hungary to study at either this September should stand a good chance of having a bed sorted out well before arrival. In fact, it seems many were. But nobody seemed to think of the much heralded International Eucharist, a government supported, Roman Catholic holy shindig being held in Budapest for a full week from September 5-12. Now you might ask, apart from the interest of their theological faculties, how should that have any bearing on (supposedly) autonomous universities and their student accommodation? Well, it turns out that a week last Monday – that is August 9, less than a month before the start of the Eucharist - a bunch of universities in the capital received a request from the Ministry of Innovation and Technology for 5,000 beds to accommodate attendees – this according to stories (in Hungarian) by and

Note, that's not 50 for some special contingent that might have been overlooked, it's not even 500 (which would be a scandal in itself), it's 5,000. And, mark you, this Eucharist malarky has been under planning for years – it was delayed by the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020 – but has, supposedly, been very high on the government's agenda since 2019, if not before. What's more, Budapest hotels are still suffering from a dearth of guests as the tourism industry recovers from the pandemic – yet, mysteriously, these rooms are unavailable in a period past the summer peak. Yet, such are the qualities of this administration that it leaves essential accommodation requirements unsolved until 30 days before the event, and then turns to the universities to sort it out at the expense of its students. In any “normal” country, of course – barring some natural calamity – no arm of government would dream of interrupting student education for fear of stirring up a hornets' nest. (Can you imagine the Sorbonne receiving such a request from one of Macron's ministries? Watch the cars on the Left Bank burn!). But, this being Hungary, not only do the universities capitulate, but the students themselves backed down after apparently wringing some concessions from the ministry. It turns out that in total 17 halls of residence from seven universities have offered beds. BME has promised approximately 2,000, Elte 2,200. Of course, money helped turn the tables. Elte will benefit to the tune of HUF 135 million (EUR 385,000) which is supposed to go solely for student dormitory development (and which, in turn will presumably be made available for the next government mismanagement of event accommodation). Elte has promised it will not charge affected students the September accommodation fee, and has pledged that freshers, international students and any who need a dormitory due to “other circumstances”, will “somehow” get a room. Well, let's hope so. But I can't see anything on its website about this, so if you know any foreign students coming here, you might like to let them know. Thankfully, Pope Francis, who is to be in Budapest somewhat briefly for the Eucharist, won't be staying the night in Budapest – he's decamping to Slovakia for a few days - and thus His Holiness won't be at risk of being accused of forcing a student or two into a bus shelter for a few nights. Otherwise, it seems Hungary would perhaps like to see a new variation of some Bible verses, notably John 15.13. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down in his foreign friend's dormitory bunk, subsidised by the taxpayer. With apologies to the St John the Apostle.

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