Hungary’s authoritarian government is pushing forward with a plan to ban gender studies from being taught by the country’s universities, which critics describe as an attempt to “legislate the curriculum of universities”.
While the government is yet to formalise such a move, a document outlining the plan was leaked to university leaders at a Hungarian Rectors’ Conference last week.
Rectors said that they were, in effect, given less than 18 hours to respond to the proposals, which are said to have come directly from Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, with the official reason given that gender studies programmes do not bring sufficient economic returns.
The move comes after months of fierce debate throughout Europe over the validity of gender studies, with the discipline becoming a target for populist politicians from the “new right” in Poland and Germany as well as Hungary, who claim that the discipline is a liberal, pseudoscientific ideology that undermines motherhood and discourages women from having children.
A formal announcement from the Hungarian government is expected any day, although pushback from both left- and right-wing media has sparked suggestions that the final decision could be held until Mr Orbán returns from holiday.
Gender studies is currently taught only at the Central European University (CEU) – an institution facing a battle to survive in the face of hostile government legislation – to about 16 master’s students per year through Hungarian accredited programmes. But a crackdown on the subject has been fuelled by plans to create a master’s degree at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), which would be the first public higher education institution to teach the subject. The proposed legislation would prevent any further courses in the discipline being established.
While the number of students likely to be affected is small, academics say that such a ban would have wider costs for university autonomy in Hungary.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Andrea Pető, a professor in the department of gender studies at the CEU, said that the government’s proposed law “sets a dangerous precedent for state intervention”.
Such a law, she said, “would cancel an accredited, well-performing MA programme, with consistently high enrolments [and] excellent placement records. Never before has the government sought to legislate the curriculum of universities without consultation with the appropriate university institutions, [the] Hungarian Accreditation Committee and the Higher Educational Planning Council.”
The move also goes against one of the country’s fundamental laws to “ensure the freedom of scientific research and artistic creation, the freedom of learning for the acquisition of the highest possible level of knowledge and, within the framework laid down in an act, the freedom of teaching”, she added.
Those arguing against the course say that it takes away resources from more practical courses such as business and finance that support the Hungarian economy. Bence Rétvári, secretary of state in Hungary’s Ministry of Human Resources, was previously quoted as saying there was “no economic rationale” for gender studies.
As a private institution, however, the CEU said that it does not receive any state funding.
Issuing a statement, ELTE said that the university “acknowledges and respects the decision of the Ministry of Human Resources withdrawing the accreditation of the programme” as “the financing ministry holds the right to revise the educational portfolio as well as to cancel particular programmes”.
Critics have suggested that the university has failed to defend its autonomy, but others say that public institutions are understandably fearful of speaking out against government missives.
In a statement, a CEU spokesman said that the university “reaffirms its commitment to academic freedom and rejects any attempt at censoring academic curricula”.
“A recent proposal drafted by the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Human Resources touches upon the future of gender studies in Hungary [...the] CEU informed the Hungarian Rectors’ Conference, and thereby the Hungarian government, about its position,” the spokesman said.
“Since this matter is currently in an ongoing and not public process, we do not wish to enter into the details.”