The Challenge to Academic Freedom in Hungary: Authoritarianism, Culture War and Resistance
Professor Andrew Ryder,Eötvös Loránd University
I have spent nearly half my life living abroad. I first left the UK in the 1990s and became a teacher of English with the British Council in a number of countries in Central Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Hungary though was one of the countries that made the greatest impression on me. Following the collapse of the Soviet system, Hungary enthusiastically embraced liberal democracy in the 1990s, and I remember the tremendous optimism and hope for a better society. However, such hope soon evaporated as the realities of the neoliberal system they had also embraced led to deep structural change causing high unemployment and the rolling back of the state, stoking resentment and reactionary politics. During this time, I became increasingly interested in the plight of the Roma who seemed to be amongst the greatest victims of this period of transition, experiencing acute poverty and institutional racism through school segregation.
I returned to the UK in 2001 to complete a PhD on the Roma and work for the Gypsy and Traveller community as a community organizer. This work was challenging due to the intense media campaign of vilification from newspapers, such as the Sun newspaper’s article ‘Stamp on the Camps’ in which the Conservative leader Michael Howard tried to surf in the 2005 election by demonizing Gypsies and Travellers as people who did not ‘follow the rules’. In retrospect this was my first brush with what we now call authoritarian populism, a reactive and tabloidized form of politics that plays upon divisions and longstanding tropes to mobilize political support through orchestrated hysteria and moral panic.
I decided to return to Hungary in 2010, in part because this was the home of my partner and our child had been born in the country. Despite, the growing problems of Hungary it still seemed like a good place to raise a family and as an EU member state I reasoned that such membership would ensure a certain level of stability and protection. I was wrong! In 2010 Orbán used the two thirds parliamentary majority he achieved in the election to introduce a series of sweeping constitutional reforms that have effectively undermined political checks and balances, most notably the autonomy of the judiciary, civil society and media. In addition, there has been unprecedented cronyism, with key institutional positions and government contracts, often using EU money, being awarded to those close to Orbán. Freedom House, an NGO that tracks the health of democracy and human rights across the world, now describes Hungary as a hybrid regime that is partly free. Serious concerns have been raised as to whether the election in Hungary in April 2022, that secured Orbán a two thirds parliamentary majority, was fair.
Orbán’s populist strategy took a deeper turn in 2015 when the administration racketed up its populist rhetoric during the migration crisis, fueling the tensions by arguing that as a Christian nation Hungary did not want large numbers of Muslim migrants who could not be integrated. According to Orbán, the wave of refugees coming into Europe and efforts to resolve this humanitarian crisis were part of what he termed the ‘Soros Plan’. George Soros was framed as the leader of a secretive network, a “mafia-style operation”, aiming to subvert national identities by coaxing millions of migrants and refugees into Europe, claiming that there were Soros funded agents working in Hungary.
This is where the populism of Orbán became personal for me. On my return to Hungary in 2010, I had started an academic career at the Corvinus University in Budapest but also worked with the Roma Education Fund, an NGO supported by Soros to challenge racism and segregation against the Roma in schools in Central Eastern Europe. As a board member for this NGO, was I now considered a ‘Soros agent’? Things though were to get worse. It became apparent that academic freedom was at serious risk.
The Central European University, a lead academic institution funded by Soros, was forced out of Hungary. The Government had introduced a law in 2017 the Lex CEU which stated foreign universities operating in Hungary must have a campus in their home country, this seemed to target the CEU as it did not have a home campus in the US. Despite forming a new partnership with a US based university giving it home campus status the Hungarian government seemed reluctant to stabilize the university’s legal status, prompting it to relocate most of its teaching to Vienna. In 2020 the European Court of Justice ruled that the Lex CEU’ violated Hungary’s commitments under the rules of the World Trade Organization and infringes the provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union relating to academic freedom.
In the wake of the Lex CEU the Hungarian government refused to recognize Gender Studies degrees, this decision was motivated by a traditionalist worldview that believes gender roles should be fixed and rigid and determined by biology, a position that viewed Gender Studies as an ideology rather than a science.
Perhaps, the most audacious higher education reform has been the Hungarian government’s foundation programme, where a huge swathe of Hungarian universities and cultural institutions are in effect being privatized and turned into supposedly autonomous foundations. This initiative has been denounced as the creation of a state within a state, as these foundations are managed by Boards of Trustees composed of government loyalists. The weekly HVG, an important Hungarian magazine, compared the foundation scheme with ‘feudal goods’ that feudal rulers give to their vassals. Professor Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton University has noted that the reform removes all transparency from how EU funds are spent, and any assets that go into these foundations go off the public books, in other words out of the purview of the state audit office, out of the reach of freedom of information requests, and out of all public accountability.
Orbán was bellicose in his defense of the foundation scheme, and in a weekly radio interview he argued that attacks on this proposal came from the Left and were politically motivated and driven by their internationalism. In his mind universities were national institutions and he did not want them to be globalized and lose their national character. The statement affirmed what many already knew, that higher education in Hungary was the locus of a culture war that could have profound implications for Hungary’s future direction and notions of national identity.
The culture war that depicts and frames Hungarian culture and tradition as being challenged by diversity and subversive thought, fails to recognize that identity and national culture is neither fixed or rigid but adapts and evolves to reflect the needs and challenges of the world we live in rather than some romanticized view of the past. Orbán espouses a nativist ‘foreigners are not welcome’ and narrow conception of national identity, typical of authoritarian populism. According to this mindset universities are left-wing bootcamps that are radicalizing Hungarian youth. For Orbán and his supporters at its worst, academia and the intellectual elite it produces is part of a communist deep state, in which a crypto communist elite has sought to maintain its influence in institutions like universities. Fidesz supporters of higher education reform seem to want to see universities offering narrow paths of study closely linked to the needs of the economy and merely preparing graduates for work roles. The dangers of the trajectory of such thinking should not be forgotten, for the foundation of totalitarianism is anti-intellectualism that encompasses the veneration of practicality and a stifling desire for uniformity.
The tragic consequence of Government interference in academic freedom is that in 2021 the Academic Freedom Index placed Hungary in category C together with Brazil, and India. The index is formed through expert assessments based on indicators that measure academic freedom and autonomy and shows a serious deterioration in academic freedom in Hungary since 2010. Universities should be viewed as an important safeguard in modern democracies, providing valuable forums where government policy can be scrutinized and where necessary challenged. The demise of academic freedom in Hungary should be viewed as another serious blow to the democratic fabric of this nation.
I decided to resign from the Corvinus University, as it was one of the universities changed into a foundation. I also decided to write a book on what was happening to academic freedom in Hungary. In the book I thread together the stories of academic activists who have chosen to speak out against the changes I have described. After leaving the Corvinus, I joined Eötvös Loránd University, one of the last genuinely autonomous state universities in the country. There are fears that it will also be privatized and made into a foundation, now that the Orbán government has been re-elected.
I also have to say that I was prompted in my resignation and decision to write the book by the actions of students and teachers at the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE). Conservatives in Hungary had long been critical of the SZFE. The now-deceased Imre Kerényi, a cultural adviser to Orbán and a theatre director, claimed that the Fidesz party, led by Orbán, was a gift from God. In the opinion of Kerényi, Hungary needed a “Christian theatre”. Kerényi also declared that the theatrical world should be liberated from the “lobby of the fags” and called for the establishment of an anti-college of the performing arts, and said the one existing at that time, the SZFE, should rot. Such thinking at the very center of government perhaps explains the animosity of the Government towards the SZFE and the aggressive position it took in seeking a change to the institution’s model of organization. In February 2020, the SZFE was informed of the Government’s privatization plans. The SZFE Senate announced that their powers to decide on budgetary, organizational, and personnel issues had been taken away from them, as power had been transferred to the new board. Complaints were expressed about the transparency and legality of the takeover. The SZFE leadership including Laszlo Upor, the former deputy rector of SZFE, resigned. Upor derided the transition as “forced” and informed a meeting of MEPs attending the European Parliament’s Culture and Education Committee that the new system is “private with a twist”. He elaborated on this by stating that the university still lives on public money “but without public control, without checks and balances”.
SZFE Students organized a street farewell party for the resigning staff at the main university and to mark a farewell to the 155 years of an autonomous SZFE. The event became a political demonstration. Thousands of supporters came to express support, and this led to the occupation of the main university building, an occupation that was to last for 71 days in what became known as the ‘Free SZFE’ campaign.
The brave actions of the SZFE staff and students were a potent reminder of the capacity and power of resilience. Not everyone can be crushed and intimidated by the oppressive power of authoritarianism. The theory of psychological reactance contends that humans have an innate desire for autonomy and when they feel it is threatened resist. Compliance or failure to act can sometimes be harmful to our self-conception, these are dilemmas laden with moral questions. In becoming an activist, it sometimes feels like one has no choice, that the unreasonable actions of those in power have compelled one to take action. Of course, there is the option to do nothing, getting on with life and keeping one’s head down. Doing nothing though has a price in terms of the damage to our self-concept, the realization that one is failing to live in accordance with the principles one has set. A feeling that one has been intimidated into submission, a feeling that one has complied and bent to the force of power by being silent. Doing something also has a price in terms of pressure, anxiety, and a stunted career path and that is why some prefer inactivity and passivity. However, such stratagems can be subtle, grey, fluid, and shifting.
These are the dilemmas and challenges that I and the other dissident thinkers in my book have had to wrestle with and have prompted us to speak out. As noted, there was no change of government in the April election, but we will continue in our challenge and protest until Hungary is able to properly call itself a democracy again, where academic freedom and so many other rights are protected and cherished. I am a civic nationalist, I love my adopted country as much as my country of birth, but my fears for both are profound as both countries are enveloped in a spiral of decline with falling public standards, cronyism, nativism and authoritarianism becoming ever more rampant.
 Andrew Ryder is an Associate Professor at Eötvös Loránd University and his most recent publication is: ‘The Challenge to Academic Freedom in Hungary: A Case Study in Authoritarianism, Culture War and Resistance’, 2022, De Gruyter. https://www.degruyter.com/document/isbn/9783110749816/html