Hungarian academics fear EU funding cuts over loss of autonomy

Scholars say European Union may be reluctant to allocate research funds to Hungarian universities after government takes control over financing of research institutions

June 28, 2018
Hungarian parliament
Source: iStock

Hungarian academics fear that restrictions will be placed on their access to research funding from the European Union after the government made a further move to curb academic freedom in the country.

The Hungarian government’s 2019 budget bill, which was tabled earlier this month, announced that research and development funds of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences would be redirected to the recently established Ministry of Innovation and Technology in 2019.

Overall, 28 billion forints (£76 million) of the 40 billion forints allocated to the academy in the state budget would be transferred to the new ministry.

The budget change, alongside a proposed amendment to the law that controls the academy’s activities, will result in the ministry being in charge of financing research institutions.

A government statement said that “in the interest of the most efficient possible use of resources, the priorities of areas of research must be determined in a coordinated manner”.

There are fears that the changes will lead to the government defining research topics, evaluating scientific proposals, and funding applied research over basic research.

It has been viewed as the latest attack by Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government against scientific autonomy. Since 2014, the prime minister has created new chancellor positions in universities to oversee university spending, while the Central European University, based in Budapest, is still under threat after the government introduced legislation last year that would force it to shut down.

As Times Higher Education went to press, talks were due to be held between the academy and the ministry.

A statement from the academy demanded that the laws “be withdrawn from voting in Parliament, since these amendments were prepared without prior consultation with the academy”.

It added that about 20 billion forints of the academy’s 40 billion-forint budget “consists of labour and operational costs related to the core activities of the academy and are unconnected to any actual research priorities”.

Academics in the country also fear that the move could threaten levels of research funding from the EU.

Zoltán Fleck, head of the Centre for Theory of Law and Society at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University, said that there is a “real danger” that the EU will be more reluctant to allocate research funding to Hungarian universities “because scientific financing is based on the freedom of science and autonomy of scientific institutions”.

“The European research funds are open for independent scientific institutions and persons. If the institutions…have no independence from the government and the governmental agencies will decide on the programmes, in that case the financing from abroad is very questionable,” he said.

Last month, the European Commission proposed that Hungary and Poland – the loudest critics of the EU’s migration policy – should lose a quarter of their cohesion support funding in the 2021 to 2027 period. According to Reuters, the commission also accused Hungary’s government of undermining the independence of the country’s courts and curbing media freedom.

But Liviu Matei, professor of higher education policy and provost at CEU, said that restricting access to EU funding “would be like a double punishment” for Hungarian academics.

“They are already living under difficult conditions here in Hungary, not by their own doing. And then if they are punished by not being considered eligible for EU funding, that would be counterproductive and I don’t think it would be justified,” he said.

Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association, said that there have been discussions about linking European funding to nations’ migration policies.

However, he said that there is “no basis” for this under the current regulations and the grounds for implementing a similar policy based on nations’ levels of academic freedom would be “rather limited”.

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