Viktor Orban from Hungary wants to control universities | Culture | Reports on the arts, music and lifestyle of Germany | DW
Hungarian universities must undergo a major structural overhaul: they will no longer be owned by the state, but will become foundations instead, according to a new law passed by Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party. In the process, they will also be endowed with billions of euros in assets from the state budget, as well as real estate and shares of large companies. In total, 11 universities and 70% of Hungarian students are concerned.
But some of the country’s most prestigious universities have refused to adopt the new model, which they consider very problematic. It will now be impossible to regulate university spending, says the Hungarian opposition coalition, which will run against Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in next year’s parliamentary elections. The opposition said it was “unacceptable for the Orban government, fearing an electoral defeat in 2022, to hand over public funds to its front men,” and announced it would take the case to the Hungarian Constitutional Court.
Foundations made up of government members
The Hungarian Prime Minister made no secret of the fact that foundation supervisory boards should only be made up of like-minded people. Anyone with “internationalist” or “globalist” views would not be nominated for such a post, Orban said last Friday in his weekly radio interview. People with a “national approach” should keep universities “in the sphere of national interest and national thought,” he said.
Students protested against ideological takeover of the University of Theater and Film Arts
Many members of the government have already secured their place on university supervisory boards. Justice Minister Judit Varga will chair the Board of Trustees of Miskolc University, Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter Szijjarto is on the Board of Trustees of Gyor University, among others.
The new law can only be overturned by a two-thirds majority “in the interests of financial and legal stability,” as Laszlo Palkovics, Hungary’s Minister of Innovation and Technology, said in an interview with to the Hungarian information portal Index.hu. The opposition calls it a “state within a state”.
“They want ideological control”
One of the biggest critics of the new law is Jozsef Palinkas. The former professor and longtime president of the Academy of Sciences was a member of Orban’s Fidesz party for many years. He has since turned his back on his old party and fears that Fidesz will only aim to secure itself financially in the event of electoral defeat.
“They want to influence what is to be taught and researched in Hungary. They want ideological control over universities,” Palinkas told DW. Thus, in the future, the professors could be dismissed for political reasons and the teaching could be adapted to the wishes of the Fidesz party.
The Orban government attempted to do the latter in 2020 when it wanted to hand over the management of the famous Budapest University of Theater and Film Arts (SZFE) to a foundation. Its president, a director close to Orban, wanted to make the university more “national” and “Christian”. The students resisted, occupying the building for months until they were forced to leave the university due to the heightened pandemic measures.
Chinese Fudan University plans to open campus in Hungary
Dispute over a Chinese university
The new law coincides with the construction of a new university, which is also causing an uproar.
The famous Fudan University in Shanghai wants to open its first branch in Budapest in 2024, which would make it the first Chinese university in the European Union.
Still, the cost of the project and the size of the campus left many unsatisfied: the new campus is to span half a million square meters and therefore would be considerably larger than any other Hungarian university.
The investigative news site “Direkt36” also revealed that the cost of the construction project was 1.5 billion euros ($ 1.8 billion), paid for by the Hungarian government – more than the total budget of the Hungarian higher education system of 2019.
At the same time, the capacity of the new university is low compared to other Hungarian universities: only 8,000 students will be taught there.
The Orban government defends the project with arguments similar to those used to defend the foundation model. A world-class university like Fudan would make Hungary an educational destination and make Hungarian universities more competitive.
Critics counter that in 2018 Orban ousted one of the best universities in the world, the American University of Central Europe, founded by his ideological rival George Soros.
The Fudan campus project is already causing controversy.
Tamas Matura, assistant professor at Corvinus University in Budapest and founder of the Center for Asian Studies in Central and Eastern Europe, is ambivalent about Fudan’s new campus. “Fudan is indeed one of the best universities in the world and could take Hungary forward, for example technologically,” Matura told DW.
However, he fears that Fudan, due to his reputation and financial resources, could weaken Hungarian universities if the best faculty and students leave for Chinese campuses. He also considers it problematic that the university is financed by Hungarian taxes.
China’s “Trojan Horse” in Europe?
Other critics go even further, fearing that the new university could be a gateway for Chinese influence in the EU. In its statutes, Fudan subscribes to “fundamental socialist values” and the leadership of the Communist Party. Opposition politicians therefore repeatedly refer to the projected campus as a “Trojan horse”. Former Education Minister Palinkas describes it as “a Chinese stronghold in the middle of Europe”.
The Orban government has indeed intensified its relations with China in recent years. More recently, the Hungarian Foreign Minister criticized the sanctions imposed by the EU on China for massive human rights violations. During the coronavirus pandemic, Hungary was the only country in the EU to rely on China’s Sinopharm vaccine.
For the Chinese expert Matura, it is obvious that this is precisely the reason why Beijing chose Budapest as the seat of its new university: “In Berlin or in Paris, Fudan should have feared to undergo a political examination. Budapest is however a safe political space for China. No one will attack them, at least not while this government is in power. “
This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.