Hungarian universities sue EU over funding freeze

Six legal cases lodged in bid to release billions of euros of funding, locked away because of threats to university autonomy

May 7, 2023
Source: iStock

Six Hungarian universities have lodged legal complaints against a European Union funding freeze, brought in because of concerns about the rule of law and the independence of their oversight boards.

The institutions, which include the University of Debrecen and Semmelweis University, have brought cases against the European commission or European Council, which are holding back billions and have forbidden new grants to be awarded to universities whose assets were transferred to board-led foundations as part of changes to the country’s funding model in 2021.

The EU’s concerns relate to fears that the reforms will allow its money to be controlled by those with ties to the ruling Fidesz party, but in its application to the court Semmelweis’ lawyers wrote that banishment from Erasmus and Horizon Europe was having a “detrimental effect on several fronts”.

They asked the court to either lift Semmelweis from the ban or overturn it completely, claiming that university decision-making, including on the use of EU funding, was independent of the foundation board, which they said included no members of the government or active politicians.

In challenging the factual basis of the ban, the complaint aligns with the position of the Hungarian government, which is in its own negotiations with the EU institutions to unlock the money. István Kenesei, a professor emeritus at the University of Szeged, told Times Higher Education he was “quite positive” that the government had encouraged the universities to bring the complaints, a claim THE put to the universities involved. 

Debrecen did not respond to this claim directly, but a spokesperson said the funding ban was “in conflict with the core values ​of Europe” and called the situation a “political tug of war”. It said none of its board members had political roles or conflicts of interest and that it would fund student mobility from its own resources.

The cases come after an exasperated joint letter from 21 Hungarian universities, addressed to the European commission president Ursula von der Leyen. In it the universities said that 10 board members had so far resigned to comply with the European commission’s condition that no active politicians could serve the foundations. In some cases, ministers have been replaced by the heads of major companies that do well out of government contracts, local media have reported.

In March, the European University Association left Hungary out of its review of university autonomy around the continent – because, it said, its unique foundation model was impossible to compare with others.

“The transfer of substantial decision-making powers to a body consisting exclusively of members appointed by the government for life can be considered as a reduction of institutional self-determination and is not in line with practices observed in Europe regarding university governance,” the association said in its separate report on the country.

Professor Kenesei said the government was now “stuffing” boards with “seemingly innocuous industrialists and low officials, who they think can perhaps stay under the [European commission’s] radar”.

In mid-April the commission wrote to all the coordinators of projects it is currently funding, warning them that they must not involve the foundation-model universities in any capacity, including subcontracting them, borrowing equipment or the secondment of staff.

Professor Kenesei said researchers at the few universities that have resisted adopting the foundation model had been caught up in the EU’s boycott. “The prohibition doesn’t apply to them, but their EU partners advise them to resign from their coordination roles in future projects because they suppose they have less chance of winning,” he said, referring to Hungarian applicants at non-foundation universities.

Almost all the political groupings in the European Parliament wrote a joint letter to the European commission on 24 April, raising fresh concerns about planned laws granting the Hungarian government surveillance powers over schoolteachers’ phones and a ban on their right to strike. It called on the commission to continue to hold back up to €20 billion (£17.7 billion) in post-pandemic recovery funding as a result.

On 3 May, the Hungarian parliament passed a raft of judicial reforms, aimed at satisfying EU concerns about the rule of law in the country. The European commission’s vice-president for values and transparency, Vera Jourová, told reporters that, although the changes were a “very good step forward”, it was “too early” to unfreeze EU funding.

The European Court of Justice told THE the cases would probably take around 18 months to reach a final judgment and that they could be combined due to their similarities.

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