Academic freedom is a basic concept as well as a guiding principle in higher education. However, democratic governments, such as in Hungary, have taken a number of punitive moves against academics and higher education institutions that aim to curtail academic independence and silence critics.
The “Lex CEU”
In late March 2017, the Hungarian government tabled a measure that requires international universities to meet additional conditions in order to operate or continue to operate in Hungary. The most stringent new requirement is an international agreement between Hungary’s government and the government of the university’s home country. This criterion effectively means that the right to undertake educational activities will no longer be based on professional criteria (e.g., accreditation board decisions), but rather on the government’s desire. In addition, the measure limits the ability of non-European universities to collaborate with Hungarian universities. Foreign universities that want to operate in Hungary must also conduct actual education operations in their home country. It also eliminates work permit exemptions and mandates that the university’s name, even in foreign languages, differentiates clearly from the names of previously registered universities. Universities that fail to meet the new requirements will have their operating licenses revoked. The statute was rapidly dubbed “Lex CEU” because the majority of the criteria only applied to one institution: CEU.
CEU is a United States (US)-chartered university that, along with two dozen other higher education institutions, provides American-style education outside of the US. It is linked to the Hungarian higher education system through a legal body with the same name as CEU in Hungarian. Its considerable number of non-European professors (mostly from the United States and Canada) benefited from work exemptions that were in place at the time.
It is deemed that the bill’s introduction was solely for political reasons. CEU was accused by government officials and Fidesz party of being a “virtual,” “false,” and even “non-existent” university. Simultaneously, it was referred to as “Soros university” pertaining to George Soros, the Hungarian-born philanthropist who the government accused of being behind a conspiracy against Hungary.
Despite negotiations and complying with the all the requirements, the government has delayed and has pushed the deadlines of signing the agreement between the Hungary and US. This eventually led to the CEU voluntarily leaving the country and moving its operations to Vienna, Austria in 2019.
Tensions between Orbán – who was formerly a Soros grantee – and Soros escalated in 2015 when the former began accusing the latter of being behind a “Soros plan” – to flood the continent with migrants after the philanthropist advocated that the EU should be ready to accept a million immigrants. The Fidesz party became obsessed with the refugee situation, blaming international organizations for incentivizing migrants to enter Europe. The Hungarian government needed a scapegoat, someone with a face, and one that was well-known. Hence, Soros, the government’s Jewish foe, was quickly constructed. The anti-Soros campaign was inextricably linked to a preference for national sovereignty over increased European integration, particularly when it came to enforcing shared principles across the EU and its member states.
Orbán’s government then ramped up its anti-Soros campaign, putting pressure on Soros’s CEU and then adopting a bill last June 2017 that appeared to be aimed largely at Soros’s non-governmental organizations. Posters showing a giggling Soros with the phrase “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh” went up, provoking anti-Semitic accusations.
In December 2017, Soros retaliated through a video message after a long time of being silent. He said that “our relationship became bad because he went bad. He’s gone through a lot of transformations. He has turned democracy into a totalitarian regime.” .” However, Orbán has never explained why he turned against Soros, but it might be because the latter serves as a danger against Fidesz. Another theory is that Orbán was irritated because Soros was sponsoring organizations that accused Fidesz of corruption.
According to Freedom House, the Hungarian government continues to label NGOs as “foreign agents” or “Soros agents,” and they are regularly blamed for events that are negative to the government or unpopular with the general public. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled in June 2020 that the 2017 Act on Organizational Transparency, which required groups that accept funds from outside the EU to register as such, was incompatible with EU law. The administration has so far failed to carry out the verdict, and the relevant statute remains in effect.
Other illiberal moves against academic freedom
Aside from the attacks on CEU, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) was also targeted by the Fidesz administration recently. It stripped the 200-year-old MTA of its network of research institutions in 2019, handing them over to a new governing body. After the government decided to keep much of the MTA’s financing and operational autonomy, the debate subsided. The MTA, on the other hand, chose a new president in 2020, who was well-known for his support for the Fidesz administration.
In addition, the Hungarian government also banned gender studies in universities in 2018. Orbán’s former chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas cited the low enrolment numbers as well as the government’s ideological resistance to gender studies programs as justifications. He also mentioned that “The Hungarian government is of the clear view that people are born either men or women. They lead their lives the way they think best, but beyond this, the Hungarian state does not wish to spend public funds on education in this area.” Hence, this rhetoric is a clear attack on gender equality by setting strict social expectations on women’s (and men’s) roles.
What transpired in CEU demonstrates how Orbán’s administration functions. It reflects that campaign considerations is above sectoral goals, such as maintaining the higher education sector’s competitiveness, and that the ruling party views polarization as its primary approach for mobilizing voters. This is in line with how Kendall-Taylor and Frantz (2016), described what populists have in common: they initially gain power through democratic elections, then use popular discontent to progressively weaken institutions, sideline dissent, and dismantle civil society.
Academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democracy are inextricably linked: they cannot exist in a society that is not founded on democratic values, and democracy benefits when higher education institutions operate on this foundation. Higher education institutions must be instilled with democratic culture, which will aid in the promotion of democratic principles in society.
Photo credits: “George Soros visits CEU’s new campus for the first time” by WeAreCEU is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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