Interview Education Freedom Hungary

Academic freedom threatened in Hungary

Strong governmental restrictions put the education system at risk

"Library"(CC BY-NC 2.0) by Stewart Butterfield

Bertalan Tóth, leader of the parliamentary group of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), answers to the questions of #ProgressiveEurope about the restrictions to academic freedom in Hungary. He argues that the recent amendments to the higher education act could reveal the government’s greed of power on the national and international stage.

A few months ago, the Hungarian government made the headlines with its new amendments to the higher education act. What is the current state of academic freedom in Hungary?

Freedom of education, science and research is one of the cornerstones of a democratic and free society.  A free society is well illustrated by, among other things, the autonomy and freedom of education.

And yet, the main characteristics of the Hungarian higher education system are underfinancing, nationalisation of the nomination of university presidents and rectors, as well as a centralised and politically controlled higher education policy.

These factors put higher education in a very vulnerable position. Thus, the autonomy of the institutions is very limited.

The Central European University (CEU), which is accredited both in the U.S. and in Hungary, has been at the centre of the dispute. How could the new amendments impact this major university?

The Hungarian Government adopted a law on higher education, which basically eradicates the autonomy of the CEU. The law forces the CEU to open a campus in the USA (to date, the university only has one campus in Budapest) and simultaneously forbids it to issue American degrees.

The law basically puts the CEU under a strict government supervision. It enables the government to reject new teacher’s work permit applications and to limit the admission of international students via the EU visa system.

What are the underlying diplomatic and international policy issues behind this debate on academic freedom?

In my opinion, Hungarian leaders have two motivations: on the one hand, they refuse to accept that they cannot control the whole system. Therefore, they embrace a way of governing that could be considered autocratic.  

On the other hand, this debate is all about raising international awareness: the Hungarian government hoped to use this issue to revitalize the American-Hungarian relations. But even if Orbán (the Hungarian Prime Minister) offered its support to President Trump, the government has not been successful in building closer ties with Washington. And yet, President Tump already visited Europe several times – including Warsaw – and hosted the Romanian President in the White House.  

The implications of this governmental measure are noteworthy as well: Hungarian leaders could indeed consider setting out on Putin’s and Erdogan’s political paths.

What is the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) doing to protect academic freedom?

We are doing our utmost to protect academic freedom. We submitted a complaint to the Constitutional Court about the amendment of the higher education act, and we initiated an extraordinary session of the Hungarian Parliament, which took place on 21 August 2017.

It is in everyone’s interests to avoid further damages to fundamental rights and freedom and to complete the infringement procedure that was initiated by the European Commission as soon as possible.

By buying time in the ongoing infringement procedure and by intensifying the legal dispute, the government only serves the short-term purposes of Fidesz’s (Hungarian national conservative, right-wing party, main member of the governmental coalition) national propaganda. This conflict significantly undermines the image of Hungary and of the Hungarian people abroad. It also impedes the development of the national higher education system.

It matters for all of us to have such universities in Hungary – universities providing both competitive knowledge and degrees and employing renowned researchers. Therefore, we must prevent the Hungarian decision makers from hampering internationally recognized, well-operating universities and educational institutions.  

Bertalan Tóth is member of the Hungarian Parliament and leader of the parliamentary group of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP). He is also a member of the Legislation Committee.