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Whither Hungary: Academic Freedom and Authoritarianism

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

Victor Orbán-led Hungarian government has continued to increase pressure on opposition parties, civil society, and the media. Freedom of speech and independence of higher education in Hungary are also facing new legal and institutional threats. Orbán and his FIDESZ government announced that they are once again modifying the National Higher Education Act, having already done so in 2011 when they increased the regulation of foreign academic institutions in Hungary. Part of the 2011 amendments required foreign universities operating in Hungary to strike a bilateral agreement between the country's autocratic government and the universities' country of origin, and to offer teaching services in its home country. According to the Hungarian government, Central European University (CEU) failed to meet the requirements and was forced the relocate out of the country.

French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield led the delegation, with one MEP from each political group. Photo credit: European Parliament

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled last year that the amendments to the National Higher Education Act in 2011 infringed on the World Trade Organization rules on fair market access and acted contrary to the provisions of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights, which protects academic freedom, freedom of mobility, and the freedom to conduct a business. The new amendment seems to offer more legal and institutional flexibility for foreign universities, in compliance with EU law and international treaties. Even though the new legislative proposal welcomes foreign universities, representatives of CEU have made clear that they will not return to Hungary but will stay in Austria because it is a country where basic standards of academic freedom are guaranteed and respected.

The new regulation has also created a new controversy since it appeared just when the news that Fudan University, known as the primary higher education institution of the Chinese Communist Party, is opening a campus in Hungary. Allegedly, the announced legal amendments were proposed following this project. In response to the new regulation CEU issued a statement, saying, “It remains a political decision–certain to be taken at the highest level–whether to allow foreign universities to operate… It [Hungarian government] threw out an institution that abides by international standards of academic freedom and has instead invited a university which obeys the ultimate authority of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Fudan University’s Budapest location is an increasingly controversial topic in Hungary, especially since it is being built with a 450-billion-forint (1.25 billion EUR) loan from China, which will eventually need to be paid off by Hungarian taxpayers.

In the meantime, on September 29, a delegation of the EU parliament elected members (MEPs) traveled to Hungary to assess the respect for press and academic freedom, the rights of minorities and the wider rule of law context. During their three-day visit to Budapest, MEPs met the Hungarian Minister for Justice and the Interior Minister.

The EP delegation heard from more than hundred people including civil society organizations working in the field of the protection of the rule of law, equal treatment, and minority and social rights. They also met journalists, representatives of academia and the education system, as well as the Hungarian Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, and the National Judicial Office and Council, ministers, parliament members, and artists. The input gathered will be further examined and presented to the EU Parliament in December as an updated version of the 2021 Rule of Law Report. The latest report has already highlighted the worsening situation in Hungary. Among other issues, it noted the risks to media pluralism, to academic freedom and free production and exchange of knowledge, and the pressure over civil society organizations and democratic opposition.

Endangered Scholars Worldwide (ESW) condemns the Hungarian government’s recurring attacks on academic freedom and the constitutional autonomy of higher education institutions in Hungary. The ongoing tensions in Hungary have had a profoundly negative effect on academic freedom and continue to pose a grave threat to higher education on a national scale. ESW urges the Hungarian authorities to respect and guarantee the autonomy of higher education in Hungary and to implement the provisions and principles of human rights as specified in international conventions and treaties, and to drop any charges against the democratic opposition arising from their nonviolent exercise of the rights to expression, association, and assembly.


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