by Paul Temple
Viktor Orban is the only autocratic national leader I’ve faced across a meeting table. In those days of course, back in the ‘90s, he wasn’t the Hungarian Prime Minister: he and his Fidesz party had barely emerged from post-communist student politics (the name is an abbreviation of Alliance of Young Democrats – now a deeply misleading title). But the British Council in Budapest had already marked him out as a coming man in Hungarian politics and wanted him to hear, amongst other things, our thoughts on university reform in the country.
Looking back, several things occur. One is to note the impressive talent-spotting abilities of the British Council’s Country Director, who correctly identified Orban’s leadership potential when there wasn’t much to go on. True, the expectation was that his future would be as a progressive politician in a liberal society, rather than as the populist boss of what is close to being a one-party state. Still, you can’t win them all. A second point is that perhaps Orban was paying more attention than we realised as we rabbited on about universities needing autonomy to support both academic effectiveness and their roles in a pluralist society (that kind of thing, anyway). A third point is to be careful what you wish for (or, in this case, propose).
A major restructuring of Hungarian universities is now being planned by the Orban government, with the supposed aim of removing them from direct state control by establishing foundations which will own each university’s resources, to be controlled by independent supervisory boards. This is clever: Hungarian government spokespeople present it as a move to make Hungarian universities resemble leading research universities elsewhere, with greater independence promoted through institutional self-government. In other words, more or less what we were suggesting in that British Council meeting all those years ago.
But in university governance, as in most of life, context is all. What many Hungarian academics expect is that these supervisory boards won’t be independent at all: they will, argues Professor Jozsef Palinkas, former President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, be agents for the “ideological control” of universities by the ruling party. Orban has already made it clear that those with what he calls “internationalist” or “globalist” views will not become board members: only those with “nationalist” views will be eligible, which I think we can take to mean views indistinguishable from Orban’s own. (If you want to know what Orban means by “internationalist”, look up his conspiracy theory-laden feud with George Soros.)
Once established, these boards will become self-perpetuating, appointing future members in the same mould, excluding any possible dissenting voices. This structure has been written into the Hungarian constitution (you can’t say that university governance isn’t taken seriously in Hungary) which means that a two-thirds parliamentary majority will be needed to change it. This is possible of course, but given Fidesz’s control of much of the economy, national media, and the judiciary, unlikely. Expect an outflow of independent-minded Hungarian academics.
Most governments claim to prize university autonomy – who knows, some may actually mean it – but, around the world, there are many recent examples of intervention when this autonomy doesn’t seem to be delivering what the politicians in power consider to be the right answers. Universities might perhaps take increased governmental pressures as a backhanded compliment: governments allowed universities to go their own ways when they thought they didn’t really matter, but now they think they do matter (or at least, can be targeted in a confected culture war), they seek to control them. I expect that Orban does think that Hungarian universities are too important to be left to operate outside his web of state/party control: another piece of civil society’s structure has to be destroyed.
I was going to end with a weak joke about wanting to take back what I said all those years ago about university autonomy – but, truly, there’s nothing amusing in seeing how democracies die.
Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, London. His new book on university space and place will appear next year. Possibly. His blog appears at https://srheblog.com/category/srhe-news-blog/