Independent thinking under attack from nationalists

The Hungarian government has tabled an amendment to the higher education law aimed at restricting the activity of foreign-funded universities. This legislation is perceived as a direct existential threat to one university that has successfully functioned in the region for the last quarter of a century: Central European University or CEU.

CEU is an extremely important institution in rebuilding democratic thought in Central and Eastern Europe. Its importance goes beyond Hungary and as such, the danger it faces is important to the global community.

If enacted, the legislation would require CEU to open a campus in the state of New York in the United States (where all of its programmes are registered, but where it does not operate), would stop CEU from issuing US degrees to its graduates, and would impose work permit vetting by the Hungarian government on CEU faculty from outside the European Union (who are now exempt from these procedures) and preclude CEU from working under its present name.

These are not measures aimed at quality assurance but in fact administrative measures aimed at shutting down international education, which the Hungarian government cannot influence.

Universities as threats to ruling parties in democracies

Governments often treat universities in the same way they treat political opposition. This is because, by design, universities foster debate and dissent, and they provide students with tools for political and civic participation. Democratic governments perceive this kind of activity as a healthy and worthy challenge.

When debate and dissent are promoted by universities in places with non-democratic governments, such governments perceive this as a threat. Worryingly, the trend of seeing universities as threats is emerging among governments in localities generally deemed democratic.

Hungary in Central Europe is one such example. But, interestingly, a parallel with the state of Wisconsin in the US cannot be ignored. In Wisconsin, a right-wing governor and legislature turned on traditionally liberal institutions, including universities. Cutting public funding and limiting other sources of revenue have been the main mechanisms to diminish the influence of public universities.

Such policies are implemented through two channels. First, direct legislation and appropriations by the state government, and second, through political appointments within university governance structures. In Wisconsin, this happens through gubernatorial appointments to the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s higher education system.

The Hungarian government has employed similar tactics to steer the activities of universities in that country.

According to the report Education Policy Outlook, Hungary, the adoption of the amendment in 2014 of the Act CCIV on National Higher Education gave the prime minister the power to appoint a chancellor with executive financial responsibilities to each university.

Similarly, the 2015 Act on National Higher Education delegated strategic planning for medium- and long-term institutional goals to a university-level governance body, the majority of which is comprised of representatives of the national government.

Cuts to university budgets have also been implemented. While such policies have made it possible in Hungary to allow the national government a tighter grip on university operations, they have been ineffective at steering the direction of CEU, an institution with an independent and international Board of Trustees and with financial independence from the Hungarian government.

As such, the current proposed amendments to the Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education represent a targeted attempt to influence the one university in the country immune to traditional tools of influence.

The legislative proposals in Hungary could be interpreted as quality assurance mechanisms for cross-border higher education programmes. However, when they directly threaten the continued operations of a university known for its research excellence and which is very successful in securing competitive research grants from across the globe, this justification is not plausible.

In the case of both Wisconsin and Hungary, such policies have been coupled with the vilification of universities and a rhetoric of anti-elitism during electoral campaigns. In Hungary, such discourse takes the added form of nationalistic sentiment, where foreign influence, including in the form of external funding, is frowned upon.

Notably, Hungary will have its next parliamentary election in 2018. Additionally, with the election of President Donald Trump in the US, it is less likely that diplomatic pressure from CEU’s US stakeholders will be exerted on the Hungarian government to reverse its proposal. However, the intellectual and academic communities in the US and Europe should be very much involved.

Attack on academic freedom

Public funds to universities have been reduced in many countries around the world – often for good reasons – and this is not in itself an indicator of the kind of attack on universities that most concerns us here. But the coupling of funding cuts with attempts to penetrate institutional governance structures and a rise in anti-elite public discourse is indicative of a deeper problem.

Academic freedom and institutional autonomy are fundamental to the healthy functioning of higher education institutions; they should not be hijacked by political agendas, be they from the right or from the left.

CEU is undoubtedly crucial to Central and Eastern Europe. It offers students in the region unprecedented access to academic excellence. It helps safeguard democracy in light of recent authoritarian tendencies in the region. It creates a body of knowledge that speaks almost exclusively to the social and economic challenges of the region through its research contributions.

CEU is resilient enough to survive these unfavourable conditions (possibly in a different country), but its targeting by the Hungarian government is an alarming action against academic freedom and political debate.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of any affiliated institutions.

Georgiana Mihut is a PhD candidate in higher education at Boston College and a research assistant with the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, USA. She attended the Central European University as an exchange student in 2009 and 2012. Georgiana can be reached at Daniela Craciun is a PhD candidate at the Central European University where she is pursuing a PhD in the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations. Daniela can be reached at