Can EU sanctions threat ease academic freedom crisis?

The European University Association (EUA) has condemned the Hungarian government’s attempts to interfere with academic freedom and the autonomy of the higher education sector, “with the risk that it becomes an instrument of government”.

The criticism comes days before the European Parliament is due to debate a motion calling on the European Council to determine the “existence of a clear risk of a serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the [European] Union is founded”.

If passed by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) – the vote is expected on Wednesday – the motion could be a first step towards triggering Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which calls for sanctions against the party violating the fundamental values and could ultimately lead to suspension of voting rights in the European Council.

The motion’s appendix cites as evidence concern over the erosion of academic freedom, as well as other freedoms of expression and association; the rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees; the functioning of the electoral system; and the independence of the judiciary.

According to Michael Gaebel, the director of the EUA’s Higher Education Policy Unit, the organisation is concerned about the impact on higher education in Hungary of:
  • • Academics being portrayed in the pro-government media as traitors and intimidated.

  • • The protracted uncertainty over whether the Central European University (CEU) can continue to operate in Hungary as a foreign university.

  • • A government move against the Hungarian Academy of Sciences putting it at risk of losing its autonomy and funding.

  • • A government attempt to ban gender studies programmes at universities.

  • • Government restrictions on the work of anybody working in the field of immigration, which have led CEU to suspend its EU funded programme on migration policy.
Gaebel told University World News last week: “Evidently the higher education sector is also concerned by measures targeted more broadly at civil society, such as the proposed refugee tax.”

The MEPs’ motion cites as a concern the government’s introduction of stringent rules coupled with strict deadlines and severe legal consequences for foreign universities that are already established in Hungary and have been lawfully operating there for many years. It says this intervention appears “highly problematic from the standpoint of the rule of law and fundamental rights principles and guarantees”.

The motion says universities and their students are protected by domestic and international rules on academic freedom, the freedom of expression and assembly and the right to, and freedom of, education, and recommended that the Hungarian authorities ensure that new rules should be applied in a “non-discriminatory and flexible manner, without jeopardising the quality and international character of education already provided by existing universities”.

It also cites the concluding observations of the UN Human Rights Committee on 5 April 2018 that there has been a “lack of a sufficient justification for the imposition of such constraints on the freedom of thought, expression and association, as well as academic freedom”.

On 7 December 2017, the European Commission decided to refer Hungary to the Court of Justice of the European Union on the grounds that reform of the 2011 National Tertiary Education law disproportionately restricted universities in their operations and ran counter to the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business.

Programmes suspended

The most recent example of restrictions imposed on universities was the announcement in late August that the CEU had been forced to suspend its education programmes for registered refugees and asylum seekers, the Open Learning Initiative (OLIve), and the administration of its EU-funded Marie Curie research grant on migration policy in Central and Southern Europe.

The university said it had been forced to take this action in response to Hungarian legislation in respect of refugees and immigration which came into effect on 24 August.

“CEU’s action follows advice from our tax advisors in respect of potential liability for a 25% levy on our immigration-related programmes. We are suspending these programmes while we await clarification of our tax and legal situation,” CEU said.

This was despite the OLIve programmes having provided educational training only for persons legally admitted to Hungary.

“We are proud of this work and of our research on refugee and migration issues in Europe and will seek all possible ways to continue this work in future,” CEU said in a press statement posted on its website.

Gender studies programmes

The suspension of the refugees and asylum seekers programme came a few weeks after another controversy was sparked when Gergely Gulyás, minister in the Hungarian Prime Minister’s office, announced that from September the government would no longer fund or accredit gender studies programmes.

“The state does not wish to finance [these] educational activities,” Science Business reported him saying. He argued that the low number of students enrolled in the programmes “may be a powerful argument for terminating them”.

Only two universities were running gender programmes: CEU, which has enrolled 200 students on the course and has awarded 129 masters degrees in the past decade; and Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), which began its programme last year so has not produced any graduates yet.

CEU condemned the “unfounded” attack on this multi-disciplinary, internationally recognised, academic field “which produces intellectually and socially relevant knowledge and which has been taught at our university for well over a decade”.

The university said in a statement: “Our graduates are exceptionally successful at finding employment in the international job market. Eliminating the programme would be a loss to the Hungarian scholarly community and would further limit academic freedom in the country. CEU is committed to continuing teaching its gender studies programmes.”

Gaebel told University World News the EUA is concerned that the ban on gender studies went ahead without consulting the two universities which are running such programmes.

“The formal reason for the ban is that graduates would not find employment. But as graduates of CEU usually do, and ELTE has just started the programme last year, there is no real evidence for this claim. There have also been voices from the government stating clearly that the programme does not align ideologically,” he said.

“This is about the autonomy and academic freedom of higher education institutions, which is a condition for them being able to continue to operate. But we also need to recognise that the higher education sector is being exposed to pressures that other parts of society are facing.”

He said this type of clampdown on freedoms hasn’t been seen in any other EU country. “It is unprecedented,” he said.

But it is also the first time in history that the European Parliament has decided to write a report investigating the need to trigger an Article 7 procedure.

Gaebel believes that, with a number of the restrictions affecting higher education still awaiting a decision, and, precisely because Hungary is part of the EU, “there is a chance [to change the situation] and we hope the government responds positively. Let’s see also what the European Parliament decides next week.”