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Orban Backtracks on Hungary College Cuts After Protests

Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government backtracked on plans to cut the number of state scholarships at universities next year after a series of student protests.

The state will provide at least 55,000 state scholarships, matching the previous year’s number, while increasing university financing by “at least” 24 billion forint ($84 million), government spokesman Andras Giro-Szasz told reporters in Budapest today.

Thousands of high-school and university students took to the streets in Budapest and smaller demonstrations were held in cities across Hungary in the past two weeks to protest funding cuts. Rallies swelled this week to include teachers, doctors and artists who demonstrated against financing cuts.

“The government decided today that the number of state-financed spots in higher eduction can’t be less than last year,” Giro-Szasz said, adding that student protests are “part of democracy.”

Orban, who was elected with a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010, is under pressure to keep the budget deficit below 3 percent of economic output to avoid cuts in European Union funding. He faces re-election in 2014 as support for his ruling party, Fidesz, has slipped and the economy is mired in its second recession in four years.

Ruling Party

Fidesz’s lead narrowed to 19 percent backing among eligible voters, compared with 16 percent for the Socialists in November, according to a poll on the Ipsos company’s website. In January, Fidesz led the Socialists 16 percent to 11 percent, the Ipsos poll showed, without indicating a margin of error.

A joint, six-point petition by student groups, teachers’ unions and university leaders included a “comprehensive educational reform,” restoration of the number of full scholarships to the 2011 level and scrapping of a new rule requiring that students stay to work in Hungary after graduation in return for state tuition aid.

The government is sticking to the rule of requiring students to stay and work in Hungary in return for state scholarships, Giro-Szasz said today. Students were scheduled to hold another round of protests starting at 4 p.m. in Budapest.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zoltan Simon in Budapest at zsimon@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net

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