Viktor Orban takes control of Hungarian universities
A GOOD UNIVERSITY rewards original thought. And Viktor Orban, Hungarian Prime Minister, is certainly an original thinker. Since 2010, when his Fidesz party won two-thirds of the seats in parliament, he has devised innovative ways to make Hungary an autocracy, while retaining a democratic facade. On April 27, his government passed a law transferring control of the country’s 11 major state universities to a series of foundations that will likely be run by its allies. The party has already asserted its grip on institutions such as the electoral system, the media, the courts and much of the economy. Now he wants full power over the ivory towers.
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Like most of Orban’s illiberal reforms, the plan is complicated, brilliant, and susceptible to being copied by aspiring strongmen in other countries. Universities have been placed under the control of public foundations, along with billions of euros in assets (including a palace, a port and shares in state-owned enterprises) which are supposed to help finance them. The foundation boards are initially appointed by Mr. Orban’s government, and those that have been appointed so far are mostly made up of Fidesz members or supporters. Subsequent vacancies will be filled by candidates chosen by the boards themselves.
You might think that if Fidesz loses power, a new government could reorganize the foundations. But with its two-thirds supermajority in parliament, Fidesz has already enshrined its rules of governance in the Hungarian constitution. Even if the opposition were to win next year’s election, which is conceivable since the agitated parties have finally started to join forces, they would almost certainly run out of enough seats to change the constitution. Indeed, Fidesz may have just granted itself control of Hungarian universities in virtual perpetuity.
The government says the new system will allow universities to manage their own buildings and provide them with stable funding over several years in place of annual state budgets. It is misleading. Such administrative reorganizations had been under discussion for years at several universities. The new law usurps these reforms, giving the new councils unlimited authority over schools, foundations and their vast assets.
The fear is that Fidesz will use this control as it has used media control: to stifle dissenting voices and to produce propaganda. His hobby horses include the evils of immigration, liberalism, and gay and trans rights. He also spreads wacky conspiracy theories about the European Union and the supposed plan of financier George Soros to flood Hungary with Muslim immigrants. The government has already forced state universities to abandon gender studies programs. He used legal harassment to force the Central European University, a former Budapest-based institution founded by Mr Soros and which was a source of criticism against Mr Orban, to decamp (mainly) into Austria. Freedom House, a watchdog, called Hungary a completely free democracy in 2010. Its latest report, released this week, classifies it for the second year in a row as a “hybrid regime” (a step forward from “authoritarian “). Hungary now scores worse than Serbia.
What happens in Budapest does not stay in Budapest. Mr. Orban’s ideas that graze through institutions tend to spread. The Polish nationalist government has already imitated the takeover of the media and the courts by Fidesz. Populists in Croatia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia have attempted similar tricks. The French Marine Le Pen is also a fan of Mr. Orban. One of the reasons democracy is in decline around the world is that its enemies continue to exchange advice on how to undermine it.
If a political takeover of academia can take place in Hungary, a member of a club of wealthy liberal democracies, it can happen anywhere. But be in the EU also provides means of resistance. After years of debate, the EU adopted a “rule of law mechanism”. In principle, countries which flout legal principles may see their aid limited. Relative to the size of its economy, Hungary was the largest net recipient of EU funding in 2014-20, according to Bruegel, a think tank. Of course, reducing aid would be difficult. The European Commission is slow to draw up guidelines to this effect, and Hungary’s allies, especially Poland, will try to oppose such a move.
However, it is high time to act. For years the EU wearily accepted Hungary’s increasingly corrupt autocracy as if it were inevitable, and funded it abundantly. Instead, he should heed the words of a Hungarian scholar, Geza Teleki, who warned that illiberal regimes want to “abolish the autonomy of universities” because “any autonomous group is naturally something they have to shy away from. get rid of”. Teleki testified before the US Congress in 1954 on the functioning of the former Hungarian Communist Party. Hungarians deserve better. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Viktor Orban’s Academic Challenge”