Prof. Daniel Deak of Corvinus University of Budapest visited DBP in June, lecturing on the issue of academic freedom in Hungary at present.
By Daniel Deak
Corvinus University of Budapest
Budapest, 9 June 2017
Since 2012, there have been abrupt and radical changes in the operation of the system of Hungarian higher education. It is a preliminary condition for meeting the historically corroborated professional standards of academics that academics exercise freedom. As it cannot be done individually, but in cooperation, through a collegial system, academic freedom is always combined with collective action. The institutional basis for such a freedom is university autonomy, the lack of which makes a serious barrier to the full development of a character of “homo academicus“. This is now the case in Hungary.
Apparently, the status and ethos of “homo academicus“ have been in crisis all over the world. In a time period of internationalisation, mass production and digitalisation, academic activity is no longer a matter of artefacts. Groups of scholars, tutors and students emerge in a sphere where modules have been developed to increasingly compare the products of academic activity with each other. Although these changes convert academic performance into more standardised and measurable knowledge, they may also make the style of academic work mechanical, pushing out ingenuity and imagination. Academic activity has been brought closer to the economic standards of efficiency and measurability: This is a threat to academic freedom.
Social stakeholders and politicians are all the more critical towards academic performance. This is also true in Hungary’s case. The situation of this country is still unique. The Hungarian institutions of higher education have been inadvertently reduced in size, and they are also subject to unstable and unpredictable governance of higher education. Sometimes they have to look at the ministry of human resources as if it were a castle like in the novel of Franz Kafka Das Schloss: it is not clear what the lord of the castle will decide, and how and why decisions will be taken there.
In Hungary, the manifesto addressed to academics was an important step in the process of developing capacities and facilities to organise ourselves throughout Europe. Having learned the manifesto, we held debates in Budapest to discuss how it can be relevant to Hungarian academics. We strongly agree with the authors of the manifesto that we have to defend ourselves against the illicit interference of a profit-based economy with academic matters. We cannot accept narrow-minded instrumental rationality and the fact that academic activity would be tantamount to prefabricated knowledge instead of craft activity.
One has to understand that, since September 2012 – the date when the new law on higher education took effect – we have been suffering from the double pressure of economic and political intervention. Notably, the Hungarian economy cannot be described by Western standards. For a serious lack of market access, it is our oligarchs who dominate big economic projects. The EU funds received have greatly contributed to maintaining a kind of state capitalism and managed democracy.
In Hungary, regulatory capture has been abundant in recent years. Everything is fluid and contingent on the formulation of an abruptly changing political will. The government concludes the so-called strategic agreements with selected companies that purchase the benevolence of the government. Under these circumstances, economic intervention does not have the same meaning as in countries where effective and transparent markets operate.
Centralisation in Hungary has overgrown. This has not simply happened due to the intention of certain individuals. It is because there are no longer any institutional guaranties to stop the high centralisation of political power. There is no private life, and everything has been subject to political speculation and ideological considerations.
Under these circumstances, the production of academic knowledge has become extremely vulnerable. The words of the notorious Rektoratsrede (Rector’s Speech) of Martin Heidegger are true in the case of Hungary: academic knowledge can only be viable if it is ready to serve leadership (Führerschaft). This awkward knowledge is subordinated to the promotion of volition. In this instance, academic freedom is not appreciated. On the contrary, it is merely seen as empty negativism. Positive contents could allegedly not arise unless academic knowledge is sponsored by out-of-academic guidance.
The principles of Magna Charta Universitatum (unity of academic knowledge, academic freedom, independence from the State, and humanity), solemnly declared at Bologna in 1988 cannot be enforced in Hungary. Autonomy has been explicitly taken away from public universities (that is, from most Hungarian universities). Many decisions of a ”rector magnificus“ in Hungary must be countersigned by the chancellor, nominated by the government. The resolutions of the university senate may be subject to the approval of the so-called consistory, dominated by the government. For instance, the four-year-strategy of research, development and innovation that is adopted by the senate must also be approved by the consistory.
Academic freedom is artificially broken down into the so-called academic and non-academic parts. Determination of the contents and methodology of education and research belongs to the first part. The issues of organisation, finances and staffing fall under the second category. As academic activity cannot be interpreted in the handcuffs of this artificial distinction, academic freedom withers away in practice.
The human and financial resources of academic activity are strictly allocated by the government. Academic specialisations are determined centrally. The application for establishing new academic specialisations is subject to the preliminary approval of the government. The Hungarian Board of Academic Accreditation has in fact lost its independence. The preferences of students in choosing specialisations are biased by arbitrary government decisions. For example, recently an undersecretary sharply and publicly criticised the ELTE University (the no. 1 university of the country) for its intentions to advertise gender studies. The government also immediately announced that another (public) university is going to launch family studies to compete with the ELTE-based gender studies.
Laws on the operation of the institutions of higher education are constantly changed, even several times a year. Heavy under-finance has been a standard since 2012. By 2016, Hungarian universities have lost approximately one-third of their resources (students and professors, specialisations, financial resources, etc.). This means, among other things, that universities are compelled to make use of their resources obtained through various applications (e.g., for EU funds) to finance their daily operations. Thus far, they have been able to survive – although with serious restrictions – but they cannot see any future.
A recent example for the attack against academic freedom is the amendment of the Higher Education Act through bill No. T/14686, decided this April. The Hungarian government challenges the operation of the Central European University at four points at least:
– CEU is not substantiated by an international treaty as required by the new law since the basis of its foundation was not a special agreement made with the Hungarian government, but simply the possibility arising from the freedom of enterprise and education. By making use of this, a legal entity, duly registered in the State of New York, has been able to start its activity of higher education in Hungary, benefitting Hungarian society and obtaining international reputation;
– CEU does not have a parent institution that would effectively operate in the place of incorporation (that is, there is no university operating in the state of New York under the name of CEU) that would be required by the new law, although such a requirement does not exist under the law of the State of New York;
– due to the amendment, the academics of CEU that reside outside the European Union would simply not receive work permit in Hungary after 31 December (to date, this has not been legally required for those who have undertaken a job at a registered institution of higher education;
– due to the amendment, the academic programmes taken over by CEU from universities that reside outside the European Union would be subject to approval of the Hungarian authorities in Hungary after 31 December, which has not been legally required to date.
Unfortunately, making improper references to international treaty provisions has been an established instrument of the Hungarian government’s educational policy. For example, as to church universities, the government provides special treatment to them by referring to the fact that these universities operate under an international treaty, which is not difficult, e.g., for Catholics if agreements with the Vatican City State are considered as international treaties. It is Hungary’s sovereign right to impose conditions for the commencement of academic activities, indeed. The legislation cannot, however, be discriminatory.
The current bill is addressed to a single operator, that is, to CEU. Notably, the Andrássy University will presumably not be affected, the operation of which is supported by an international treaty, under which the parties may derogate from the application of the conditions laid down by national law. The Hungarian law is a new case of regulatory capture, the victim of which is this time an internationally renowned university.
The attack against CEU is a challenge to all Hungarian universities. It is unfortunate, among other things because for decades, CEU has been deeply integrated into the academic life of Hungary. Its removal by administrative force would be a serious loss for the Hungarian academic sector which we cannot tolerate. Indeed, the CEU portfolio is not complete (e.g., it does not provide undergraduate programmes), but wherever it launches academic programmes, it has clearly increased over other Hungarian universities (being generously provided by financial means). We have all benefited from the success of CEU, and the loss of CEU would be a loss for all of us. For example, where are we going now to get access to books or studies that have been available in the CEU Library? The inadequate libraries of public universities present no evident alternatives.
The Hungarian government is sovereign in deciding whom to admit entry into the territory of Hungarian higher education from outside the European Union, and under which conditions. It can set a barrier for those who do not come from the European Higher Education Area. It is no appropriate message to academia if the government continues to fight against the ideals of academic freedom. Furthermore, this action of the Hungarian government is an unfriendly message, addressed to the State, under the laws of which CEU has formally been established. By amending the law, the government leaves a message to all of us who are present at Hungarian universities: Apparently the government has the right from one day to another to change arbitrarily the operating conditions of higher educational institutions, disregarding institutional autonomy.
Is it perhaps not only the idea of an open society that has gone wrong with the Hungarian government? Or is it a problem with CEU that it provides graduate students originating from the former Soviet Union’s successor states in large numbers? Is standing up for the values of knowledge, democracy and the rule of law deemed to be subversion?
For Hungarian academics, the most important task is currently to struggle for academic freedom. A series of financial, legal and administrative considerations can be enumerated. The main aspect of this struggle is of a political nature, however. It is important to make our problems known to society as much as possible. Publicity is a crucial aspect of this activity. Intervention of the press helps our personal protection. There is no chance for success unless cooperation is developed with other civil organisations that are active in the various fields of human infrastructure. Besides, it is also important for us to get involved in international cooperation, to receive and show solidarity in the realm of academia.
 Willem Halffman, Hans Radder, ”The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University“. Minerva, Vol. 53, Issue 2 (June 2015)