Hungarian science academy appeals to courts over state control fears

  • 10 Jul 2019

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has moved to tighten his grip on educational establishments as he attempts to combat proponents of so-called liberalism.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels, Thursday, June 20, 2019. European Union leaders meet for a two-day summit to begin the process of finalizing candidates for the bloc's top jobs. (Julien Warnand, Pool Photo via AP) ( AP )

A controversial bill to restructure the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) is expected to face challenges before the country’s Supreme Court, according to the MTA.

The academy has a network of 15 institutes and 150 research groups that include about 3,000 scientific researchers.

The bill, passed on July 2, “will increase state control over the Academy by removing the 15 research institutes from the main academy and placing them in a newly established state research network”, rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report on the topic.

This research network will have a governing board whose members are appointed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and “a majority nominated by the government”, HRW continued.

The new research network, called the Eotvos Lorand Research Network, will also be able to use the MTA’s property with compensation, Hungarian news site Index reports.

When asked for comment, the MTA sent a statement saying the bill will allow for decisions on what scholarship is supported to be made “within a framework of a distorted procedure, providing a minimal role for scholarship and the scientific community”.

It stated: “This approach is unacceptable for the MTA, which is responsible for fresh domestic and universal knowledge and scholarship.”

The MTA is expected to challenge the constitutionality of the bill in Hungary’s Supreme Court, on the grounds it possibly violates academic freedom and the right to own property.

The move is the latest in a line of decisions that have called Hungary’s academic freedom into question, critics say.

Academic Freedom

Hungary has been ruled by Orban and his Fidesz party since they swept into power in 2010 following a massive corruption scandal within the opposition Socialist party.

Critics claim Fidesz, which has ruled the country with a two-thirds majority since 2010, has overseen a “democratic backslide” that entails xenophobic, anti-migrant rhetoric coupled with threats to free media.

Fidesz most recently won a two-thirds majority with roughly 49 percent of the vote in the 2018 national elections.

Recent years have seen Fidesz confront the Central European University (CEU), a school founded by Hungarian-American financier and champion of liberal causes George Soros.

Soros has been depicted by Hungarian government as a sort of “liberal boogeyman” working with Brussels to encourage immigration to Europe in recent campaigns. Detractors have called these campaigns “anti-Semitic”, as Soros is Jewish.

CEU, which issues degrees accredited in both Hungary and the United States, faced a 2017 modification of those in Hungary, which demanded all universities who offer degree programmes accredited in other countries also offer courses in said countries.

The university opened a small academic site and began offering classes in conjunction with Bard University, a liberal arts school based in New York state, after signing a memorandum of understanding with the prestigious university in September 2017.

Senior Hungarian officials visited the site in 2018 to decide whether it met the requirements of the new law. The government decided it did not, and CEU is now expected to move its US-accredited courses to Vienna.

This, coupled with plans to privatise state universities and initial proposals to change the MTA, led to widespread protests in late 2018. Szabad Egytetem, a grassroots organisation that formed in 2018 in response to what organisers felt were the Hungarian government’s moves against academic freedom, was at the forefront of the movement.

After news broke of the changes to the MTA, the group said in a Facebook post: “[O]n the surface, probably not many things will change. But with the universities under the financial control of the ‘chancellors’ and the research network under government control, academic freedom is in essence dead in Hungary.”

The Hungarian government responded to TRT World’s requests for comment with a statement by Zoltan Kovacs, a Hungarian spokesman.

“Concerning direction and priorities, if the state funds research then it gets to have a say in the priorities,” Kovacs said in the statement.

“Under these new rules, the government won’t tell the academy what to research or how, but the new management structure will set priorities.”

The spokesman highlighted that the MTA was “underperforming” and claimed the changes would put “competitiveness into the focus while also improving the quality of research”.

The MTA, on the other hand, concluded its statement by saying: “The bill is unacceptable and its withdrawal is highly justified. With regard to the serious concerns … the MTA’s initiation of a constitutional review would be inevitable.”