For months now, students in Budapest have been protesting undue political influence. Their demand: greater autonomy for their university. Just what is academic autonomy, and what can endanger it?

It’s an aesthetically sophisticated form of protest that students of the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) in Budapest have chosen: an open-air performance in which seven women and five men sing protest songs against the government. They sing of love, freedom, and a free university. Their presentation is reminiscent of Japanese Kabuki theatre, with the performers’ faces made up chalk-white with bright red lips. “We’re using what we’ve learned in our studies: knowledge about how to move people,” activist Dorottya Molnár told the German magazine Zeit Campus.

The protests at SZFE began in September of last year when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing nationalist government revoked the university’s autonomy by converting it into a private foundation led by a government-friendly board of trustees. The previous leadership, thus reduced to de facto puppets, collectively resigned. Numerous full- and part-time faculty members also quit, and students occupied the main building. There were demonstrations with thousands of participants, protesters in Budapest formed human chains, and a symbolic torch travelled to other cities. Photos and videos of the students’ actions bearing the hashtag #freeSzFE spread all over social media, and artists from around the world have declared their solidarity. Activist Molnár articulates what these protests are meant to achieve: “We want our autonomy back.”

© Astrid Meixner

What does the term “academic autonomy” actually mean? ”Simply put, it denotes universities’ freedom from both state intervention and influence by business interests,” says Tamara Ehs, a political scientist at the University of Vienna. In a democracy, says Ehs, it’s essential for tertiary-level educational institutions to be capable of acting autonomously in the interest of fulfilling their role as a critical check on other forces. “They act like watchdogs, pointing out things that go wrong in politics and indicating where there’s a need for corrective intervention.” Their job, says Ehs, is to not only teach critical thinking but also practice it in their academic pursuits. “Whenever this critical thinking is perceived as a disturbance, one sees attempts to limit it”—as is currently the case in Hungary. “Politicians who govern in an authoritarian style aren’t fond of criticism, after all, and they definitely have no desire to fund a university that argues against their policies.”

Daniela Neubacher, a research associate at the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe, views this similarly. Neubacher has devoted extensive study to the policies and politics of Fidesz, the party that has governed Hungary since 2010. To her, the Hungarian government is something of an “enfant terrible” when it comes to academic autonomy. The government’s officially stated aim is to reform universities to be more efficient—and to have them focus on producing graduates who are needed on the labour market. In principle, such reforms are “nothing specifically Hungarian”, expert Neubacher explains: “We’re observing an ever greater tendency to subject university-level institutions to economic imperatives in lots of countries.” The big difference in Hungary, however, is that what’s being done is of a “quite strongly political and ideological character”. Put differently: “The influence of the government’s Christian and conservative orientation can also be seen in university staffing.” The objective, she says, is to remove liberal elements bit by bit.

These efforts to influence higher education began with driving the Central European University (CEU) out of Budapest, says Attila Pausits, head of the Department of Higher Education Research at Danube University Krems. 2017 saw the government pass a law that put the CEU, which had been regarded as a sanctuary of intellectual freedom, under pressure, says Hungary-native Pausits. This law states that international universities may only operate in Hungary if they also offer instruction in their home countries. As a result, this US-accredited university transferred its campus to Vienna. The Orbán government was also displeased with the subject of gender studies, for which reason they summarily banned it—“which likewise represents a clear curtailment of autonomy”, says Pausits. After all, an essential element of academic autonomy is freedom of teaching.

This was also argued by the European University Association (EUA) in its Autonomy Report of 2017. Alongside academic autonomy, it defined financial autonomy, autonomy in matters of human resources, and organisational autonomy as crucial. This third element denotes universities’ ability to make their own decisions concerning academic and administrative structures, leadership, and governance. The EUA analysed and compared individual European countries in terms of these four categories in its report. Among the countries that did well were Finland, Estonia, Luxembourg, and Great Britain. Hungary, for its part, scored between average and poor in all four categories.

The EUA reserved its most severe criticism for the creation of a new position at Hungarian universities: that of the “chancellor”. This individual functions as a sort of administrative head who watches over financial matters. The problematic thing about this is explained by education researcher Pausits: “The chancellor is the extended arm of the government—so his work is actually intended to ensure that the interests of the government and the party are served.”

Pausits points out that “what’s happening in Hungary right now runs directly counter to the efforts towards greater autonomy we’re seeing in other countries.” And in this vein, he views the Hungarian government’s transformation of several universities into private foundations as yet another way of wielding influence. What’s dangerous, he says, is that the foundations’ trustees consist mostly of Orbán-adjacent individuals, and SZFE is no exception here.

The semester at SZFE has been cancelled until February. So far, there’s been no solution and both sides have dug in, explains Hungary specialist Neubacher. She says that the government is playing for time, hoping “that this difficult situation will go away on its own, that the students will give up.” And education researcher Pausits adds: “As long as these protests don’t spill over to other universities, there’s no urgent need for quick action”. Ultimately, she says, the government is bound to make a few concessions. But these protests do not pose a true threat to the government. Because in terms of higher education policy, they’ve so far always ended up getting their way.

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