Call for Europe-wide ‘academic freedom defence’ to meet Orbán threat

Universities ‘on the front line’ as authoritarianism rises and other European nations may follow Hungary’s example, leaders and academics warn

July 18, 2019
CEU protest
Source: Getty

European governments must protest “loudly and clearly” against abuses of academic freedom in Hungary or risk other authoritarian states constricting the independence of scholarly institutions, university leaders and researchers have warned in response to the Orbán government’s latest moves.

Earlier this month, János Áder, the president of Hungary, signed a law giving the government control over the network of research institutes that formerly belonged to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences – a move that has been widely criticised as endangering academic freedom.

Meanwhile, the Budapest-based Central European University has made further steps towards moving to a new campus in Vienna, after being driven out of Hungary by Viktor Orbán’s government. On Saturday, CEU announced that the institution and six of its degree programmes had received Austrian accreditation.

Michael Ignatieff, president of CEU, told Times Higher Education that hundreds of universities and academic institutions across the world have voiced solidarity with CEU and the Academy of Sciences “but it was all to no avail”, in part because “governments themselves have done little or nothing”.

“That’s a sobering lesson that the international academic community has stood up for itself, but these governments are ignoring what they’re being told,” he said.

“The British government, the American government, the French government, the Dutch government – all of whom have free institutions inside [their nations] – are not saying loudly and clearly enough to these authoritarian regimes: ‘If you want to stay in Europe, Europe means free institutions. If you don’t defend and support and sustain free institutions you don’t belong to the club’.

“No one is saying that clearly enough or making the costs of doing what they’ve done to the Academy of Sciences and to us...prohibitive. Until the costs are prohibitive, governments like Orbán’s will keep on doing what they’re doing.”

Professor Ignatieff added that the Orbán government is “very dependent” on the structural subsidies along with the political and diplomatic support and protection that it receives from its EU membership and it is “therefore susceptible to a firm talking to from European governments”.

However, he said that EU member states “fear that if they apply pressure to Hungary it may one day be applied to them” and so they “risk some of the values on which Europe depends”.

While the European Parliament last year voted to pursue disciplinary action against Hungary under Article 7 of the EU treaty – in response to the Hungarian government’s attacks on the media, minorities and the rule of law – the procedure has made little progress.

Professor Ignatieff added that the language of European treaties “does not contain a very strong or robust definition of academic freedom” and there is “no specific requirement that European states respect and protect the academic freedom of their scientific institutions”, allowing “authoritarian regimes pretty well free rein to do what they want”.

“I think that’s an area where Europe needs to learn a lesson from these episodes and change the law,” he said. “If respect for academic freedom had been made a condition of continued membership in the EU, we would still be in Budapest. It’s that simple.”

When asked whether the inaction by European governments may embolden other authoritarian or populist states to restrict academic freedom, Professor Ignatieff said: “I can’t say for sure. But this is what globalisation means. Everybody learns from everybody else and sometimes they learn very bad lessons...Universities are very much on the front line as authoritarian regimes consolidate their rule.”

On the changes to the Academy of Sciences, he added that “other countries – Poland, the Czech Republic – may be tempted to do the same”.

Earlier this year, János Kertész, head of the department of network and data science at CEU, wrote an open letter to Manfred Weber, the German MEP who leads the European People’s Party – the centre-right group of parties that is the European Parliament’s largest group – calling for him to put pressure on Mr Orbán to withdraw the new Academy of Sciences legislation. The letter received 1,460 signatures but “didn’t help”, he said.

György Bazsa, professor emeritus of the University of Debrecen, one of the signatories, said he hoped that the new leadership of the EU “will take steps to force rules of democracy”.

Hungary’s treatment of CEU and the Academy of Sciences “should result in stopping Hungarian participation in European committees”, he suggested. “There are definitely possibilities in the hand of the European Union. It should want to use them.”

He added that there is “a danger” that central and eastern European countries with “similar anti-democratic” tendencies will make comparable steps to constrict university autonomy.

Anne Corbett, a senior associate at LSE Consulting and an expert on higher education and the EU, said it was significant that eastern European countries managed to block the choice of Frans Timmermans, the Dutch centre-left politician who had “tried to act against Orbán”, as the new president of the European Commission.

Other than continuing Mr Timmermans’ approach of trying to mobilise article 7 of the treaty, “there’s very little that the EU can do”, said Dr Corbett, “unless it gets general support”.

Dr Corbett said that “the hope lies with universities themselves”, specifically cross-border networks of universities, which can “put pressure on national rectors’ organisations to lobby governments collectively”.

“I don’t think anything will happen unless there is a wide university front saying that this is not just an issue for Hungary, it’s really an issue for Europe,” she said.

“It’s universities themselves saying they’re not just interested in European funding but they’re interested in seeing the EU standing up for these values.”

However, academics in Hungary said EU action against the country could have unintended consequences.

Such a move “may damage the reputation of the government but it will also damage our research and that’s not what we want”, said Gergely Bohm, head of the international department at the Academy of Sciences.


Print headline: Governments must act to protect academic freedom

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Reader's comments (2)

One could point to the self-contradiction of complaints being made by institutions which have repeatedly failed to stand up for freedom of expression in recent times, even as they have been stifled by political correctness and overrun by authoritarian ideology. But that would go over their heads, I suspect. Perhaps time to turn that gaze inwards.
As in the treatment of Ricardo Duchesne in Canada. Humanities education in a sense is inherently political insofar as its purpose is to create citizens. Hence there is always a danger that political agendas can corrupt factual inquiry. I agree in principle that there should be a distance between politics (both EU and Hungarian) and academia. Michael Ignatieff is hardly an apolitical figure, as a former Canadian Liberal politician.