The crisis involving Hungary’s Central European University has highlighted the need for university autonomy and academic freedom to be better protected at a European level, a conference has heard.
Liviu Matei, provost and pro-rector at the CEU, told the event on university autonomy that although the European Commission was taking the Hungarian government to court over the case, questions had been raised about whether EU laws and directives offered protection for higher education in such a matter.
The CEU’s future has been in doubt ever since the Hungarian government brought in new laws placing a range of restrictions on overseas universities operating in the country. It sparked a wave of protests as the move was seen as a deliberate attempt by the authorities to close the CEU.
Speaking at the “University Autonomy in Europe” event, held at the University of Leicester on 23 and 24 April, organised by the European University Association and Universities UK, Professor Matei said that although there was a “consensus” across the continent on the importance of university autonomy, there was a need for something “anchored, not on a particular consensus at a particular time, but on legal concepts, rights, values”.
He referred to the Commission’s European Court of Justice case against Hungary, which is partly based on claims that the law brought in by the Hungarian government impinges on academic freedom.
But Professor Matei paraphrased Hungary’s response as being: “What are you talking about? There is no European document talking about this, no European law or directive talking about academic freedom and besides the regulation of HE belongs to national authorities so why are we even discussing this?”
However, he added that the “direct engagement” with the Hungarian government by the Commission and other EU institutions such as the European Parliament was one of the key reasons why the authorities in Hungary had rowed back and granted an extra year to comply with the new law.
This was different to the situation in Turkey, another country where Professor Matei said university autonomy and academic freedom had come under attack, where the EU had no leverage.
Professor Matei said that some kind of official “codification” of university autonomy was now vital given that it was under threat across Europe, and not just in the east, because of the rise of populism and other factors.
“Is university autonomy under threat in Europe? My answer is yes. I know because I am living it, I come from a place where…what we are dealing with is an existential crisis,” he said.
Other speakers at the conference included Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, who said that in the case of the UK there was a tendency “to pretend that universities were once autonomous but that this autonomy has been gradually whittled away”, which he said was a “dangerous argument”.
Among other things this was because it was a “misreading of history” and assessments such as the EUA’s Autonomy Scorecard showed that the UK currently had one of the most independent systems in Europe.
“I have visited [the] National Archives to see how policy was made half a century ago. Civil servants at the Department of Education and Science spent their time obsessing over the size of the University of Birmingham’s refectory and whether Keele University should be allowed a new running track,” he said.