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migrationtothecentre › Attracting and Supporting International Students in Hungarian Higher Education

Attracting and Supporting International Students in Hungarian Higher Education

Anna Borbála Bodolai | 12. 11. 13
Despite the facts that many foreign students are finding Hungary an attractive destination to study and that the Hungarian government has recognized their significance in the country, public and university services are still deficient in offering these students an adequate administrative infrastructure and possibilities for integration. For this reason many students of various cultural backgrounds find everyday life difficult in Hungary, even though most of these students are in fact ethnic Hungarians from neighboring countries who plan to stay in Hungary permanently.

Having international students in a country has short as well as long-term benefits. Short-term benefits result primarily from the effects of financial revenue. International students not only need to pay study fees, but they are also likely to spend money on housing costs, household goods, clothing, and leisure activities. Also, international students are typically young, have no dependents, and are highly skilled, which are qualities that could yield long-term benefits. Their potential future contribution to the labor market and innovation industries could have a significant impact on the country's economic performance. [1]

Globally, the education industry is gaining importance. According to the latest investigation by UNESCO, 3.6 million students studied abroad in 2010, a huge increase from ten years ago in 2000, when the number was only 1.6 million. [2]Hungary seems to follow these global trends when it comes to accommodating international students.

For a long time, the number of international students studying in Hungary’s different universities was negligible, but according to the latest numbers, the country has realized the strategic and economic importance of attracting foreign students. The number of residence permits issued towards the pursuit of studies increased continuously since 2000. In 2005 this number was 4,693, but by 2009, it increased to 9,814 (from students of both primary and secondary education). These students who come to Hungary to continue their studies come largely from Iran, Serbia, Turkey, and the United States. The most popular degrees are medical programs, followed by engineering, liberal arts, and business programs at Hungary's biggest universities. [3]Even though there is no national strategy for attracting international students to the country, on 17th September 2013, the Minister of Human Resources declared at a conference that it would like to triple the number of international students studying in Hungary within the next decade. According to him, different quotas will be allocated to students of various countries who would receive state funding for their studies. [4]

His statements seem to reinforce recent trends. During summer 2013, as part of Hungary’s new financial strategy of strengthening business connections with countries to the east, a Government decree was drafted on the Stipendium Hungaricum program. [5] The Stipendium Hungaricum is a new state scholarship program, which aims to support international students’ studies in Hungary. The program primarily targets students from China and the Far East (Japan, Singapore, Vietnam), but students from Western Balkan countries may also receive funding for their studies. Via this scholarship program, an additional 2,000 students will be able to study in Hungary every year. The State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and External Economic Relations emphasized that this program is part of a strategic partnership with other countries, with the reasoning that international students who have studied in Hungary could be bridge builders between their home countries and Hungary during their future business or political careers.

There are other multilateral and bilateral scholarship programs in Hungary apart from Stipendium Hungaricum – Science Beyond Borders (attracting Brazilian students) and King Abdullah Scholarship (targeting students from Saudi Arabia) – but in general, international students attending foreign language programs need to pay tuition fees every semester or academic year.

While international students reap benefits in terms of revenue or other future profits, there are also costs of having foreign students at domestic universities, mainly due to expanding the university and public services. This also means that if the proper administration infrastructure or an integration strategy for international students is missing, the students would not be able to fully produce long-term benefits. It seems that in Hungary, there already is a concern that international students remain isolated during their stay. A study of migrants in Hungarian higher education [6] revealed that even though most international students are satisfied with the quality of education in Hungary, they might experience orientation and integration problems that come as a result of the universities’ and authorities’ inadequate information (e.g. on family reunification, required documents, administration forms available only in Hungarian, etc.) and service provision. Foreign students’ responses in the survey regarding their perception of life in Hungary seem to underline the fear that only a small group of students, mainly from the neighboring countries, plan to stay in Hungary in the long run after graduation. Most students from Latin America, Japan, or other Western countries rarely plan to stay in Hungary after graduation.

As a general rule in the legislation, a residence permit’s validity for the pursuit of studies cannot exceed the timeframe of the studies. This means that international students need to leave Hungary as soon as their education officially comes to an end, and there is no possibility to prolong the residence permits on the grounds of a job search. In addition, many students in the survey did not believe they would have good prospects on the Hungarian labor market in the long run, and they added that they often felt lonely in Hungary. [7]

Another interesting aspect of the research relates to students’ perception of the National Office of Immigration. The application procedure for a residence permit on the grounds of pursuit of studies is very similar to the application procedure for other types of residence permits. The general requirements need to be fulfilled in every case, which means that in addition to valid travel documents, applicants need to have accommodation in Hungary, full health insurance, and financial resources to cover their costs if they would like to receive a residence permit authorizing them to stay longer than 3 months in Hungary. In addition, to acquire a residence permit to study, a certificate of enrollment from an accredited Hungarian educational institution is needed, and the language knowledge of the applicants is also tested. The most common reasons that applicants are refused a residence permit to study are: insufficient financial resources and having a non-accredited educational institution as the host institution. [8]

According to the research, there was a wide variety of responses to questions concerning how satisfied the students were with the National Office of Immigration. The amount depended mainly on how much time they needed to spend with administration at the Office. Even though, according to the survey, almost 75% of the respondents had no particular problem with the Office and the procedure, some of them indicated that the administrational staff did not speak any foreign language. Furthermore, 30% of the respondents believed they did not receive proper information. 35% of them indicated they needed to spend 2-3 weeks (and 18% of them more than a month) on administrative procedures in order to obtain the residence permit. The Office offers online services for certain elements of the procedure, but only 30% of the respondents visited the website, and only 10% of those actually used the services.

The findings of the research presented above underline the necessity for developing a proper integration strategy and informational infrastructure at universities and public services for international students. It seems that communication between universities and the National Office of Immigration should also be enhanced. It is likely that without proper integration strategies and administration infrastructure, Hungary will not be able to make use of the potential of this well-qualified, young group of students.

The article has been written with support of the Europe for Citizens Programme of the European Union and the International Visegrad Fund. The article reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.


[1] The Economic Costs and Benefits of International Students (2013) Oxford Economics. Available here

[2] UNESCO (2012) Global Flow of Tertiary-level Students Available here

[3] Danka, Balázs (2010): Migráció a felősoktatásban. Kutatási tanulmány a magyarországi felsőoktatásban tanuló harmadik országbeli állmapolgárokról. (Budapest, BÁH)

[4] Fazekas, István: Évente kétezer külföldi hallgató tanulhat ingyen. MTI (2013.07.27.) Available here

[5] Fazekas, István: Évente kétezer külföldi hallgató tanulhat ingyen. MTI (2013.07.27.) Available here

[6] Danka, Balázs (2010): Migráció a felősoktatásban. Kutatási tanulmány a magyarországi felsőoktatásban tanuló harmadik országbeli állmapolgárokról. (Budapest, BÁH)

[7] Danka, Balázs (2010): Migráció a felősoktatásban. Kutatási tanulmány a magyarországi felsőoktatásban tanuló harmadik országbeli állmapolgárokról. (Budapest, BÁH)

[8] Zámbó, Katalin (2012): Tanulmány a külföldi diákok bevándorlásáról az Európai Unióba. Magyarország nemzeti jelentése az EMH részére (Budapest, EMH) p. 24

Anna Borbála Bodolai
Anna Borbála Bodolai is project coordinator at Menedek – Hungarian Association for Migrants, a non-profit organisation established in 1995 with the aim to represent international migrants towards the majority society and to promote their social and cultural integration. Within the framework of the project she is coordinating, free legal assistance is provided to undocumented migrant workers in order to help them in legalizing their status. Anna Borbála Bodolai is also working for ICCR-Budapest Foundation, a Hungarian think-tank in social sciences, where she coordinates a research project about European good practices of integration services. A recent graduate from the Central European University in international human rights law, she has also worked at Amnesty International Hungary and as a journalist at a Hungarian online foreign policy newspaper.
The project has been generously supported by the European Commission The "Europe for citizens" programme, International Visegrad Fund and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.
Funded by the Europe for
Citizens Programme
of the European Union
Visegrad Fund. Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Daniela Pěničková, project coordinator
Phone: (+420) 296 325 345, E-mail:

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