Democracy and academic freedom – the Hungarian example

Over two days in October, members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ class for humanities and for outstanding services to science, including the undersigned, visited several scientific institutions in Budapest.

We held discussions with the leaders of the Central European University (CEU), for Institute for Advanced Study (IAS – formerly Collegium Budapest) and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA), with representatives of a leading state-run university, the Eötvös Loránd University, and with individual researchers. Our goal was to gather information about increasing threats to academic freedom.

These threats had already received attention because of the Hungarian government’s treatment of CEU and MTA, and its decision to abolish all education in gender studies at state-run universities. Freedom House gave Hungary a score of 2/4 for academic freedom in 2018. The same low score was also given for freedom of the press (free and independent media), transparency in the exercise of government, independence of the judiciary and opportunities for NGOs to work freely, which are vital elements of an open democracy.

Prior to our departure, we and the leadership of the Academy of Sciences held a meeting in Stockholm with the Hungarian Minister for Innovation and Technology, László Palkovics, who heads the Ministry for Innovation and Technology (ITM). He has been a driving force in reshaping Hungary’s academic landscape. This meeting took place because of a critical letter the Academy sent to Palkovics in the summer of 2018, as a reaction to the initial restrictions on the MTA.

Palkovics’ task was to reassure us. His primary message was that the worry about the developments in Hungary was unfounded, that we had been misled by reports in hostile media and that academic freedom in Hungary remained secure.

We were not reassured, because this contradicted what we already knew. What follows is partially based on what we learned during our visit.

Central European University (CEU)

The CEU was founded on the initiative of a number of Eastern European researchers and intellectuals after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. The main idea was that educating new generations of students in a free university would promote democratic development in Eastern Europe. The project received financial support from the Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros. CEU started its activities in 1991 with campuses in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, but later only in Budapest. It has its legal domicile in the US and issues degrees with American accreditation.

CEU has successfully educated several generations of students and is the Hungarian institution that has won the most European research funding. Despite this, CEU has been a thorn in the side of Victor Orbán’s government and the Fidesz political party. Why? Probably partly because CEU is strongly associated with Soros (it is often called “Soros University” in the government’s propaganda), who has been depicted as an enemy of the Hungarian people, partly because CEU accommodated refugees on its premises during the 2015 refugee crisis, and partly because CEU has a gender studies programme. However, most likely, it is primarily because CEU conducts research and education that the regime has no control over.

The attacks on CEU began in March 2017, with a proposed amendment to the law on higher education. According to this amendment, every foreign-operated higher education institute in Hungary should have educational activities in its home country, and have its Hungarian operations based on an agreement between Hungary and its home country. This proposal only affected CEU, because the new conditions were already fulfilled by the other education providers in Hungary. A carefully planned coincidence.

The proposal aroused a wave of national and international protests, with demands for retraction from many internationally leading universities, as well as from the US Congress. In Sweden, the Academy of Sciences and the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF) protested. Despite the wave of protests, the amendment was passed in April 2017. Continued protests from the European Parliament had no effect.

Meanwhile, CEU tried to fulfil the new conditions and signed a new agreement with the New York-based Bard College for cooperation in the state of New York. An agreement was drawn up between the state and Hungary and signed by Governor Cuomo. The proposed agreement was on Orbán’s table in the autumn of 2017, but was not signed. No official reason was provided.

As a consequence of the new law and the lack of an agreement, CEU had the right to admit new students repealed on 1 January 2019. In 2018, CEU started to establish a campus in Vienna and move its primary operations there. As a New York-based independent university, CEU is being driven out of Hungary.

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA)

The MTA was founded in 1825 as a learned society. Essentially, it existed in this form until the 1950s, when it was tasked with conducting research at institutes of its own. In 1994, after the fall of the Communist regime, the MTA’s status was regulated through a special academy law that guaranteed the MTA full autonomy and funding through the state budget, both for the academy as a society and for its network of 15 research institutes. This independence was maintained until 2018.

In June 2018, Minister Palkovics presented a proposal to the MTA for taking over the funding of the research network from MTA, and in September it was proposed that its institutes would be placed under government control. The motivation was that research at the institutes needed to be more efficient. According to the proposal, the institutes would also be completely funded through tenders and project applications, with no basic budget.

The MTA rejected the proposal and stated that, on the contrary, the institutes’ results were excellent. Compared to other national research networks, such as the French CNRS, the MTA was at the top vis-à-vis publications in relation to budget size. Compared to other Hungarian universities and research units, seven of the MTA’s institutes were among the top twelve in Hungary in terms of EU funding (Horizon 2020). This presentation of the Academy’s research, and Hungarian research in general, as being weak was misleading. Partly, Palkovics did not take account of the size of the research budget, partly the number of registered patents was used as a measure of success, thus confusing development with basic research.

During the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2019, the MTA and Palkovics negotiated the Academy’s future, but differences of opinion remained. In June, the government proposed a new academy law, under which the research institutes would be removed from the MTA and placed under a new authority, the ELKH. The board of this authority is appointed by the prime minister. The MTA and researchers in the network only have the right to nominate candidates. In practice, the network will be governed by a director appointed by the prime minister.  Funding, both of the MTA and the institutions, remains unclear, but what is clear is that the MTA has undergone massive cutbacks, in addition to those motivated by the separation, and that only a small part of the institutes’ budget is guaranteed through basic funding. The law was adopted by parliament in July this year. The MTA believes that the reform contravenes the 1994 law and has appealed to the Constitutional Court of Hungary.

The result of the new law is that the MTA retains its nominal independence, but does so with a substantially reduced budget and reduced influence over research in Hungary. Control of the institutes’ research has been entirely transferred to the government. The minister has promised to boost the research budget, but it is unclear whether this will be implemented and even more unclear whom this would benefit. Because the institutes are forced into an application procedure for obtaining funding, in which the decision is taken by a governmental body, the regime has acquired an instrument for removing unwanted researchers by cutting off their funding.  It is communicated to the researchers that the budget may be strengthened if they “behave right” (but this is not further specified).

Academic freedom, transparency and state funding

Placing the MTA’s research institutes under state control is not in itself a breach of academic freedom; the freedom the institutes will have entirely depends on how the regime chooses to use its new tools. However, their independence has been lost and the closure of programmes in gender studies, among many other things, gives reason for great concern about the future.

Nor is it a given that the legal measures against the CEU should be counted as a breach of academic freedom. The European Commission took Hungary to the European Court for this, among other things, but had to withdraw this particular item because the concept of academic freedom was not considered adequately defined. Instead, the measures were counted as breaches of the freedom of business and education. Provost Liviu Matei at CEU told our group that arriving at a new definition of academic freedom is an urgent task for European researchers and legislators, for better legal protection in the future.

The representatives of CEU and the MTA and its research institutes that we talked with were all outspoken and openly critical of the Orbán regime and Minister Palkovics. The atmosphere was entirely different at our meeting with the representatives of a large state-run university; they were extremely careful in their statements and preferred to avoid talking about the regime. However, it was still obvious that they were very worried about the future. The entire state higher education system has recently been transferred to the ITM and its head, Palkovics. At the university, they did not yet know what this would entail and were still waiting for the first new guidelines.

Many observers regard the state-run universities as seriously underfunded, with low salaries for lecturers and researchers, despite Hungary’s generally good economic development. The Public Funding Observatory Report 2018, from the European Universities Association, shows a fall, after Orbán came to power, of almost 30%, in the share of GNP from 2010 to among the lowest in Europe (0.41%) in 2014. From 2014 to 2017 there was an increase to almost the same level as 2010, which is still clearly below the EU average. Still, a great deal of money disappeared from the system during these years.

We do not know where this trend is heading, but some critics believe that the decline was deliberate and aimed at reducing the general level of education. In support, they can cite a statement from 2012 (Times Higher Education, “The state of higher education in Hungary”, 2017), where Orbán said that the education system produces people with useless knowledge but not enough truck drivers and assembly workers.

Some critics link the declining funding for public activities more generally (a reduction of almost 4 percentage points of GNP since 2015, according to Eurostat) with the growing corruption in recent years. In 2018, Transparency International gave Hungary a score of 46/100 for transparency, compared to Sweden’s 86/100 and Austria’s 76/100. According to GAN Compliance, it is very common for public procurement to benefit companies that are loyal to Fidesz.

Some critics also maintain that corruption is not only a societal phenomenon, but a deliberate strategy, citing a newspaper interview from December 2018. In the interview, the rector of Corvinus University, András Lánczi, known as an Orbán ally and an ideologist for Fidesz, said that what others regard as corruption is a deliberate strategy for building up a strong entrepreneurial class.

All of this has created an atmosphere of threats to Hungary’s research community. In a survey of researchers in the former MTA network, 79% said they are considering leaving Hungary or their research career. These thoughts are also found among researchers at the state-run universities. In the spring of 2019, Károly Tákacs, sociologist at Corvinus University, moved his European research funding (Consolidator) from Corvinus to Linköping University
In a written motivation for his move, Tákacs cites the attacks on the CEU and MTA, as well as targeted campaigns in government-friendly media against named sociologists, and pure censorship. According to Tákacs, an entire special edition of a sociological journal was retracted after it was published on the internet, and the editorial board was fired. For Tákacs, his move was not only a protest against the developments in Hungary, but also a means of ensuring the project’s completion.

News about this was commented on by the Fidesz government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács ,
who included the words, “This topic never gets old, but we should keep some things straight: The state has the freedom to decide on the direction and priorities for state-funded research, and that doesn’t impinge upon academic freedom.”

Hungary, Sweden and the world

If concerns about restrictions on academic and intellectual freedom were enough reason to travel, unfortunately there would now be many countries to visit, not only Hungary, but also Poland, Russia, the US, China, Brazil and many more.

For example, Greece would deserve a visit due to the political persecution of economist and statistician Andreas Georgiou, former head of ELSTAT, the Greek equivalent of Statistics Sweden. He stubbornly delivered the correct statistics on Greece’s financial situation despite possibly negative political effects.  This led to court action that is still ongoing and which has already given him a prison term.

However, we can also see growing threats to academic freedom in Sweden. A few years ago, the Sweden Democrats proposed reducing annual funding for the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute by SEK 11 million because the agency spreads “climate propaganda”.

We are witnessing a global movement for the dissemination of what Victor Orbán has called “illiberal democracy”. This is a movement in which attacks on free speech and demands for allegiance to specific values, such as the nation, religion and the family, are threatening to be the first steps on the route to abolishing the rest of what remains of democracy. The defence of academic freedom is vital to slowing, and preferably stopping, this dangerous trend.


Arne Jarrick and Peter Pagin
Members of the Academy’s class for humanities and for outstanding services to science