CHARGES AND FEES PAYABLE BY THE STUDENTS AND THE AVAILABLE FORMS OF SUPPORT
This year the majority of the complaints in connection with higher education concerned financing issues. The fundamental reason why we keep receiving a large number of such petitions is still the lack of distinction between 'tuition fee' and 'training contribution', as these concepts are often used incorrectly by the students and the institutions alike. Pursuant to Article 31 (1) of the Higher Education Act, students enrolled in state-financed tertiary education shall be liable to pay a training contribution whereas students enrolled in training not funded by the state - fee-paying training - shall be liable to pay a tuition fee and other fees. Only students enrolled in State-financed Training Programme may be exempted from the obligation of training contribution payment, students enrolled in fee-paying training shall not be exempted from this obligation even if otherwise they meet the other requirements stipulated for such exemption. In addition to the Higher Education Act, the rules pertaining to the fees and charges payable by the students and the forms of support available to them are laid down in Government Decree 51/2002. (III.26.) and the regulations of the individual institutions.
State-Financed Training Programmes
A degree may be pursued free of charge by students enrolled in their first state-financed undergraduate course, first course supplementing college degree to university degree, full-time course in an accredited school-based higher-level vocational training , evening or correspondence course in their first undergraduate programme or in their first accredited school-based higher-level vocational training. In line with this regulation after completion of the first undergraduate course the second degree shall be tied to the payment of a tuition fee. The time period for State-financed Training Programme is determined by the provision which stipulates that the total number of semesters for which the student has enrolled for may not exceed the length of the programme defined in the qualification requirements . On the other hand, this general rule must be clarified in view of the complaints that addressed the compulsory length of the programmes.
A petitioner inquired about the duration of the student status of her child. We informed her that in accordance with Article 27 (2) of the Higher Education Act a student shall have student status at an institution of higher education, which commences upon registration and shall last until the last day of the final examination period which follows the award of the pre-degree certificate in the given academic year. After termination of student status and until the degree certificate is issued the eligible person shall be entitled to the rights associated with the taking of the final examination and shall be liable to fulfil the obligations as defined in the institutional bylaws. Based on this provision thus the duration of student status depends on the end of the first final examination period. Therefore, if the child of the petitioner had her examinations during the autumn by virtue of postponement or the need for repetition, and thus these became due after the end of the first examination period, during the subsequent final examination period, the procedure by the higher education institution, namely, that it only certified student status until the end of the first examination period (until June), is a lawful solution according to the provisions of the Higher Education Act. (K-OJOG-863/2005.)
In his petition the petitioner inquired whether a postponed semester was offset against the 13 state-financed semesters. According to Article 28 (1) of Act LXXX of 1993 on Higher Education student status may be temporarily terminated for a period of four semesters on the whole, in a manner defined in the institutional bylaws, which may be extended by two semesters, or on the grounds of exceptional reasons justifying equitable treatment by no longer than a period equalling the length of the programme. The specific rights and obligations stemming from student status shall, however, remain valid during the termination of student status in the manner defined in the institutional bylaws. Nonetheless, during such period the student shall not be eligible for any financial or in kind benefits. Within the meaning of these provisions, in our view, the postponed semester is not offset against the 13 state-financed semesters as during the period in question the student postponing his studies was not entitled to any financial support and as such neither to the state funds granted for his studies. (K-OJOG-281/2005.)
Fees collected from state-financed students
The issues most frequently discussed by the public and the media in 2005 concerned the problems of the fees payable by state-financed students. Although our Office encountered several complaints related to the question over the past years, in the majority of the cases the higher education institutions concerned could remedy the problems within their own competence. This year the cases received great publicity by virtue of the comprehensive investigation our Office started due to their considerable number and significance as well as the amounts of the fees collected. As a result, some of the higher education institutions co-operated with our Office and modified their fee charging practices in line with the relevant laws, while others continued to proceed in a way students found injurious.
The fees that can be charged in State-financed Training Programme are governed by Article 21 (2) of Government Decree 51/2002. (III.26.). According to this Article, in addition to the fees defined in a separate piece of legislation and in this Decree, higher education institutions may in their rules of operation and organisation set certain other fees for the services that are not related to the fulfilment of the academic requirements set out in the qualification requirements and the curricula, subject to the agreement of the student union. Pursuant to the legislation in effect in 2005, students could not be charged any other fees.
Our Office dealt with many petitions that concerned the Budapest Media Institute, an off-site institution of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Szeged . The number and the seriousness of the comments, notifications and complaints sent in connection with the fees the institution charged urged us to investigate the problem and therefore, to start proceedings .
The petitioners, who enrolled for the correspondence communication programme in State-financed Training Programme, found it unjust that during their university studies for 'development' first they had to pay HUF 80 000 per semester to the account number of the private company Médiamenedzser Oktató Kft., the sum of which was later on raised to HUF 90 000 per semester. In their opinion this was in breach of Article 18 of Government Decree 51/2002. (III.26.) laying down provisions pertaining to State-financed Training Programme. In his reply given to our inquiries concerning the problem the deputy rector informed us that the capitation grant allocated for the state-financed students enrolled in correspondence training for the undergraduate programmes in communication, communication-IT librarian, and communication-Hungarian studies at the Budapest Media Institute of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Szeged was a quarter, and as from 2004, half of the capitation grant allocated for full-time programmes. In spite of this, their university programmes had around the same number of hours of tuition as those in full-time programmes in the same subjects. In addition, he also explained that the amount paid by the students for 'development' is compliant with the relevant statutory provisions as the university spent these amounts for the purpose of continuously ensuring the most modern technical environment for the studies, and of offering more hours of tuition than defined in the curricular requirements.
According to the position of our Office, the obligation of state-financed students to contribute to the costs of 'development' at the Media Institute of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Szeged was contrary to the provisions of the Higher Education Act and of Gov. Decree 51/2002. (III. 26.) concerning fee payment obligations . Pursuant to the effective legislation, neither a decrease in capitation grants nor its possible increase should have any effect on the provisions pertaining to the fee payment obligations of students. Therefore, in the absence of authorisation by the law, higher education institutions are not entitled to compensate for the revenues lost due to the decrease by collecting fees from the students. On the other hand, the procurement of the technical equipment mentioned by the deputy rector is closely tied to the actual fulfilment of academic requirements. The continuous provision of a suitable technical environment (studio equipment, cameras, computer networks, workstations) is an indispensable condition for the adequate acquisition of the practical expertise defined in the curricular requirements. Considering this, the purchase of the equipment essential for the fulfilment of practical requirements is indispensable for enabling students to meet the qualification requirements and the academic ones defined in the curriculum, and this, in turn, on the basis of Gov. Decree 51/2002. (III.26.) precludes the possibility of stipulating the payment of a fee as training contribution. In view of the above, based on Article 7 (7) of Decree 40/1999. (X.8.) of the Minister of Education we sent an initiative to the higher education institution in which we requested that the institution cancel the obligation of the state-financed students enrolled in correspondence training for the undergraduate programmes in communication, communication-IT librarian, and communication-Hungarian studies to pay the unlawful training contribution in accordance with the laws.
In his letter, the rector informed us that he refused to accept the initiative requesting the elimination of the unlawful situation, and he deemed the practice of collecting the fees to be compliant with the laws. We maintained our position against the rector's view. Pursuant to Article 70/F of the Constitution, the Republic of Hungary guarantees the right of education and thus the possibility of pursuing studies in higher education to its citizens. A decisive principle of the enforcement of the latter right is that citizens are entitled to pursue tertiary studies on the basis of their ability and not of their financial position. As it had also been stressed by the Constitutional Court, the fundamental right to higher education is infringed if the regulation pertaining to tuition fees and other charges - including the various forms of state subsidy - restricts the enforcement of this right to an unnecessary and disproportionate degree, in other words, if those with the appropriate ability are hindered in their efforts to participate in education, or it is made impossible for them [Decision 79/1995. (XII.21.) AB of the Constitutional Court ]. This principle must be observed both in respect of the interpretation of the legal regulations pertaining to higher education, and when formulating the internal institutional regulations (financing issues).
The position of the rector did not contain any elements that could have substantially challenged the claims of our initiative, even though he refused to accept it. At the same time, the measures taken by the rector in response to our inquiry, i.e. making fee-paying training the exclusive form of education in the institute, as well as the general introduction of agreements on the payment of fees indicated that the University of Szeged, in fact, was trying to change a practice which - according to its own position - needed no modifications. We expressed our hope that this contradictory attempt at reaching a solution would in the end serve the interests of students in the spirit of the aforementioned constitutional principle. (K-OJOG-461/2005.)
The state-financed students enrolled for the English and German language programmes of tourism-hotel services, and commerce at the Faculty of Commerce, Catering and Tourism of the Budapest Business School (BGF-KVIFK) objected to the fees they had to pay as a 'contribution to the costs' and at the same emphasised that their obligation to pay HUF 150 000 as state-financed students violated the provisions concerning exemption from training contribution payment.
In response to our request, in his position the rector underlined that the institution had been collecting the fees for years in line with the legal regulations, as the fee was necessary for the foreign language programmes under Article 8 of the Higher Education Act because these qualified as an extra service compared with the courses offered in Hungarian. He also highlighted that (upon their application) students could choose whether they wished to pursue a degree in a Hungarian language programme for free, or they selected the foreign language programmes in exchange for a contribution to foreign language studies. They could indicate this demand for this extra service on the admission application form. Students had the possibility to transfer to the Hungarian language programme, without any adverse consequences. We are of the view, that the obligation to pay a contribution to studies pursued in a foreign language introduced for the foreign language programmes in State-financed Training Programme is in contradiction with the provisions of Gov. Decree 51/2002. (III. 26.) concerning fee payment obligations . In the Admission Guide the courses were featured as state-financed English and German programmes in tourism-hotel services, and commerce. As the rector pointed out in his letter, the programmes offered 33 contact hours a week either in English or German, and students were expected to give an account of the acquisition of the curriculum material in these languages. Having regard to these facts, delivering the courses in English or German is not an extra service, but an indispensable condition for fulfilling the qualification requirements and the academic requirements defined in the curriculum, and this, in turn, on the basis of Gov. Decree 51/2002. (III.26.) precludes the possibility of stipulating the payment of a fee as training contribution. We initiated that the higher education institution cancel the obligation of the state-financed students enrolled for the English and German language programmes of tourism-hotel services, and commerce to pay the unlawful training contribution in accordance with the laws.
In his reply to our initiative, the rector maintained his position on the lawfulness of collecting these fees. In his letter, he marked the inadequate regulation of laws as the cause of the problem and underlined that the new Higher Education Act by introducing the concept of 'extra service' remedied this insufficient regulation through the interpretative means of law. Pursuant to Article 125 (3) (a) of Act CXXXIX of 2005 on Higher Education, the one referred to by the rector, states that the fee-paying services available to state-financed students shall be, among others, teaching of a body of knowledge in any language other than Hungarian as chosen by the student, which is defined in the curricula of the undergraduate and graduate courses in Hungarian and is taught in Hungarian. The state-financed programmes announced by BGF-KVIFK for the academic year 2006/2007 contained four courses offered in a foreign language: commerce and marketing, and tourism and hotel services in English and German. Offering these programmes as state-financed courses means that even at the date of entry into force of the Higher Education Act the rector referred to, students will not have the option of choosing at their discretion. The rector argued that students made their decisions whether they wished to enrol for a foreign language programme being aware of the fees payable upon submitting their application for admission. On the other hand, the statutory provisions pertaining to higher education make a clear distinction between the legal status of students and candidates. The new Higher Education Act expressly stipulates that it is students who have established student status with a higher education institution - following their successful entrance examination - and not candidates involved in the admission procedure who have the option to decide whether they wish to use extra services. In his letter the rector also informed us, that students who no longer wish to participate in the foreign language programmes - in accordance with the Academic and Examination Regulations of the Faculty (KTVSZ) - may request their transfer to the Hungarian language programme, which shall be authorised by the Academic Board. The provision of this possibility, in our opinion, does not further the actual solution of the problem. The rules of the KTVSZ in practice results in a procedure of equity, whereby the actual decision falls not within the competence of the student submitting the application for transfer, but within that of the institution, namely, the Academic Board. In view of the above, the student's right to make an autonomous decision in this respect cannot be enforced. Having regard to the fact that the position of the rector did not contain any arguments that could change the claims in our initiative, we maintained our position concerning the unlawfulness of the fee collecting practice applied by the Budapest Business School . (K-OJOG-1096/2005.)
The state-financed students of the Kodolányi János College contacted us because of the HUF 46 000 they were required to pay as 'enrolment fee', 'training contribution' and 'registration fee'.
Concerning the complaints, the director-general of the institution informed us that in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Higher Education Act and Government Decree 51/2002. (III. 26.) in each academic year the institution determines the amounts of the fees and charges payable by the students and the rules pertaining to the manner of payment in the regulations approved by the Council of the College. In addition, the college publishes the specific amounts of the fees valid in a given academic year in the Higher Education Admission Guide. Furthermore, the director-general stressed that students enrolled in State-financed Training Programme are not liable to pay any additional 'fee for other services' as stipulated in the regulations of the college, therefore there are about hundreds of students who pursue their studies without having to pay such fees. However, the statement of the director-general was contrary to the several complaints our Office received in which it was stated and justified that it was compulsory to pay the HUF 46 000 amount as a 'fee for other services'. In their petitions the petitioners presented their registration letter of July 2005, which had been sent upon the start of the academic year by the registry office of the college to state-financed students enrolled in full-time programmes, and in which it was written that in the absence of 'the postal cheque or bank statement verifying that the training contribution has been paid' students 'may not register' for the academic year 2005/2006 'nor may they fill out their registration book'. Besides, on the basis of the accounts on payments presented by the petitioners, it can be established that instead of an 'other financing fee' defined in the effective regulations of the institution, the students of the Kodolányi János College paid a 'registration fee' at the beginning of the autumn semester. We also learned that clause 3 of the agreement signed by the students enrolled in State-financed Training Programme in 2005 contains the following provision: 'The student hereby acknowledges that during his or her studies at the college it is a precondition of enrolment for a given semester - and therefore also of his or her student status - that the student pays the registration defined for the given semester in a single amount' .
In his letter the director-general highlighted that the students of the Kodolányi János College had indeed paid a registration fee before, however, this practice was discontinued pursuant to the effective regulations of the institution, and therefore payment of the 'fee for other service' takes place on a voluntary basis. Currently - after having changed the name of the registration fee within its own competence - clause 3.1. of the institutional regulations of the Kodolányi János College sets HUF 46 000 as the amount of the 'fee for other services' collected from state-financed students. The regulations specify the services that can be used if the fee has been paid (hence, among others, administrative, sports related, cultural, student counselling and mental hygiene services). Based on the regulations 'state-financed students may not be required to pay the fee for other services, payment of the fee is voluntary the acceptation of which shall be stipulated in a civil law contract'. The statement of the director-general, however, was contradicted by both the complaints our Office received, and the written documents evidencing the persistence of the obligation to pay fees. In view of the above, we concluded that the Kodolányi János College collected fees in violation of the relevant statutory provisions and the internal regulations of the institution.
The vast number of the complaints we receive in connection with the fee collection practice of the institution also indicated that the students were not acquainted properly with the provisions of the institutional regulations on the voluntariness of payment of the 'fee for other services'. The majority of the petitions objected to the compulsory nature of fee paying, and this proves it beyond doubt that neither the registration letter which calls on the students to pay the fee nor the agreement stipulating the obligation to pay made it clear to students that - on the basis of the regulations - not paying the fee would not result in the automatic termination of student status and that the students would face no adverse consequences in their studies in case they did not pay the fee. Therefore, we initiated that the Kodolányi János College discontinue its practice of imposing the unlawful obligation on state-financed students to pay fees in accordance with the relevant statutory provisions and the institutional regulations on 'the fees and charges payable in the academic year 2005/2006'. We also initiated that in connection with the voluntary payment of the fees the institution takes the necessary steps to provide as comprehensive information as possible to students. (K-OJOG-1096/2005.)
The students of the College of Modern Business Studies submitted petitions in which they complained that as a 'registration fee' they are required to pay HUF 25 000 despite the fact that they had been enrolled in State-financed Training Programme. Also in this case we started an inquiry.
In his position concerning the complaint the institution informed our Office that the state-financed students of the College of Modern Business Studies had not been paying a registration fee as from September 2005 as a result of the amendment of its 'Regulation pertaining to student bursaries and fees" in March 2005. Students have been paying another fee which is designated as the 'training and development fee'. Students are liable to pay this fee regardless of the financing scheme of their training and the institution spends the amount of the fees thus collected on extra services beyond and above the qualification requirements and the academic requirements defined in the curricula. The current amount of the 'training and development fee' is HUF 20 000. We are of the view that the obligation to pay the 'training and development fee' introduced for the state-financed programmes of the College of Modern Business Studies is contrary to the legal regulations concerning the payment of fees. Pursuant to Section 22 (2) of the regulations of the college, in exchange for this fee students can use - in addition to their academic obligations - for extracurricular activities the computer technology tools provided by the institution and, furthermore, they may also use the library and occupational medical services, and SMS sending through the ETR. These services, in line with the relevant statutory provisions, are not related to the fulfilment of qualification requirements, and therefore these could be subject to the payment of fees for other services. On the other hand, the College imposed the obligation to pay this fee also on those state-financed students who - as these services are not indispensable for the conferral of the college degree - do not wish to use these services in the course of their studies. According to Article 87/E (1) of the Higher Education Act the accomplishment of academic requirements in higher education programmes shall be expressed in terms of education points (credits) assigned to individual subjects and curricular units . The progress students make in the given programme shall be expressed in terms of the credits earned. As the Higher Education Act does not stipulate any other criteria for progress in a programme or for registration, higher education institutions may not specify any additional criteria, and hence the payment of the 'training and development fee', for the students who meet their academic obligations.
In view of the above, we initiated that the higher education institution cancel the general obligation of state-financed students to pay a 'training and contribution fee', and in the future it may impose such obligation only on those state-financed students who wish to use the services that are not related to the fulfilment of the qualification requirements specified in the institutional regulations. The institution accepted the initiative and has remedied the problem within its own competence. (K-OJOG-1096/2005.)
As the institutions involved in the investigations gave different responses to our initiative in which we addressed the problem of the unlawful collection of fees, in order to protect the rights of students in all the cases we stressed that those who continued to doubt the lawfulness of fee payment, could defend their interests in court. Students are entitled to express their opinion, to put forward proposals, to address questions to the heads of the college, to start initiatives, to voice their objections and to choose other lawful means of achieving their individual and community goals. In the various cases of the problem concerning the practice of fee collection, we made available to the students both the content of our initiatives and the positions of the heads of the institutions, and so they now possess all the relevant information they need to be able to act independently against an unlawful collection of fees after they have considered the different positions and taken a responsible decision.