Academic Freedom (or Lack Thereof) in Hungary

Giuseppe Bazzani: The Education of the Virgin //Public Domain
Giuseppe Bazzani: The Education of the Virgin //Public Domain

Hungary, a nation which once took pride on its vibrant scholarly achievements, finds itself entangled in a disheartening struggle concerning academic freedom in higher education today. The fundamental pillar of academic freedom, which allows for the exploration of diverse ideas, critical thinking, and intellectual progress, is under threat in this Central European country. The erosion of academic freedom in Hungary poses a significant challenge not only to the education system but also to the very essence of democracy and intellectual advancement.

Academic freedom is the cornerstone of a thriving educational environment, providing researchers, teachers, and students with the independence to pursue knowledge and engage in intellectual discourse without fear of censorship or political interference. It nurtures an atmosphere that promotes the unfettered exchange of ideas, challenges existing beliefs, and encourages the pursuit of truth. However, Hungary’s recent trajectory raises concerns regarding the preservation of this essential principle.

What Is Academic Freedom?

Academic freedom encompasses four distinct dimensions, each essential for fostering an environment of intellectual progress and free inquiry:

  1. The Freedom to Teach
    This entails the unrestricted ability of educators to impart scientifically sound and validated truths without any interference. It also includes their role in determining the curriculum, ensuring that educational content remains untainted by external influences.
  2. The Freedom to Research
    Scholars should have the autonomy to pursue research based on their own interests, free from any form of interference or suppression by political or commercial entities. This freedom allows for the exploration of new ideas, innovative discoveries, and the advancement of knowledge.
  3. The Freedom to Disseminate Knowledge
    Scholars should have the right to share their research findings and ideas through various professional and public platforms. This includes the freedom to publish research papers, present at conferences, and engage in public discourse, ensuring the open exchange of knowledge and ideas with society at large.
  4. The Freedom to Participate in Academic Governance
    Academics should have the opportunity to share their opinions on factors that influence the freedom to teach, research, and disseminate expert knowledge. This includes participating in the decision-making processes of academic institutions, contributing to the shaping of policies and practices that govern the academic community.

These four elements form the foundation of academic freedom, empowering scholars to engage in critical inquiry, contribute to societal progress, and uphold the integrity of higher education institutions.

However, with the path that Hungary is on, leading society further and further away from democracy, who knows how long any of the dimensions of academic freedom will last.

Academic Freedom from Legal Standpoint

Over the past decade, Hungary has experienced a steady decline in academic freedom. This decline has been marked by legislative changes, policies, and actions implemented by the government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party. These actions have cast a shadow over the country’s higher education institutions, raising alarming questions about the free expression of ideas and the autonomy of academics.

Hungarian legislation regarding academic freedom lacks explicit recognition and protection, leaving it vulnerable to the whims of political powers. The absence of legal safeguards compromises the ability of researchers and teachers to engage in independent thought and contribute to the advancement of knowledge. It also threatens the integrity of higher education institutions and the quality of education imparted to society.

The erosion of academic freedom in Hungary becomes apparent when examining the changes made to the Fundamental Law over the past decade and a half. Since Hungary’s regime change in 1989, three higher education acts have been enacted in 1993, 2005, and 2011, each with varying provisions governing academic freedom.

The Preamble Act of 1993 aimed to regulate the autonomy of higher education institutions and the state’s role in ensuring freedom in teaching, research, artistic creation, and learning. It thoroughly detailed all aspects of academic freedom, highlighting its importance.

The Act of 2005 reaffirmed the significance of academic freedom, emphasizing that it is achieved through the autonomy of higher education institutions. It outlined the educational, research, organizational, and financial autonomy of these institutions. However, it also introduced obligations related to the freedom of teaching.

The current Act in force since 2011, known as the Act on National Higher Education, omits the use of terms like “autonomy” and “freedom” entirely. It no longer references the freedom of teaching, research, learning, or their constitutional validity. Instead, it focuses on the nation’s spiritual and intellectual renewal.

Nonetheless, the 2011 Act includes some provisions on academic freedom. It acknowledges academics’ rights to teach based on their convictions, determine course content within the study program’s framework, and choose appropriate teaching methods. However, these provisions seem more limited compared to previous acts.

For instance, the previous acts explicitly recognized academics’ right to evaluate students, while the 2011 Act only requires them to teach and evaluate according to the accepted study program. The current act also lacks any confirmation of the right to conduct and disseminate research.

Moreover, previous acts stressed academics’ rights to conduct research on chosen topics, submit grant applications, and publish research results, whereas the new act omits such statements. The previous acts also acknowledged academics’ role in shaping the academic community and receiving substantive responses to their proposals. However, these provisions are absent from the current Act.

The table above shows the four categories of academic freedom that the acts should, in theory, cover. However, it becomes clear that as the act has been revised over the years, fewer components of academic freedom are formally included in legislations, putting institutions of higher education and the knowledge they produce at great risk.

Overall, the 2011 Act marks a significant deterioration in the statutory guarantees of academic freedom, as many of these safeguards have been removed, leaving a less favorable regulatory framework. This decline in academic freedom parallels Hungary’s broader trend of diminishing democratic values, as evidenced by recent events and policies.

While there have been revisions to Hungarian legislation, the freedoms that exist in academia are primarily granted to higher education institutions rather than individual researchers and teachers. This issue is particularly relevant in light of the recent inclusion of politicians on higher education boards, granting them influence over what can and cannot be discussed.

If institutions have the authority to limit the rights of academics in teaching or research, how can the Hungarian state ensure the freedom of education and research?

Recent Events in Hungary

One notable blow to academic freedom was the forced relocation of the Central European University (CEU) from Budapest to Vienna in 2019. This decision came as a result of the Hungarian government’s refusal to sign an agreement that would have allowed the university to continue offering its US-accredited programs within Hungary. The CEU, founded by George Soros, faced relentless pressure from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The new legislation specifically targeted CEU’s operations, imposing stricter regulations on foreign universities operating in Hungary.

The government-led attacks on Hungarian-born philanthropist, George Soros, have become a recurring theme in Hungary’s political landscape. Soros, an advocate for liberal thinking and research, has been systematically vilified by the Fidesz party, using him as a scapegoat to fuel nationalist sentiments and discredit critical voices. This rhetoric has seeped into academia, further eroding the freedom to engage in open discussions and explore diverse perspectives.

Pro-government media outlets frequently target activists, academics, programs, and institutions, often labeling them as ‘Soros agents’, including the CEU as an institution promoting ‘non-traditional’ values through some of its courses. Additionally, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA), which has a 200-year-old history, was stripped of its network of research institutions in 2019, with control transferred to a newly established governing body.

Furthermore, the reshaping of academic governance has left the last strongholds of academic integrity in Hungary penniless. While some universities- those heavily funded by the government- throw money at students and staff to produce ‘faithful servants’ of Hungary, other schools and universities had to close for the cold months due to not having the bare minimum resources needed to operate, including one of the most historic and prestigious Hungarian universities, ELTE.

Another concerning trend in Hungary is the appointment of government-linked politicians to university boards. These individuals, most of whom lack significant academic backgrounds, wield considerable power over the educational institutions they are entrusted to govern. This practice raises questions about the balance of power and the erosion of academic decision-making processes, potentially leading to the prioritization of political interests over educational excellence.

The implications of these developments extend beyond symbolic gestures. The presence of politically aligned figures in key positions can influence the direction and content of academic programs, stifling critical thinking and limiting intellectual exploration. Universities, once bastions of independent thought, are increasingly compelled to align themselves with Fidesz’s agenda, further compromising academic freedom. The government has already revoked accreditation from all gender studies programs and similar programs that heavily interfere with Orbán’s ideologies.

The increasingly one-sided and strictly confined nature of academic freedom in Hungary not only presents concerns in scholarly environments, but trickles down to cultural and social sectors of everyday life. The entire society is experiencing a lack of freedom, access to certain information, and constant ideological propaganda.

Alongside academia, media too, is heavily controlled by the government, as is the freedom of journalism, slowly breaking the backbone of Hungarian democracy.

European Union’s Response

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the European Union (EU) responded to Hungary’s actions by freezing over €12 billion and imposing consequences, specifically addressing government-linked politicians holding seats on university boards. In December 2022, the European Commission decided to halt legal commitments with public interest trusts under Hungarian law and the entities they maintain, leveraging financial measures to hold Hungary accountable.

In light of the ongoing economic contraction and a significant inflation rate of 24% in April 2023, the Hungarian government has introduced a judicial reform aimed at securing EU funding.

EU officials have indicated that this reform has the potential to unlock approximately €13 billion of cohesion funds. However, they emphasized that apart from the technical evaluation, the European Commission will also need to consider the political implications of allocating funds to Hungary.

Nevertheless, the remaining  €22 Billion in cohesion funds continue to be withheld not only due to the violation of academic independence in Hungarian universities, but also due to concerns related to democratic backsliding, the implementation of a “child protection law” widely criticized as homophobic, and Hungary’s treatment of asylum seekers.

In addition, Hungary is awaiting €5.8 billion in grants and €6.6 billion in cheap EU loans as part of the recovery fund. However, to access these funds, the country must successfully meet 27 conditions or ‘super milestones’.

The EU’s decision to freeze funds serves as a clear message to Hungary that actions undermining academic freedom and democracy will not be tolerated any longer. By linking financial consequences to the protection of democratic values, the EU aims to encourage Hungary to reevaluate its policies and recover academic freedom within the country.

Furthermore, the 2019 reform of university governance in Hungary has resulted in significant deviations from European norms in terms of the composition of boards of trustees for public interest trusts, thereby thwarting the autonomy of Hungarian universities.

However, the European University Association (EUA) is committed to playing a constructive role in bridging the gap between university governance in Hungary and European standards by proposing concrete changes.

One key recommendation is to grant the university community a formal role in the selection of trustees, whose terms should also be limited, contrary to the current practice. The decision-making rights on key academic matters should unequivocally be in the hands of the university senate, rather than members of politics.

Hungary and the United States: Partners in Crime?

As an autocrat, Orbán and his party are threatened by the sheer existence of institutions that bolster free thinking. Ideologies that do not align with government propaganda risk the collapse of the entire structure Orbán built for himself.

Hungary, unfortunately, is not the only country experiencing strict regulations on the freedom of academia. With the rise of polarization, right-wing populism, and democratic backsliding, imperils to democracies can be spotted globally, and the United States stands out as a striking example.

While Donald Trump’s presidency ended in 2020, several like-minded individuals within the Republican party continue to target academic freedom. Much like in Hungary, The United States has proven to censor, restrict, and even ban content that can be taught in education.

These attacks on academic freedom are predominantly concentrated in the American South and other Republican stronghold states. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has spearheaded the controversial ‘Stop W.O.K.E. Act’, or ‘Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees’ which has become a focal point of concerns regarding academic freedom. The legislation’s language is broad and ambiguous, mirroring similar laws in different parts of the country. Essentially, it prohibits teachers and professors from discussing “divisive concepts” like Critical Race Theory (CRT) and gender identity across all grade levels or as courses at university.

Though the act was not fully passed as it breached the 10th and 14th amendments, the implications are far-reaching: public schools and universities risk the loss of federal funding, teachers could face dismissals, and universities resort to self-censorship if they do not adhere to the republican ‘agenda’.

Even without legal enactment, politics have a clear effect on the course and nature of academic freedom.

Similarly, in March 2022, DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill, which has implications for parental involvement in educational matters, particularly regarding LGTBQ+ topics. The legislation has been dubbed as the ‘Don’t say Gay’ bill.

Inside the contents of the bill, Florida schools are to be prohibited from, “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.

As a political strategy, equally seen in Hungarian legislation, the bill uses ambiguous language to blur what constitutes as ‘developmentally appropriate’ or a classroom ‘instruction’, leaving educators uncertain about the extent of permissible discussions in classrooms.

The parallels between Hungary and the United States- or Florida, in this case- are clear as day. The governing philosophy in Hungary, too, does not only apply to the higher education sphere.

The entirety of the education system has been restructured to limit the freedom of teachers and students as much as possible, inserting government ideologies into school curricula of all ages.

This is why, among other factors, Hungary is facing the largest and longest lasting wave of education protests in its history. Similar trends can be seen in Florida’s ‘Don’t say Gay’ bill, where curricula content from as young as kindergarten are being altered by the government- not experienced academics- to implement their ‘philosophy’ as early on as possible.

Many say these acts are the ‘Orbánization of America’ as they echo Hungary’s ‘Child Protection Law’ that came about in 2020, which in Orbán’s eyes are designed to protect children from gender ideology in schools and reinforce former ‘Christian’ family protection measures. As Orbán is adored by American Conservatives, it is no surprise that DeSantis has been following his political footsteps in signing discriminatory bills similar to those seen in recent Hungary.

Is the Future of Academic Freedom Dead?

The current situation in Hungary could be immensely improved by changing the legal framework. The limits on teaching and research activities might be avoided or held responsible if the law explicitly declared academic freedom and who is entitled to this right, and within which framework it would be included in the Fundamental Law on higher education.

It should, however, be mentioned that in practice (not necessarily in legislation), the four pillars of academic freedom are not equally absent. While the freedom to participate in academic governance is absolutely not ensured, scholars are generally still allowed to research and publish subject matters that may otherwise go against Fidesz’s ideological agenda. The government uses a top-down control on academia and seriously discriminates in funding, but as of now, freedom of speech in academic terms is more or less still visible.

Yet, as the Hungarian government tightens its grip on educational institutions, suppresses dissenting voices, and influences seat-holders on universities boards, to name a few, such actions not only impede the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual development but also erode the very foundations of a democratic society.

The recent events in the United States resonate with Hungary’s decline in academic freedom, where legislative changes and targeted actions have stifled free thinking and curtailed intellectual discourse. It quickly becomes apparent that the erosion of this essential right transcends national borders and demands a unified global effort to defend the principles of open inquiry.

Therefore, in order to keep democracy at the heart of a successfully functioning state, the right to teach, research, produce and disseminate knowledge must be upheld with all its liberties.

Continue exploring:

Why Have 300,000 Poles Taken to Streets of Warsaw? [PODCAST]

Being Female (Politician) in Hungary – Contract for Never-Ending Obstacle Race

Lili Magyar
Republikon Institute