Universities warned that EU can’t save them from populists

Authoritarian populist governments prevent bloc from taking action to protect academic freedom, say scholars

October 29, 2018
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Individual struggle: academics need to stand up for themselves and should not hunker down in the assumption that anti-intellectual political movements will blow over

The European Union is now too full of authoritarian populist governments to be relied upon to take action against the Hungarian government for forcing the Central European University out of Budapest, scholars have been warned.

Instead, academics need to stand up for themselves and should not hunker down in the assumption that anti-intellectual political movements will simply blow over, according to the head of a body representing Europe’s scholarly academies.

In an announcement on 25 October, the long-threatened CEU said that it would have to start teaching new students at a campus in Vienna next academic year unless the Hungarian government signed a last-ditch agreement before December to let it continue as a US-accredited institution.

The move would mark defeat for the institution despite 18 months of struggle – involving petitions from academics across the world – against government legislation widely seen as targeting the CEU for its liberal stance.

The institution is backed by George Soros, a funder of pro-transparency projects in the region who has become a bogeyman for Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian government. A Hungarian government spokesman called the CEU’s latest announcement “another wily manoeuvre, a Soros-style political ploy”.

Antonio Loprieno, president of All European Academies (Allea), which represents dozens of academies across the continent, told Times Higher Education that the CEU’s forced move “is the sign of an intellectual decay that goes together with populism...it’s a very sad day for Hungary”.

To willingly lose an institution like the CEU was a “form of intellectual blindness” by the Hungarian authorities, he said, and the incident was “a warning of the dangers of...a populist approach to political life”.

“Whether this will prompt some concrete reactions I doubt,” he said, as the EU now had several member states with similar governments to Hungary – most notably, Poland and Italy. “I’m not so sure that the EU is the best body” to take action, he said.

In September, the European Parliament voted to start so-called Article 7 proceedings against Hungary for departing from EU values. The threat to the CEU was a key part of the case against Budapest.

But MEPs’ censure is not expected to lead to any real sanctions, as Poland, itself facing investigation from Brussels over a drift into authoritarianism, has vowed to veto any action against Hungary.

In response to threats from populist governments, some academics had taken a defensive approach, hoping that the wave of hostility eventually “passes by”, said Professor Loprieno. Instead, though, the community as a whole needed to stand up for itself, he warned.

Michael Gaebel, director of higher education policy at the European University Association, said that the CEU move, combined with the scrapping of accreditation for gender studies MA programmes and punitive taxes levied on refugee-related programmes, meant that Hungarian scholars might start exercising “self-censorship”.

They would “think twice” before embarking on anything to do with refugees, he said. The restrictions “makes Hungarian higher education less international”, he said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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