Integration, the theme of the European political project, has also underpinned efforts to establish a single European Higher Education Area. As in music, integration is a constantly recurring theme in politics, strongly associated with the liberal democratic discourse.
Nowadays, a new political symphony is playing out that seems to resonate with audiences across many countries. These ‘new’ tunes, building on ideas of authoritarianism, populism and nativism, call into question the need for and possibility of further integration and even contest the sustainability of the European Union.
Considering these political developments, it’s necessary to ask if there is dissonance between past policies and more recent governmental actions in the field of higher education. More specifically, are the virtues of higher education internationalisation, which were spelled out in an era of predominantly neoliberal thinking, challenged by this new political reality?
Political changes in the world
Despite years of economic, cultural, social and political integration in Europe, divisions between people, particularly over political issues, seem to be more notable in the present environment.
Such schisms are based on a broad variety of defining characteristics, from geographical differences (urban versus rural populations) to educational level (the highly educated versus uneducated) to age (Millennials versus the post-war baby boom generation) to values (multiculturalism versus protectionism).
It is difficult to speak about the value of international education in such a political and social environment, especially considering that internationalisation is more easily associated with a cosmopolitan outlook on the world rather than with a nationalist one.
Thus, internationalisation of higher education might be labelled as a policy preference that is in the interest of only one side and not the other.
For the past few decades, there was a strong belief in Europe that more integration would generate positive externalities, whether in terms of economic returns, cultural and social development or political stability.
In the wake of global challenges, such as the 2008 financial crisis and the still ongoing refugee crisis, the risks and flaws that accompany integration have come to the forefront of political debates. Some would argue that integration made European societies dysfunctional and contributed to a feeling of powerlessness in dealing with global challenges.
In many cases, these criticisms served as a pretext for a backlash against the European Union, or EU, and its institutions.
Far-right political alternatives have gathered strength in Austria, Denmark, France, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. One of the commonalities among such political alternatives is their criticism of further integration and their search for isolationist solutions.
This unfolding political reality doesn’t seem to fit well with some of the core principles of contemporary higher education. Intellectual activity is becoming increasingly global through collaborations and partnerships amongst academics and researchers from various countries.
The same is true for student mobility, as the number of students pursuing their studies in another EU country has almost doubled in the past decade.
It seems that internationalisation of higher education offers benefits that are no longer limited by national boundaries. Considering this, an important question arises: Can the virtues of higher education internationalisation remain unchallenged in times of rising protectionism across European countries? The current situation in Hungary offers a compelling context for considering this question.
Policy changes in Hungary
Since 2010, Hungary has been governed by Fidesz, a centre-right political party. Jan-Werner Müller has referred to this as a ‘tragedy’, due to the government’s non-conformist policies that frequently challenge the legitimacy of rules and regulations of the EU in several policy areas.
If anything, one can argue that the case of Hungary illustrates well the argument that the EU is no longer perceived as a viable multilateral instrument. The negative personification of ‘Brussels’ not only proves this point, but can also be seen as a process by the Hungarian government to take back control over nationally important policy areas.
In the words of the Hungarian prime minister, Hungary is in a struggle to “defend the country’s sovereignty” and establish an “illiberal democracy” as an alternative to the dominant political model.
Illiberal political regimes have their own views on how higher education should be run. Most noticeable, in the case of Hungary, is the government’s intervention in the area of institutional autonomy.
In 2014, Hungary introduced the position of chancellors at publicly funded higher education institutions. Chancellors are university officers appointed by the government. The official aim of the policy is to make the financial management of public universities more efficient.
In practice, this has meant the separation of academic tasks, for which the university rector remains responsible, from financial, legal and organisational tasks, over which the chancellor takes responsibility. The policy was reinforced in 2015 through the introduction of consistories, advisory bodies delegated by the minister responsible for educational matters, whose consent is needed for strategic decisions with financial implications in public higher education institutions.
These recent examples show that the Hungarian government has not been idle when it comes to establishing more direct control over its higher education sector and restructuring university autonomy.
Internationalisation of Hungary’s higher education
A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD, noted that “governments need to decide whether or not they want to participate in a more globalised approach to higher education”. This statement implies that governments have the option to opt out from the internationalisation of higher education.
However, it is presumed that internationalisation, at its basis, inevitably creates an ever-greater interdependence between the more or less distinct national higher education systems of today.
It would be risky to assume that the current political shifts foreshadow the end of higher education internationalisation. Instead, it is much more plausible that a new rationale for the internationalisation of higher education will emerge. Where better to look for it than in Hungary?
Attracting foreign students is the top priority of many internationalisation policies and is also the first step towards internationalising an institution. This has long been an important policy objective in Hungary and was reaffirmed in the higher education strategy adopted by the country’s government in 2015.
Since 1990 the total number of international students in Hungary has risen continuously; in 2016 this figure amounted to 23,038 (8.88% of all students in Hungary).
The government strategy set the objective to further increase the number of international students to 40,000 by 2020. This is expected to be achieved by increasing the number of English-language programmes offered by Hungarian higher education institutions, especially with the help of the Stipendium Hungaricum Scholarship Programme.
Launched in 2013 by the Hungarian government, the programme is based on bilateral cooperation agreements and is expected to attract approximately 4,000 international students to begin their studies in Hungary in the 2017-18 academic year.
Another important aspect of higher education internationalisation that was strongly emphasised in the government’s strategy concerns collaborations and partnerships among researchers as well as memberships in international networks. The strategy recognises the importance of supporting the international visibility and competitiveness of Hungary’s research community, especially when it comes to attracting European research grants.
These two examples demonstrate that internationalisation will likely remain a defining characteristic of the Hungarian higher education system. Moreover, it reveals the government’s opportunistic approach in supporting international competition for students and research grants despite its simultaneous effort to contest European integration and liberal values.
Indeed, the policy rationale is strongly tied to the ability of internationalisation to generate additional financial revenues. While this is not a new argument, it has certainly become one of the main justifications for higher education internationalisation in Hungary.
Central European University’s role and example
In some cases, official political strategies can come into conflict with other parallel nationalist narratives. This is well demonstrated by the case of the Central European University, which has been taken hostage by the ideological agenda of the Hungarian government.
The Central European University or CEU, which began its 27th academic year earlier this month, is a unique institution in many ways. First, the university is a non-profit, private organisation registered in the United States. This enables it to operate somewhat autonomously from the Hungarian government, even if many of its programmes are also accredited in Hungary.
Second, the university is international by design. It offers 48 English-language study programmes and attracts several hundred foreign students every year to Hungary.
In fact, it belongs to a very small group of European universities where more than 80% of students enrolled come from other countries. The university’s faculty and staff are equally international. This heavily international environment makes diversity an everyday experience at CEU.
Another important virtue of CEU is its commitment to universal values. The university feels strongly about its mission, which is anchored in the desire to build open and democratic societies. Such values manifest themselves in the way CEU responds to global problems locally.
For example, a new initiative of the university seeks to further the opportunities of registered refugees in Hungary by offering them weekend courses and a non-degree preparatory programme.
The university is also keen on building bridges between its international outlook and the needs of the local community. Through its civic engagement office, CEU faculty and students collaborate and share their knowledge and expertise with Hungarian society, be it in the public, private or non-profit sector.
Last but not least, CEU recently initiated a series of public lectures and discussions to rethink its own mission. The sessions featured leading thinkers from around the world who explored pathways for maintaining open minds and open frontiers in a time when political forces of exclusion are in the ascendant in the world and in Hungary.
The Hungarian government has proposed and adopted an amendment to its higher education law that discriminatively targets CEU and undermines the university’s continuous operation in Hungary. There is no clear rationale for this political decision, but some describe it as an attempt to close a window into the liberal democratic world.
The policy could also foreshadow a new approach to internationalisation under national terms, because it fails to recognise the contribution that CEU, as an autonomous international university, makes to this process.
Lessons to learn
Although universities have a good ear for societal changes, they need to understand what they are hearing. The case of Hungary demonstrates that there can indeed be dissonance between right-wing policies and some of the basic principles of higher education.
Even though the current Hungarian government seems able to reconcile its desire for increased student mobility and academic cooperation in the field of higher education with nationalistic tunes, some principles – and even entire institutions – can easily fall victim to right-wing political agendas.
Central European University is itself a cultural mosaic where students from different countries and ethnic backgrounds cohabit a shared environment. The university promotes universal values, such as the respect for human rights and human dignity, the need for deliberation and self-reflective critical thinking, and the freedom of inquiry, all of which enable students to thrive and learn from true diversity.
These values have been embedded in the institution’s mission to promote an open society, which has come to the forefront of political disputes in Hungary.
At the moment, it is unclear whether CEU will be able to remain in Hungary without sacrificing these virtues or fearing future political retribution. Moreover, it is debatable whether removing one of the finest instruments from the higher education orchestra in Hungary will create more national harmony.
Norbert Sabic is strategic planning assistant at the Central European University in Hungary. This article was originally published in the 2017 Conference Conversation Starter, a yearly publication focusing on the ‘mosaic of cultures’ theme of the 29th Annual Conference and Exhibition of the European Association for International Education or EAIE, held in Seville in Spain from 12-15 September. The publication features essays that illuminate the past and present challenges shaping the future of international education.
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