Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Orbán’s assault on academic freedom SHALINI RANDERIA

Another indicator of the malaise fallen over Hungarian education policy is the alarming decline in student applications and enrolments between 2010 and 2014, which fell by 24%. In 2016, the number of applications to state universities declined at en even sharper rate, from 160,000 to 110,000. This dramatic reduction amounting to a fall of 45% in student applications has been undertaken deliberately by the government. The less privileged, who are denied access to the education system in favour of middle and upper middle class students, are to fit themselves into Orban’s hierarchical corporate system as ‘simple labourers’ in the service or industrial sectors.

The legislation targeting the Central European University is part of the systematic erosion of the autonomy of Hungary’s universities. Instead of following the path paved by the CEU towards the internationalization of knowledge, the Hungarian government is committed to the nationalization and political control of science.

The very existence of the private, internationally renowned Central European University (CEU) in Budapest is under threat. Following attacks by the state controlled Hungarian press, a newly drafted law was passed on Tuesday 4 April by the Parliament that will extensively curtail the autonomy of the university, and indeed in effect aims at its closure. The CEU, which embodies the liberal spirit of its founder George Soros, is an attractive place to study for masters and doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences from Hungary and throughout eastern and central Europe, as it is for young scholars from all over the world. This makes it a thorn in Viktor Orbán’s flesh. In an ‘illiberal state,’ as Orbán’s himself describes the political system of his country, there can be no room for cosmopolitan, free thought.

While the new Legislation on the Regulation of Private Universities does not mention the CEU by name, it is nevertheless clearly tailor-made to it. The Andrássy University in Budapest, which has been supported by Austria and several German states, was carefully excluded from the purview of the legislation. The law requires, among other things, that a university maintain a campus in its country of origin, which, it is well known, is not the case for CEU. The CEU must comply by these conditions by January 2018 or cease functioning in Budapest. Orbán has succeeded in enforcing his new media regulations by means of similar legislation, which serve to obscure the authoritarian regime of control that is being established in Hungary. Will the EU tolerate this attack that calls into question the very freedom of thought and knowledge while rejecting the fundamental values of the Union?

Although this new amendment directly targets the CEU, the attack must be viewed in the context of the systematic erosion of the autonomy of all universities in the country. Since 2006, Hungary has spent less and less on education both in real terms and as a percentage of the GDP. Only Mexico and Turkey spend less among OECD countries. Large funding cuts to Hungarian state universities have created a budget deficit that has made it increasingly difficult to maintain their operations. The result of this fiscal policy has been the closure of many departments, and those that remain are entirely financially dependent on the benevolence of the state. State expenditure on higher education also declined by 25% between 2010 and 2013. This led to the establishment of a financial state of exception, which provided the occasion for the installation of state-nominated ‘chancellors’ at each university, in order presumably to consolidate the financial situation. Many of these chancellors are former FIDESZ functionaries with no expertise in financial management, and yet who are not only making financial and managerial decisions, but also determining academic appointments.