Hungary’s illiberal education

Victor Orbán’s far-right government in Hungary sees higher education as critical to the consolidation of the ruling Fidesz party’s grip on society. Dorit Geva reports

April 3, 2022 · 7 min read
Viktor Orbán speaking at the 2012 European People’s Party Congress in Bucharest (Credit: European People’s Party)

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Students in England understand very well the impact of neoliberal reforms in higher education, aiming to transform universities into institutions whose purpose supposedly resides in their competitive market value. Current attacks on ‘woke’ students and cries to defend so-called ‘free speech’ on campuses seem indicative of an emboldened right’s approach to vilify and sideline higher education in the English national zeitgeist.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s reforms show that another right-wing path is emerging elsewhere in Europe. Orbán’s government sees higher education as critical to the extension of the ruling Fidesz party’s grip on the totality of Hungarian society. His approach is not to destroy, but to take control of the sector.

On the one hand, some policies since Orbán’s election in 2010 look like typical neoliberal privatisation. Most universities have been transformed by the creation of private foundations that now run them. Student fees have also been partially deregulated. Some students receive state-funded tuition waivers, but most are now fee-paying. This has disproportionately affected students in social sciences, humanities, education, law and administration. Students who receive tuition scholarships are also bound by a contract requiring them to work in the Hungarian labour market.

In 2018, a new ministry of innovation and technology (MIT) was created, which determines funding for research and universities, including the once-grand Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Researchers must lose any appearance of engaging in critical social science and compete for funds on the basis of putative economic utility. The MIT’s overall policy prioritises funding applied research that translates into economic innovation.

Paths to Power

Understanding Hungary’s path requires us to look beyond the motives of privatisation and deregulation in Britain. In typical Orbánite fashion, political power is accumulated through selective marketisation. In this strategy, ideological, economic or political rivals are weakened or even eliminated through privatisation. Once a sector is enfeebled or destroyed, Fidesz party loyalists take over. This well-worn strategy centralises power, with profit, jobs, and wealth funnelled towards party dependents.

Higher education has been no exception. The Hungarian higher education sector is divided into weakened universities that underwent marketisation versus robustly state-funded and politically dependent institutions. While most universities have come under the control of private foundations, they are led by boards of trustees composed of five members, three of whom are appointed by the government. University chancellors are also appointed by the government, with administrative and financial control over institutions.

It is no coincidence that one of Orbán’s most anticipated political speeches each year takes place at a summer university for Hungarians in Romania

Privatisation and increased government control of Hungary’s historic universities stands in stark contrast to regime support for institutions that are the new crown jewels of Hungarian higher education. Prominent among these is the National University of Public Service, Ludovika, founded in 2012 by the Orbán government. It has the full financial support of the state, aiming to cultivate an educated nationalist elite steeped in Christian conservative values. This new elite is also nurtured to be pro-capitalist, to transform the European Union project from within, and to imbue students with the feeling of standing ‘in the strong “castle” of the Hungarian state’.

Another winner is the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, an institute for advanced studies whose prominence has been raised recently by the Orbán regime. The government has endowed this small institution with an eye-watering $1.7 billion in money and shares, changing it from a little-known institution to a global centre for conservativism. It has already paid off, making Budapest the new Rome of right-wing intellectuals and politicians.

Reclaiming the state

The left might be surprised that it can learn from Orbán’s approach to universities and politics at large. The first lesson is that Orbán comprehends with utter lucidity the importance and power of the central state, and this has implications for higher education. Seizing back control of the state following post-socialist liberalisation in the 1990s has been one of Orbán’s main goals. As such, there can be no serious reforms to higher education without articulating a broader path to power.

The second and related lesson is that there is no path to power without universities and educational projects. Orbán and his strategists understood the importance of education in a Gramscian sense in the years leading up to his election in 2010. They cultivated ‘civic circles’ that sought, from the ground up, to engage with middle-class citizens outside Budapest. These civic circles transformed citizens into Fidesz loyalists. The process united party activism with educational and cultural activism, building towards eventually taking power.

Educational projects such as the Central European University’s Socrates Project in Hungary are working to cultivate an alternative space, delivering the content of university education to those who have not had opportunities. While the Socrates Project is not tied to any specific political party, it has the virtue of offering an approach to education that is not overladen by convoluted utopian ideals. The recipe is simple: everyone has the right, and ability, to read, write and discuss, and this opens up possibilities otherwise foreclosed.

It is a lot to ask of academic staff to teach outside their normal teaching obligations. But for those with secure positions and without heavy care-giving duties, sparing time for such projects can be significant for the future. Left-wing political parties need to work on building these bridges.

It is no coincidence that one of Orbán’s most anticipated political speeches each year takes place at a summer university for Hungarians in Romania. This was also the site of his now notorious ‘illiberal democracy’ speech in 2014, when he outlined his vision for a new state ‘based on national values’, in a similar vein as China, Russia and Turkey. As Orbán and his party perfectly understand, universities are a structural plank in building a new future made in his image.

Dorit Geva is professor of sociology and social anthropology and founding dean of undergraduate studies at Central European University

This article first appeared in issue #235, ‘Educate, agitate, organise’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media

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