Unwelcome 1980s revival threatens Hungary's academy

Scholars say moves against critics and their families echo communist repression. Thomas Escritt writes

January 26, 2012

Credit: Getty
Out in the cold: protesters gather outside Budapest's opera house to decry the ruling Fidesz party's unilateral move to rewrite Hungary's constitution, including new press restrictions

An unexplained delay in the appointment to a college professorship of the son of a prominent political opponent of Hungary's government has added to fears that academic freedom in a European Union member state is being curtailed.

The historian György Majtényi had been selected by the faculty board of Eszterházy Károly College in the northeastern city of Eger for promotion to a full professorship.

Under Hungarian law, however, professorial appointments at state institutions are formally in the gift of the government and must be signed off by the prime minister. And when a list of 64 professorial appointments was gazetted shortly before Christmas, the 37-year-old's name was absent.

After Majtényi's absence was reported by the news portal Index.hu, a spokesman for the prime minister said the omission had been an oversight.

Although the appointment was eventually approved last week - after the case had been picked up by the domestic media - this marked the first occasion for decades in which the prime minister's approval, ordinarily a formality, had not been given immediately.

The case has raised eyebrows because László Majtényi, the historian's father, is a prominent constitutional and human rights lawyer who has been highly critical of the populist conservative government of Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, whom he accuses of winding back constitutional freedoms won since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.

György Majtényi's case has attracted particular attention because it recalls the reprisals meted out by the pre-1989 regime to the relatives of dissidents. The children of prominent critics of the communist government were often denied places at university or good jobs as punishment for their parents' activities.

In a further irony, György Majtényi is a well-regarded specialist in the social history of Hungary under communism.

Hungary has been the focus of increasing international concern since Orbán led his populist conservative Fidesz party to a landslide victory almost two years ago.

The government has used its two-thirds parliamentary majority to enact a new constitution, revise the electoral system in its favour, introduce new laws on general and higher education, and pass legislation subjecting the press to a level of scrutiny that critics say severely curtails its freedom.

In recent days, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, have sent strongly worded letters to Orban urging him to withdraw contested laws.

On 17 January, the Commission gave formal notice that it was investigating whether Hungary was in violation of commitments it made on fundamental rights and freedoms when it joined the EU.

In all these areas, László Majtényi has been one of the government's most prominent critics. On 1 January, when tens of thousands gathered outside the Hungarian State Opera House in the nation's capital Budapest to protest against the implementation of Fidesz's new constitution, he delivered a fiery and well-received speech.

Pointing to the lit windows of the opera house, where the Fidesz faithful were attending a gala in honour of the constitution that had been drawn up by the governing party alone, he contrasted the "constitutional virtues" of the crowd gathered in the street with the "pretension" of the revellers inside.

Tip of the iceberg

Although public pressure was sufficient in György Majtényi's case to prompt what seems to be a change of heart by the government, many measures have been instituted that critics fear amount to a severe curtailment of academic freedom in the country.

Soon after taking office, the government announced an investigation into a group of left-wing philosophers whom it accused of having lived luxurious lifestyles on the back of research grants that had been awarded "corruptly" by the previous socialist government.

No charges have been filed as a result of the investigation into such prominent scholars as the Marxist philosopher Ágnes Heller, an émigré who is Hannah Arendt professor at the New School in New York, although the probe continues.

"Police have been seizing monographs on Plato and trying to establish if they constitute original work," says Péter Radó, a sociologist specialising in education policy.

And a new higher education law that makes dramatic cuts to the number of subsidised places available at universities in the country could have a more dramatic effect. Critics say it could place non-technical education beyond the reach of all but the wealthy and create severe disincentives to entering higher education.

The number of subsidised economics places for students starting in September has been cut from 4,900 to 250, and, in a country of 10 million people, there will be just 100 subsidised places for first-year law students. Allocations of places in engineering and science subjects will remain in the thousands.

"This amounts to an attack on the economic and legal professions," says Radó.

Although Orbán is a lawyer, the new constitution has been criticised by many in the legal profession for innovations such as an instruction to judges to consider ill-defined "historical traditions" when interpreting its text.

The government's economic policy has also been widely criticised: in an attempt to avoid imposing the austerity demanded of it by the International Monetary Fund, Orbán's government broke with the IMF and plugged the financing gap by levying swingeing windfall taxes on banks and nationalising private pension savings.

These measures have failed to yield results and Hungary's economy is expected to shrink next year, even as its East European neighbours return to modest growth.

"Both the new constitution and economic policy have been attacked by their respective professions, and [the university places] measure amounts to an attack on those professions by stopping the training of a new generation," says Radó.

Although full-fee places will still be available, scholars consider it certain that, at a time of recession and declining personal incomes, enrolment numbers will drop sharply, forcing many institutions to close.

Under these circumstances, increasing numbers of school-leavers are likely to look to foreign countries when considering their higher education options, especially when there are no tuition fees in neighbouring Austria.

"If you're looking at paying unsubsidised fees of Ft800,000 (£2,100) a year in Hungary, many will conclude that it's better to spend the money on a bedsit in Vienna instead," says Péter Hack, a law professor at Budapest's ELTE University. "Either way, it will favour the better off, who are in a position to pay."

That tendency will be reinforced if the government sticks to a plan to force beneficiaries of subsidised places to sign a contract with the state committing them to staying in the country for twice as long as the period spent studying, meaning that those with MAs would need to work in Hungary for a full decade after graduating. Curiously, women who perform the service of bearing three children would be excused this obligation.

The plan is intended to stem a growing stream of emigration among recent graduates who are struggling to find jobs in the recession-struck country. The problem is particularly acute in the medical professions, with as many as half the graduates of the country's medical schools turning up their noses at starting salaries of as little as £400 a month and moving elsewhere in the EU to work for better wages.

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