THE BLOG

Dumbing Down Hungary: An Unraveling Regime Strikes and then Retreats, Again

05/04/2015 12:35 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2016

Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, has been a busy fellow over the past few months. Acting increasingly in flagrant disregard of his advisers, colleagues, and constituents, Orban has introduced policy initiatives so dazzling in their improbability that his once iron grasp on the rule of his country is now openly questioned by foe and friend alike.

When I arrived in Hungary as a Fulbright Specialist, I was often told that Orban was "only interested in power". Increasingly, it has become apparent that his interests also include adding, in some cases significantly, to the personal wealth of his nearest and dearest. Feasting on the public fisc, and particularly the flow of funds that issues from the European Union, has become a signature of the increasingly shabby Orban regime.

The setting of public policy, since the election of 2010 entirely in the hands of a small cadre who bonded as law students in the waning years of Hungary's state-socialist period, has taken the form variously identified by its critics as a "mafia" or "octopus" state, practicing "crony capitalism" within the context of a politically immobilized society (See articles by Andras Bozoki, Miklós Bánkuti, Gábor Halmai, and Kim Lane Scheppele, among others, in my forthcoming The Hungarian Patient, co-edited with Peter Krasztev, to be published by the Central European University Press). The government of "Viktator" Orban functions as a highly effective political machine, Orban himself already having secured nine mentions in the dystopian resource book, The Dictator's Handbook. Governance, in this regime, seems to be a part-time hobby, done just enough to prevent a downright collapse of state and society.

Among the dubious policy initiatives presented by the Hungarian government in recent months have been: 1) a tax on internet use, met in November by a memorable mass protest that featured the waving of lighted mobile phones; 2) an extension of highway tolls to include, among other highways, the access road to the country's major airport; 3) the forced closing of large-box stores on Sunday (which happen to be owned in nearly every case by non-Hungarians; 4) the selective taxing of media outlets to favor those controlled by his supporters; and 5) the continuing unwillingness to attend to European court decisions regarding the discriminatory nature of the state's support of selected religious denominations. In a remarkable number of cases, these policies approach the form of what my fellow Americans call "bills of attainder", as outlawed by the first article of the U.S. Constitution.

And now, its ears still ringing from criticism of earlier policy propositions, the Hungarian regime has moved to the task of higher education reform. It first appointed a new officer to every state-funded university, calling this person "chancellor", and sitting him at the side of the university rector (or president) with the task of overseeing the fiscal health of the institution. These new officers, soon to be referred to by knowing faculty members as "commissars" suspected as enforcers of the Fidesz party's reputed blacklist for employment, were largely selected from a pool of political hacks who had managed to lose a variety of local and national elections despite their adherence to the ruling party.

Next was unveiled a strategy of higher education reform aimed at reducing spending levels. It was announced that several undergraduate majors, most visibly International Studies and Media and Communication, would be closed by order of the Ministry of Education at all universities save the regime's recently created, highly funded, and entirely unaccredited National Public Service University. As the indefatigable blogger Eva Balogh notes, "the (ministry's) document indicated that not only would certain social science fields, like international relations, no longer be available for B.A. students but that the very survival of the faculty of social sciences was at stake." http://hungarianspectrum.org/2015/04/20/hungarian-students-demand-autonomy-of-universities/

Or, to put it more directly: Whoops, there goes academic freedom in a country that has long prided itself on the quality of its higher education.

In my country, when a college or university finds it necessary to cut programs, there's an established way of proceeding. Faculty committees are appointed, and their recommendations are considered by administration. In Hungary, on the other hand, neither faculty nor administration are consulted--the decisions are made by the Minister of Education, presumably on direct order from the autocratic prime minister.

Hungary's higher education faculty, seemingly numbed by the loss of power of liberal parties in the electoral revolution that brought Orban back to power in 2010, discovered its voice in responding to the massacre of the major programs and the veiled threats contained to other social sciences in the governmental document. At ELTE University, faculty members, joined by students and administrators all the way to the top of its organizational ladder, called immediately for a "teach-in strike" on April 20th. Following on a mass meeting in the grand hall of its Buda campus, overlooked by busts of the numerous Nobel laureates who had studied or taught there, hundreds of students and faculty carrying signs reading "Free Country, Free University", marched to the Ministry of Education to register their differences with the regime's bald intervention.

A student (I'll call her Heidi) observed of the developments:

" When I first heard of the rumors I didn't believe it, it was such shocking news for me, as to all the other students and teachers. The saddest thing for me was the realization that the government can almost do anything in any sector and field without even consulting with the concerned or thinking of the decision's results. If we want to think in a really negative way (which is unfortunately the reality), we will come to the conclusion that the state specifically selected these programs, since these are the ones dealing with social issues currently happening in Hungary."

As Heidi's statement indicates, the aim of the policy was apparent: to muzzle the social sciences by means of what author Balint Magyar calls "elite change". The ability of the university leadership to present a united front, even including the chancellor/commissar at ELTE, demonstrates the recognition of the seriousness of this threat.

Within 24 hours of the ELTE demonstration, the regime announced that it was abandoning its reform proposal, limiting the program shutdown to two marginal applied programs: Social Science and Technological Management. The regime will claim a compromise victory. But will the university movement accept this as a victory and abandon its promising efforts to secure university autonomy? The student protesters immediately issued a facebook statement that they will not accept this "victory"-and will continue to press for university autonomy.

This bumbling effort to dumb down a smart country indicates the special combination of desperation and incompetence that has become the signature of the Orban regime. One might recall the slogan pasted on the walls of Washington's metro trains: "When hospital funding gets cut, we all feel the pain." In Hungary the signs might well read: "When the unraveling regime determines university programs, we all become less educated."

Demonstrations will continue in the days ahead, and it will be interesting to see if they are able to attract greater support. The potential remains in Hungary at this moment for a significant shift in power and opinion. Remember 1964 in Berkeley, 1968 in France, and 2013-2014 in Ukraine. Big changes tend to begin with the young, especially when they are backed by knowing adults.