Po­lit­i­cal tide turns against higher ed­u­ca­tion in Hun­gary

With the Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment clamp­ing down on uni­ver­si­ties and cham­pi­oning labour­ers over philoso­phers, David Matthews meets those liv­ing with the con­se­quences

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

In March this year, schol­ars across the world were alerted to the fact that some­thing was se­ri­ously wrong in Hun­gary. The coun­try’s top-ranked in­sti­tu­tion, the Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity, sounded the alarm that new gov­ern­ment leg­is­la­tion would, in ef­fect, force it to shut down. The for­mer com­mu­nist na­tion’s right-wing gov­ern­ment, led by prime min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­bán, was propos­ing to re­quire for­eign uni­ver­si­ties such as the CEU to main­tain a cam­pus in their home coun­tries and to ban them from award­ing de­grees in the ab­sence of an agree­ment be­tween their home gov­ern­ment and Hun­gary’s. The CEU, founded and funded by Hun­gar­i­an­born and US-based bil­lion­aire phi­lan­thropist Ge­orge Soros, is co-ac­cred­ited in Hun­gary and New York state but op­er­ates only in Bu­dapest.

A pe­ti­tion quickly gar­nered 50,000 sig­na­tures from around the world, and an open let­ter was signed by 500 se­nior aca­demics and 20 No­bel lau­re­ates. Nev­er­the­less, the leg­is­la­tion was passed by a huge ma­jor­ity by the Hun­gar­ian par­lia­ment in early April.

Ac­cord­ing to crit­ics, the CEU – set up in 1991 to for­tify lib­eral demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions fol­low­ing the fall of com­mu­nism two years ear­lier – is the lat­est tar­get of an in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment in­tent on neu­ter­ing civil so­ci­ety groups: par­tic­u­larly those funded by Soros. Some Hun­gar­ian aca­demics have even be­come afraid to speak out pub­licly, claim­ing that the sit­u­a­tion un­der what Or­bán has termed “il­lib­eral democ­racy” is worse than it was in the lat­ter years of the pre-1989 com­mu­nist regime.

Crit­ics of Or­bán – who was a feted lib­eral re­former in the dy­ing days of the com­mu­nist era – agree that the hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sciences have suf­fered par­tic­u­larly since he came to power in 2010, and some at­tribute a po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion to that.

“Hu­man­i­ties are very im­por­tant for teach­ing crit­i­cal cit­i­zens,” notes Zoltán Fleck, head of the Cen­tre for The­ory of Law and So­ci­ety at Bu­dapest’s Eötvös Loránd Univer­sity. “Teach­ing history, lit­er­a­ture, hu­man­i­ties…is quite dan­ger­ous for au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes.”

But there is also a more prag­matic ex­pla­na­tion. Many in Hun­gar­ian academia be­lieve that, for all Or­bán’s own aca­demic back­ground – he stud­ied law at Eötvös Loránd be­fore ob­tain­ing a Soros-funded schol­ar­ship to study English lib­eral po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford – he has lost faith in uni­ver­si­ties’ eco­nomic im­por­tance.

Liviu Matei, a pro­fes­sor of higher ed­u­ca­tion and the CEU’s provost, notes that there has been a “change of at­ti­tude” to­wards Hun­gar­ian higher ed­u­ca­tion since Or­bán’s Fidesz party came to power. “The dom­i­nant dis­course in Europe since the late 1990s was that higher ed­u­ca­tion is im­por­tant…be­cause it cre­ates knowl­edge, through ei­ther re­search or skills ca­pac­ity,” he says. But in Hun­gary, higher ed­u­ca­tion is now seen by the gov­ern­ment as a “lux­ury”, with the coun­try need­ing fewer stu­dents, not more.

Ac­cord­ing to Nor­bert Sabic, a strate­gic plan­ning as­sis­tant at the CEU and a higher ed­u­ca­tion re­searcher, Or­bán has turned his back on the “knowl­edge econ­omy” or­tho­doxy – of which mass higher ed­u­ca­tion is a key part – af­ter wit­ness­ing Hun­gary’s fail­ure to catch up with Western Euro­pean economies fol­low­ing the fall of com­mu­nism. In­stead, the prime min­is­ter thinks the coun­try’s bright­est fu­ture lies in be­com­ing a rel­a­tively cheap man­u­fac­tur­ing hub for Ger­man com­pa­nies, Sabic says.

The statis­tics bear out this anal­y­sis. While many coun­tries tight­ened their belts in the wake of the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis, Hun­gary cut back on ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion more than most. Be­tween 2010 and 2015, pub­lic funding for higher ed­u­ca­tion as a pro­por­tion of GDP dropped by 18 per cent: more than any other coun­try in Eastern or Cen­tral Europe ex­cept Greece and Lithua­nia, ac­cord­ing to Euro­pean Univer­sity As­so­ci­a­tion fig­ures. And the most re­cent data from the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment

In Hun­gary, higher ed­u­ca­tion is now seen by the gov­ern­ment as a ‘lux­ury’, with the coun­try need­ing fewer stu­dents, not more

show that pub­lic spend­ing on ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion ac­counted for just 0.9 per cent of Hun­gary’s GDP in 2013, and 1.8 per cent of all pub­lic spend­ing (see graph, op­po­site). These are some of the low­est rates among OECD mem­bers.

Mean­while, in 2011, the gov­ern­ment cut the com­pul­sory sec­ondary school leav­ing age from 18 to 16. Since then, the num­ber of stu­dents re­ceiv­ing the ma­tric­u­la­tion cer­tifi­cate needed to en­ter univer­sity has fallen by nearly a quar­ter, ac­cord­ing to Eva Balogh, a for­mer lec­turer of Eastern Euro­pean history at Yale Univer­sity, who writes about Hun­gar­ian cur­rent af­fairs.

Stu­dent num­bers have dropped ac­cord­ingly. Be­tween 2010 and 2015, they fell by 18 per cent, ac­cord­ing to the EUA data (only Es­to­nia saw a big­ger tum­ble). Many ob­servers say this is ex­plained by an age­ing pop­u­la­tion, and, in­deed, other Southern and Eastern Euro­pean coun­tries have also seen size­able re­cent falls. But, as well as falls in ab­so­lute num­bers, ter­tiary en­rol­ment rates have tum­bled in Hun­gary, too, ac­cord­ing to World Bank data (see graph, op­po­site). A decade ago, Hun­gary had an en­rol­ment rate of more than two-thirds:

higher than that of the UK, France or the Nether­lands. But, since then, the EU av­er­age has steadily ticked up, while Hun­gary’s has plum­meted to just over 50 per cent.

One of the first signs of the po­lit­i­cal tide turn­ing against higher ed­u­ca­tion came in 2012, ex­plains Kata Orosz, an as­so­ciate re­search fel­low in higher ed­u­ca­tion at the CEU. Or­bán railed in a speech against stu­dents for sup­pos­edly wast­ing their time in Bu­dapest’s edgy un­der­ground “ruin” bars, the trendy drink­ing spots that have popped up in the city’s derelict spa­ces. Hun­gary’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, he com­plained, had pro­duced peo­ple with only use­less knowl­edge, and had failed to turn out enough man­ual labour­ers, such as truck driv­ers and prod­uct as­sem­blers. “Not ev­ery­one will be­come a re­searcher or a lab­o­ra­tory worker, but I re­spect peo­ple who do man­ual labour and I am happy to help them find a job,” he said.

Le­gal schol­ars com­plain that there are now lit­tle more than 100 pub­licly funded places to study law across the whole of Hun­gary, al­though the gov­ern­ment says that the fig­ure was 259 in 2017. Stu­dents can pay fees to get around this, but these are very ex­pen­sive relative to av­er­age wages, says Péter Hack, head of the de­part­ment of crim­i­nal pro­ce­dure and cor­rec­tion at Eötvös Loránd and, un­til 2002, an MP for the once pow­er­ful but now de­funct lib­eral party, the Al­liance of Free Democrats. “In the long term, just rich, up­per­mid­dle-class peo­ple will be able to have a law de­gree,” he be­lieves.

Mean­while, in 2015, it took street protests to stop the gov­ern­ment phas­ing out cer­tain so­cial science sub­jects, in­clud­ing in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to Orosz, an­other mark of the gov­ern­ment’s new util­i­tar­ian at­ti­tude is that it sends stu­dents let­ters ex­plain­ing how much the state has spent on their ed­u­ca­tion. Stu­dents are also re­quired to work in Hun­gary for as long as the length of their stud­ies at some point dur­ing the 20 years af­ter they grad­u­ate.

Gov­ern­ment spokesman Zoltán Kovács re­jects the idea that Hun­gary has aban­doned the “knowl­edge econ­omy”. But he does say that the coun­try is adopt­ing a sys­tem based on “qual­ity”, not stu­dent quo­tas: “Many in this coun­try have sent their kids to univer­sity… even if [the sub­ject they stud­ied] was not a mar­ketable area of knowl­edge. And, in that, we def­i­nitely need a change,” he says.

Those who want to go to univer­sity need an “im­me­di­ate” way to cap­i­talise on what they have learned in the labour mar­ket, Kovács adds, men­tion­ing telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, com­puter pro­gram­ming and car man­u­fac­tur­ing as preferred ar­eas. Un­der Fidesz’s new sys­tem, the num­ber of stu­dents in each dis­ci­pline is de­ter­mined “ac­cord­ing to the real mar­ket need”.

Kovács him­self stud­ied history at the CEU. But when asked how is it pos­si­ble to as­sess the mar­ket need for history grad­u­ates, he does not an­swer di­rectly, ob­serv­ing only that, “The mar­ket need is very clear be­cause it’s not dic­tated by the gov­ern­ment: it’s dic­tated by life.”

So what about the ac­cu­sa­tion that Fidesz is pur­su­ing an au­thor­i­tar­ian agenda against uni­ver­si­ties? Kovács bris­tles at the sug­ges­tion: “We are go­ing to have a dif­fi­cult in­ter­view here if I al­ways have to an­swer the po­lit­i­cally or emo­tion­ally charged state­ments of the op­po­si­tion,” he says.

Or­bán’s crit­ics point to the gov­ern­ment’s re­cent es­tab­lish­ment of a new gen­er­a­tion of higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions, claim­ing they are de­signed to keep aca­demics and stu­dents loyal, and to steer pub­lic dis­course in of­fi­cially palat­able di­rec­tions. Chief among these is the Na­tional Univer­sity of Pub­lic Ser­vice, opened in 2012, whose vast new cam­pus – com­plete with horse-rid­ing facilities – is tak­ing shape on a site in the south-east of Bu­dapest.

Kovács says the in­sti­tu­tion, which brings to­gether the train­ing of po­lice, mil­i­tary and civil ser­vants, is Hun­gary’s at­tempt to repli­cate the grandes écoles of France. “This is a must [for] the state,” he says. “Our pro­posal is that those who want to en­gage with pub­lic ser­vice at one level or an­other will have to be en­gaged with this univer­sity.” But Eötvös Loránd’s Fleck fears it could soon swal­low all of the re­main­ing pub­licly funded places in law, while Hack claims that the new in­sti­tu­tions “re­cruit pro­fes­sors who are loyal. There are some who are crit­i­cal, [but I only] know one: not more”.

An­other source of con­tro­versy is the his­tor­i­cal re­search in­sti­tute called Ver­i­tas, opened by the gov­ern­ment in 2013, which some argue is try­ing to down­play the grav­ity of Hun­gary’s past an­ti­semitism. The year af­ter it was set up, for in­stance, Jewish groups called for the res­ig­na­tion of its direc­tor, Sán­dor Sza­kály, af­ter he re­port­edly de­scribed the de­por­ta­tion of Jews from Hun­gary dur­ing the Holo­caust as “po­lice ac­tion against aliens”.

A spokesman for the in­sti­tute re­sponds that “po­lice ac­tion” is a poor trans­la­tion, which was “used to paint Sza­kály in the worst pos­si­ble light”. What Sza­kály ac­tu­ally said, ac­cord­ing to the spokesman, was that the first de­por­ta­tion of Jews from Hun­gary was an “im­mi­gra­tion pro­ce­dure”, re­mov­ing those with­out Hun­gar­ian cit­i­zen­ship.

Crit­ics also per­ceive creep­ing po­lit­i­cal con­trol of uni­ver­si­ties through new chan­cel­lor po­si­tions, cre­ated in 2014. These fig­ures, ap­pointed by the prime min­is­ter, over­see univer­sity spend­ing and have the fi­nal say over re­cruit­ment, salaries and pro­mo­tions, ac­cord­ing to the EUA. This ex­plains why Hun­gary dropped from sixth po­si­tion to 28th (one from bot­tom) on the as­so­ci­a­tion’s fi­nan­cial au­ton­omy score­card be­tween 2011 and 2017.

Ac­cord­ing to Sabic, it is “not al­ways” the case that the new chan­cel­lors are po­lit­i­cal stooges, and he doesn’t be­lieve that they take or­ders di­rectly from the gov­ern­ment. But they do “want to help the gov­ern­ment agenda”. For ex­am­ple, when the CEU cri­sis be­gan, a num­ber of aca­demics from the Univer­sity of De­bre­cen in Eastern Hun­gary wrote a pub­lic let­ter of protest. But “the chan­cel­lor [there] stepped up and said that they were not say­ing this in the name of the univer­sity be­cause they did not have the priv­i­lege to do so,” Sabic says. De­bre­cen’s chan­cel­lor did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

For pub­licly crit­i­cal aca­demics in Hun­gary, there is ‘a clear and present dan­ger that you can suf­fer some kind of reper­cus­sion, both in­di­vid­u­ally and in­sti­tu­tion­ally

An­other check on in­sti­tu­tional au­ton­omy, in­tro­duced at around the same time, are “con­sis­to­ri­ums”, he adds. These are rather like An­glo Saxon-style boards of trustees, with re­spon­si­bil­ity for the “long-term de­ci­sion mak­ing” of the univer­sity. Three out of five mem­bers are ap­pointed by the min­istry, al­though a gov­ern­ment spokesper­son in­sisted that can­di­dates are put for­ward by the univer­sity it­self, stu­dent unions and other or­gan­i­sa­tions with ties to the in­sti­tu­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment spokesman Kovács, the chan­cel­lors were brought in to con­trol uni­ver­si­ties’ bal­loon­ing debts. Uni­ver­si­ties “were not very care­ful about spend­ing pub­lic money”, and the chan­cel­lors have since “con­sol­i­dated” their in­sti­tu­tions’ debts. He in­sists their ap­point­ment has “noth­ing to do with aca­demic free­dom”, but when asked whether they give the gov­ern­ment power over uni­ver­si­ties, he re­sponds: “All over the world, the one who gives the money also gives the rules.”

That ob­ser­va­tion also ap­plies to re­search funding. Ac­cord­ing to Fleck, money re­mains avail­able for re­search in his field, law. But the min­is­ter of jus­tice plays a role in set­ting the re­search agenda, mean­ing that re­cip­i­ents have to “be­have well”. The min­is­ter’s most re­cent fo­cus is the fam­ily: a con­ser­va­tive theme that has be­come a “cor­ner­stone of the gov­ern­ment’s ide­ol­ogy”, Fleck says.

An­other aca­demic and grant eval­u­a­tor, who prefers to re­main anony­mous, likens the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion to the com­mu­nist funding sys­tem, in which ap­pli­cants had to add a “red

tail” to their pro­pos­als, voic­ing “some­thing pro-sys­tem”. As an ex­am­ple, he says some pro­pos­als he has read for re­search into for­eign cul­tures jus­tify them­selves on the ba­sis that the Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment wants bet­ter trade links with those coun­tries. Still, one might ask how dif­fer­ent this is from UK fun­ders’ de­mand that re­search gen­er­ates so­cial or eco­nomic im­pact, and the anony­mous aca­demic ac­knowl­edges that this is “a very slip­pery area”.

Yet the fact that he seemed vis­i­bly ner­vous as he spoke to Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion in a Bu­dapest cafe, con­stantly glanc­ing around to see who might be watch­ing, is em­blem­atic of the fear some Hun­gar­ian aca­demics have about speak­ing out against what is hap­pen­ing. The aca­demic says morale among many fac­ulty is very low, and he con­fides that he is ap­ply­ing for jobs abroad: “I don’t want my kids to be raised in these cir­cum­stances. And I think all of the younger gen­er­a­tion are con­sid­er­ing [do­ing the same].”

Hack says the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is worse than it was un­der the last decade of the com­mu­nist regime, when, as a young aca­demic, he was able to crit­i­cise lead­ing po­lice fig­ures to their faces on tele­vi­sion. He doubts whether he would get away with that to­day. A his­to­rian friend of his “doesn’t have any hope of get­ting any money from the gov­ern­ment for his re­search” and was re­cently forced off sev­eral aca­demic boards af­ter crit­i­cis­ing “a cer­tain de­ci­sion” by the gov­ern­ment. For pub­licly crit­i­cal aca­demics in Hun­gary, there is now “a clear and present dan­ger that you can suf­fer some kind of reper­cus­sion… both in­di­vid­u­ally and in­sti­tu­tion­ally”.

On the other hand, aca­demics still have “con­sid­er­able” free­dom to de­cide on cur­ric­ula, says Fleck. At Eötvös Loránd, for in­stance, it looks like a new gen­der stud­ies course will go ahead, de­spite crit­i­cism from a politi­cian at Hun­gary’s Min­istry of Hu­man Ca­pac­i­ties. And the Wash­ing­ton-based think­tank Free­dom House says that “the [Hun­gar­ian] state gen­er­ally does not re­strict aca­demic free­dom”, al­though “se­lec­tive support by the gov­ern­ment of cer­tain aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions… threat­ens aca­demic au­ton­omy”.

In light of what has hap­pened to higher ed­u­ca­tion in Hun­gary since 2010, the move against the CEU ear­lier this year seems less sur­pris­ing. But why has it hap­pened now? One sug­ges­tion is that Or­bán felt em­bold­ened by the election of Don­ald Trump; some see the two as ide­o­log­i­cal bed­fel­lows, and Repub­li­cans reg­u­larly take up the at­tack against Soros, a ma­jor donor to the Democrats.

When the CEU cri­sis first broke, the Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment’s line was that its new law was sim­ply a reg­u­la­tory re­sponse to an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of for­eign cam­puses. But ad­dress­ing a do­mes­tic au­di­ence on Hun­gar­ian ra­dio, Or­bán said in April that the “milk had cur­dled” with re­gard to the CEU be­cause of the at­ti­tude of the “Soros em­pire” to­wards mi­grants and refugees. The CEU of­fers univer­sity top-up cour­ses for refugees and asy­lum seek­ers legally ad­mit­ted to Hun­gary, and when, in 2015, refugees found them­selves stranded at rail­way sta­tions in the cap­i­tal, the univer­sity helped to co­or­di­nate do­na­tions and to pro­vide wi-fi, phone charg­ing and trans­la­tors.

When THE put it to Kovács that the CEU has been de­lib­er­ately tar­geted for its pol­i­tics, he said that from the late 1990s, “it be­came ev­i­dent that CEU was train­ing per­son­nel that were not only deal­ing with pro­fes­sional is­sues…but there are ar­eas – po­lit­i­cal sciences, gen­der, other stud­ies – where there is an ide­o­log­i­cal el­e­ment of ed­u­ca­tion”.

He in­sists that min­is­ters “don’t care about that”, and that “it can con­tinue”. But he goes on: “There are times…when these ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences can man­i­fest [them­selves] in po­lit­i­cal form. And that’s what we saw in the case of mi­gra­tion,” he says. Or­bán has re­peat­edly ac­cused Soros of try­ing to flood Europe with mi­grants, whom he has de­scribed as “a poi­son”, while the prime min­is­ter has been widely crit­i­cised in­ter­na­tion­ally for hold­ing refugees in de­ten­tion camps while their cases are in­ves­ti­gated.

“There are coun­tries in Cen­tral Europe and the Euro­pean Union that have rules and laws” that con­flict with what is be­lieved by “CEU­trained or Soros-trained in­di­vid­u­als”, Kovács says. “That con­flict should be sorted out in some way.”

But is the mi­gra­tion is­sue the true cause of the Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment’s anger, or only a con­ve­nient ex­cuse? For his part, Michael Ig­nati­eff, the CEU’s pres­i­dent, be­lieves the is­sue is only “sec­ondary”. “I think Mr Or­bán is com­ing af­ter this univer­sity be­cause it was founded by Mr Soros,” he says.

Some in Hun­gary be­lieve the gov­ern­ment came un­der pres­sure from pro-Rus­sia regimes across the re­gion, who re­sented the pres­ence of so many CEU grad­u­ates among the staff of other Soros-funded or­gan­i­sa­tions in their midst, cam­paign­ing for trans­parency. Kovács says the Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment has found “ev­i­dence” of this CEU in­flu­ence “be­cause we’ve taken a look at the CVs” of those who work in Soros-funded NGOs. But he re­peats that the new law re­gard­ing for­eign uni­ver­si­ties has noth­ing to do with re­strict­ing aca­demic free­dom.

As things stand, the CEU will no longer be able to take new stu­dents from the be­gin­ning of 2018. There have been talks be­tween the Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment and the state of New York, and re­ports in the Hun­gar­ian press that this might soon lead to an agree­ment that would al­low the CEU to stay, but as THE went to press, noth­ing con­crete had been an­nounced. The CEU feels like a “univer­sity un­der siege”, says Ig­nati­eff. “We’re get­ting to a point where we’ve got to have a deal.”

There is some ev­i­dence that the gov­ern­ment’s pop­u­lar­ity has taken a hit since the CEU con­tro­versy, so per­haps a so­lu­tion may yet be found. But many of those will­ing to speak to THE are pes­simistic about the chances.

If the CEU does have to leave Hun­gary, it will be seen in­ter­na­tion­ally as quite a defeat for lib­er­al­ism in Europe – and quite a land­mark in the history of Hun­gary’s “il­lib­eral democ­racy”.

Flash point Vik­tor Or­bán (pic­tured be­low) said in April that the ‘milk had cur­dled’ with re­gard to the Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity be­cause of the at­ti­tude of the ‘Soros em­pire’ to­wards mi­grants and refugees. The Hun­gar­ian gov­ern­ment move against the CEU re­sulted in wide­spread protests

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