Media outlets hostile to Viktor Orbán’s government have been abuzz with condemnation since the Hungarian government announced its planned reform of university governance. On April 27, Hungarian Parliament voted for the transfer of formerly state-owned assets to independent foundations among condemnation from opposition and foreign media outlets.
Among those, the Associated Press has released a long editorial in which accusations of “deep state”, “cronyism” and “ideological control” are quoted as surrounding the reform. Critics are accusing the government of moving valuable university and blue chip company assets and shares worth billions of dollars into foundations run by Fidesz party loyalists, who will allegedly manage these funds to the benefit of the present Hungarian conservative political leadership.
One source, Bernadett Széll, a liberal opposition politician, was quoted in the AP article as saying that the move creates a “state within the state” in order to make the work of the next Hungarian government impossible. Yet, the article uncritically projects the opinion, according to which the current opposition will win the next parliamentary elections in 2022, which is by no means a certainty, if the most recent polls predicting a six-point lead for Fidesz are correct.
The AP article lines up other critical voices, such as that of Miklós Ligeti, director of Transparency International Hungary, or Zsolt Enyedi, a lecturer at Central European University, both institutions sponsored by George Soros’ Open Society Funds, a foundation known for its vocal criticism of the current Hungarian government and of conservative voices worldwide.
Previously, Orbán’s government has often been accused of using the state-sponsorship of universities as a means of meddling in university affairs, and it seems the government’s drive to separate academic institutions from direct government influence will not spare them from similar attacks in the future either.
In fact, the entire reform is designed to wean universities off any possible political influence and to grant them financial and academic independence to develop their own methods and goals. The newly introduced foundation model is a gold standard at Western, most notably, US universities, nevertheless Hungary has been subjected to criticism for adopting the same system by countless academic institutions from abroad.
The key to the reforms is not merely the need to change the antiquated model of financing higher education inherited from the Communist era, but what Prime Minister Orbán had called the expectation for universities to break out of their “mediocrity” and to bring their performance up to par with international standards. Indeed, according to the Time World University Ranking, even the best Hungarian university, the Ignác Semmelweis Medical University, is languishing only between the 400th and 500th place, and out of some 30 Hungarian universities, only four make it to the top 1000.
Opposition media outlets have been quick to single out any foundation committee members who were identified as allegedly pro-government. However, the government has been transparent in its approval of candidates for the positions and also in publishing their names. The list contains the names of high-profile business leaders, academics and public officials, most of whom have no previous history of involvement with any of the governing parties. Opposition journalists have also sensationally listed some of the salaries of the heads of the new university foundations, with the highest coming to around $3,000 to $4,000 per month, which is a fraction of what their Western counterparts earn. Most foundation commissioners, however, will fulfill their duties pro bono, yet they have also been accused of being beholden to the Orbán government.
Government Commissioner István Stumpf, who has been appointed to see through the reforms, has also spoken of the fact that even on a regional scale, Polish or Czech universities are well ahead of their Hungarian counterparts in their quality of research and education, a fact that is reflected in the international acceptance of their diplomas. Furthermore, despite accusations that the government is coercing universities into joining the new model of governance, Stumpf has emphasized that if any of these institutions were to request to be exempt from the scheme, the government is open for negotiations, and will not force them to change their present status.