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A compromise has still not been reached about Fudan university, as yesterday’s talks between the Minister of Innovation and Technology and Budapest’s (opposition) leadership was fruitless. While IT Minister Palkovics insists that both projects (Fudan and Student City) will be built, Mayor Gergely Karácsony said they are now more sure than ever that they don’t want the arrival of the Chinese University. The 9th district’s mayor called for a local consultation on the matter.

A change of plan

The Orbán government has been supporting the foundation of the Fudan university’s campus in Budapest, arguing that it is one of the best in the world, the arrival of which could be beneficial for Hungary in terms of knowledge, research, and incoming teachers, and as a result, the project could pay off in the long run business-wise too.

However, it faces some loud opposition too. Critics fear that it would overshadow Hungarian universities, while many highlight the ideological considerations (Fudan is under the Communist party’s influence). Others are even worried about national security issues, but most critical stances tend to surround the project’s huge costs, financed exclusively by Hungarian taxpayers.

Fact

While Hungary would finance some HUF 100 billion (EUR 279 million), China would provide a HUF 450 billion (around 1.25 billion EUR) loan for the construction. To put this into context, this sum is higher than the state financing of Hungary’s whole higher education sector. In addition, the project’s overseer would be a Chinese firm, previously suspected of corruption and unlawful surveillance a number of times.

In addition, Fudan’s high tuition fees have also recently hit the news. According to the Ministry’s calculations, published by investigative site Direkt36, one full year would cost some HUF 2.5 million (EUR 7,130), while students earning a master’s degree would have to pay HUF 3.7 million (EUR 10,560) annually. Since the average monthly net wage was 275,600 (EUR 764) in February, only very few Hungarians could afford such tuition fees. In addition, teachers would be reimbursed generously, potentially getting some HUF 1.1-6.3 million (EUR 3,140-17,990) a month. To put these amounts into context, even the most expensive and fashionable faculties (at state-run universities) rarely cost more than HUF 900 thousand (EUR 2,570) a year, while teacher salaries currently range from HUF 221,000 to HUF 587,000 (EUR 631-1,676) at state-run universities.

The latest debate is once again about Fudan’s occupation of space at the expense of the large-scale Student City project (which would provide accommodation and accompanying infrastructure to 8,000 students). Indeed, two weeks ago out of the blue, Viktor Orbán replaced Balázs Fürjes with IT Minister László Palkovics (who is known for his ruthless purposefulness in pushing through controversial projects like the restructuring of the Science Academy, SZFE, or essentially the entirety of higher education) as the project’s overseer.

A draft bill published one week ago, determining which state properties would be transferred for the Student City and which ones Fudan would have, indeed revealed that the former project has been reduced, while that of Fudan’s has apparently increased and their sites have been switched, eith Fudan getting the bigger, and more prominently situated areas (contradictory to Fürjes’s earlier claims).

Budapest leadership: The plan is off the table

“After what we learned, we are “particularly” opposed to the construction of the campus, especially in the area meant to house a student quarter,” Karácsony said, describing the Monday meeting with Palkovics as “long and unproductive.”

He said the Orbán government had so far been reluctant to share its plans for the university campus, but on Monday it was revealed that they intend to spend more than HUF 500 billion (EUR 1.4 billion) in public funds on building an elite Chinese private university in the area of a planned student quarter, which would now have to be a lot smaller, and would be built in a crowded, already overbuilt area.

It would actually have to shrink from 26 hectares to a maximum of 7 hectares, according to the 9th district’s independent (but opposition-backed) mayor Krisztina Baranyi, who was also present at the meeting.

While the construction of the Student City is of public interest, that of the Chinese private university is not, Karácsony also explained. Therefore, “the Fudan project is off the table, because the city’s leadership doesn’t support it,” he concluded, additionally referring to the Prime Minister’s words, who on the night of the 2019 municipal elections, had promised that the government wouldn’t launch any investment projects in Budapest that the city’s leadership opposed.

Palkovics: Both Fudan and Student City project will be realized

Palkovics, on the other hand, is still committed to making both projects happen. Speaking after the talks, Palkovics explained that the government interpreted the project, originally launched in 2017, as containing four elements: “university development, student housing development, student community spaces, and research institutions.”

“This is where we differ,” Palkovics said, claiming that Karácsony insisted that university construction had not been part of the agenda. “The presentation of the talks where the project was approved made it clear that a university quarter, rather than a student quarter would be built,” he said.

At the talks, the government pledged to build both the university and the student quarter, as well as “all facilities serving the students’ wellbeing,” Palkovics said. They also offered to make the entire process transparent and invited the councils and student councils to sit on the board and on a professional consulting body, he said.

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What’s next?

While the government is cementing the project into international agreements and wants the project to be declared a priority investment (something that would make procurement, overseeing, and management faster and easier), Budapest wants to ask the public on the matter.

Now that the special legal order makes organization of referendums difficult, Krisztina Baranyi said they aim to organize an online consultation for Budapest residents, similar to the government’s national consultations.

featured image: the future site of the Student City and/or Fudan; via László Róka/MTVA