Such a ban would pose a serious threat to academic freedom and institutional autonomy in Hungary and would confirm the trend towards increased state control that began with legal reforms in 2014, that have already undermined institutional autonomy in Hungary’s universities (see EUA’s Autonomy Scorecard). EUA calls on the Hungarian government to refrain from further interference in academic affairs.
Under decree 42294/2018, the only two gender study programmes in Hungary, offered at the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) and the Central European University (CEU), would be shut down. These two internationally-renowned universities are both EUA members. The programmes in question are formally accredited, perform well with high enrolments, and are part of the institutions’ international collaboration and exchange.
The official reason given for the closure is that there is no need for graduates in this field in Hungary. However, it is not clear how the Ministry has arrived to this conclusion: CEU has data that proves the employment success of its international graduates over almost a decade; while the ELTE programme only launched last year.
If the decree is passed, these programmes would be removed from the official list of “licensed” study programmes. As a consequence, while currently enrolled students would still be able to finish their studies, there would be no new enrolments.
In the past, the government has only closed accredited programmes in close consultation with the universities concerned. However, in this case, the National Rectors’ Conference alone was consulted, not the universities, and only with 24 hours to answer. The universities responded via the National Rectors’ Conference consultation and wrote their own letters to the government expressing their discord with the plan.
EUA has received a high number of letters from universities, networks of universities and individual academics from across Europe and around the world, addressed to the Hungarian Minister and to the general public, condemning the proposal.
While the decree has not yet been passed, a decision is expected at any time. If the Hungarian government goes ahead, this would constitute a case of state intervention into higher education that is unprecedented in the European Union.
On 12 September 2018, the European Parliament invoked Article 7, triggering a procedure to determine if Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary has systematically breached the EU’s core values. Notably, this is only the second time the Article has been invoked in EU history, and the first time the Parliament has initiated the procedure.
A European Parliament report released before the vote is very critical of the Orbán government’s democratic record and points to the “existence of a clear risk of a serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the Union is founded.” The report lists the values, including those relevant for universities: academic freedom, freedom of expression and assembly, and the right to and freedom of education.
Several key members of the European Parliament focussed on academic freedom in the plenary debate about the report, including the Chair of the CULT Committee dealing with universities, Petra Kammerevert, and Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party (to which Orban’s Fidesz party belongs). Notably, Weber underlined academic freedom as a core European value in his support for the motion.
Before the vote, the Hungarian government published more than 100 pages as a rebuttal of the accusations found in the European Parliament report. This was followed by an address by Orbán to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 11 September 2018.
Against this backdrop, EUA is particularly concerned about threats to academic freedom and university autonomy. The Association has been monitoring university autonomy in Europe over the past decade. While the situation is alarming in several countries including Turkey and Russia, Hungary is the first EU member state to systematically interfere in university matters and repeatedly violate academic freedom. EUA follows these developments closely and tries to support its members in upholding these fundamental rights and values.
EUA has 13 members in Hungary, including the Central European University, which has been a clear target of the Orbán government. Recent cases, including a proposed ban on gender studies programmes and a 25% tax on external funding for activities regarding migrants, prove that university autonomy and academic freedom are clearly deteriorating.
The Orbán administration should be mindful that these types of actions are not only damaging the country’s reputation and standing inside and out of the European Union, but have worrying implications on research and higher education.
Hungarian universities are internationally-renowned for their quality. This is due also to autonomy and academic freedom, which are of key importance, not only for Hungary, but for the future of the European Higher Education and Research Areas. Any breach has an impact on Europe as a whole, as well as on its global role in defending fundamental human and democratic rights. Therefore, any threat to core European values concerns not only the people of Hungary, but all EU citizens.