The Hungarian parliament passed a law on Tuesday (27) that lays the groundwork for the government to take control of universities and cultural institutions, in a move that critics say will increase the ideological footprint of Prime Minister Viktor’s leadership Orbán.
At present, most of the universities in the country are state-owned, but have a high level of autonomy.
The legislation states that universities must be reorganized and run by foundations, as modern conditions demand a “rethinking the role of the state” and foundations will manage these institutions more effectively.
The text further specifies that “the fundamental expectation is that the foundations actively defend the survival and well-being of the nation and the interest in enriching its intellectual treasures”. The organizations at the head of cultural institutions would have the task of “strengthening national identity”.
Orbán, who came to power in 2010, has increased his control over much of Hungarian public life, including the media, education and scientific research.
Promoting what he calls conservative Christian values, the prime minister has also used strong opposition to immigration and limited gay rights, such as adoption by same-sex couples and legal recognition of transgender people.
The Prime Minister’s government will appoint boards of directors to lead the foundations, which in turn will control significant real estate assets and benefit from billions of euros in EU funds, while having considerable influence over life daily in universities.
Several of the foundations will receive support from the government, which will use their holdings in MOL and Richter for this purpose. It will also allocate more than 1 trillion forints (18 billion reais) in EU stimulus funds for university renewal.
The opposition said that with supporters of Fidesz (the Orbán party which holds two-thirds of the seats in parliament) and even government ministers appointed to the boards of these foundations, the prime minister could acquire a level of control over them. universities that would go beyond next year’s election and could undermine the autonomy of educational institutions.
Critics of the new law say the move is a takeover by the government to increase its ideological influence. Attila Chikan, professor at Corvinus University of Economics (Budapest) and minister in the Orbán government in 1998, said the movement was part of an “ideological war” declared by the prime minister. “They don’t hide it: they want to take intellectual power after politics and economics.”
He pointed out that the move comes after the government increased its control over university research and forced a major liberal school, the Central European University, to move to Vienna in 2019.
Among parliamentarians, Gergely Arato, of the opposition Democratic Coalition party, said the law would take “property, traditions, community and knowledge” away from the Hungarian people and give them to government allies who will control universities. Erzsebet Schmuck, of the LMP party, said Orbán “plans to give the remains of the country’s wealth to these foundations for free”.
The Hungarian leader retorted that the universities under state command are not privatized and that his government is investing in higher education by giving these foundations important assets.
The government also maintains that educational institutions would benefit from this model. Istvan Stumpf, the government official responsible for the changes, refused the Reuters news agency’s request for an interview.
In October, students at the Hungarian University of Theater and Film Arts blocked the entrance to the site in protest against the imposition of a government-appointed council, which the students said would undermine the autonomy of the institution.