The government-pushed but debated model change of the Hungarian universities rolls on. Lately, all four medical universities voted to switch to the new foundation-based working model. For now, however, the reform is accompanied by haste, mistrust, uncertainty, and opposition. Former minister and Constitutional Judge István Stumpf’s appointment can bring new impetus to the completion of the government’s will.
It all started with the transformation of Corvinus University, completed in 2019. As of the current standing, only ten of Hungary’s 26 state-maintained universities would keep the old model by the end of the year, the others will be led by foundations in which members were and are appointed by the government, but after that they will have absolute power over the privatized institutions.
After many smooth transitions and one (SZFE) that brought loud protests and demonstrations, it is now the medical universities’ turn (or rather of those that provide medical education too, as all three outside Budapest also have many other facilities with tens of thousands of students), which Hungary has four of: one in Budapest, and three outside the capital: Pécs, Szeged, and Debrecen.
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Government: golden age coming
The new model sets to follow international examples, aiming to boost competitiveness and better serve the market and the Hungarian economy’s needs. Financial reliability would be ameliorated, thanks to the long-term agreements (10 to 25 year periods) and guarantees about money (partly from the state). And without the often complex and slow governmental administration, the privatized universities could enter into various projects more easily. In the government’s view, this would also ensure greater independence for the institutions, since the government would not be involved in their direct management.
That the university employees will no longer be public servants would also increase efficacy and allow for better salaries, the government argues.
According to Innovation and Technology minister László Palkovics, the innovation capabilities of Hungarian-owned businesses must be improved if Hungary’s productivity is to be increased, and this is for which the universities should provide a background.
In addition, the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MKIK) will have to give the greenlight to launch new courses to guarantee that they are in line with the “market’s needs.”
The question arises why the Orbán government was so quick to speed up the foundation-based privatization of the universities. Both Palkovics and the Prime Minister recently declared that a quarter of the EU’s coronavirus recovery package for Hungary would be channeled into higher education. This equals roughly HUF 1,509 billion (EUR 4,24 billion), an “unprecendented amount,” something that would bring a “golden age” for Hungarian universities, the IT Minister claimed.
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On the other hand, Orbán in his regular interview on Friday (published before the senate’s votes in Szeged and Pécs) also suggested that only those universities that take a stance by the model change would receive any of this amount.
Cons: Fidesz loyals involved, loss of autonomy, lack of guarantees, no consultation
According to critics, however, the changes will not cease the government’s oversee; in fact, on the contrary, it would pull these universities closer to the government’s and Fidesz’s circles. While in international examples the senate and the rector make decisions, in this model, all the essential power falls into the hands of the board of trustees and the senate’s power is reduced. And contrary to most international examples, the Ministry appoints the board of trustees, and the university itself can only make recommendations.
In light of the composition of the board of trustees of the already transformed universities, this seems quite a valid argument. Virtually, the entire board so far includes Fidesz or government politicians, or those loyal to those in power. And the case of SZFE also upsets many: here the government also tended to name loyal figures, not independently for ideological reasons.
For such high-scale changes, many lack the proper information, consultations, as well as guarantees. In the case of the medical universities, for example, back in June, Palkovics said it was too early to speak about transformation. Then the universities had only been informed at the end of December about their plans, getting only mere weeks to discuss and manage the change.
Fidesz building a “deep state?”
Certain opposition politicians even went further and accused Fidesz and the government that in this way it in fact wants to secure wealth for themselves and secure political control. According to independent MP Bernadett Szél, in case of a potential future government change, a new government wouldn’t have any access to these funds.
Another independent MP also follows this line of thinking. Ákos Hadházy additionally points to an earlier constitutional amendment that redefined public money in December, by which funds due to these foundations would not qualify as public money, therefore transparency is in the least, questionable.
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Former Academy of Sciences President and Minister of Education during the first Orbán government József Pálinkás is on the same page with these opinions, saying that it only serves Orbán’s and Fidesz’ long-term political goals and their quest to remain in power.
The senate of Semmelweis University (SOTE) almost unanimously supported the model change, and this trickled down smoothly to the other spheres of university life too. SOTE says it would like to make its way among the world’s 100 best medical universities through the model change.
Debrecen University (DE), where the rector is long known for being close to government circles, and where for example, Russian president Vladimir Putin had been elected as an honorary university citizen, is choosing to deliberate in a closed session. After the vote, however, 21 professors (and several supporting students) stood up publicly and complained about the lack of time and strategy, information, proper talks, and guarantees. On the other hand, DE’s student self–government (HÖK) voted to support the model change almost unanimously. Another interesting feature of the change is that DE’s considerable amount of land would also be privatized with the model change.
Although it has been voted on for both places, in Szeged and Pécs the model change and accompanying events weren’t this smooth. At Szeged University (SZTE) amid the opposition of the city’s long-time mayor (former MSZP strongman László Botka), the final vote was preceeded by a 3.5 hour-long debate and was only voted in by a simple majority. It was additionally accompanied by controversy, as one of the deans supported the model change contrary to the faculty council’s will he would have had to represent. In addition, another professor doing so was local Fidesz’ vice-president, who later resigned from his senate position, while one of the professors opposing the change was refused to give his speech before the vote.
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Despite demonstrations by certain student and employee groups and the (opposition-backed) mayor’s call, who said the model change is a “top-down-forced transformation that ignores the interests, needs, and opinions of the university’s citizens,” and as a result is “far from self-determination, the preservation of university autonomy, and the functioning of democracy,” Pécs University‘s (PTE) senate also voted in the model change. The senate, however, called for guarantees for free education, research, and artistic activities, for strengthening the senate’s role, and for maintaining the university’s unity. If the government is able to provide funding for the changeover, then why wouldn’t it be able to put money towards the current system, asked one of the professors, according to liberal 24.hu’s report, while another professor suggested an ‘illiberal’ take-over of education.
In spite of earlier rumors about the outsourcing of their clinics, according to Palkovics’s promise that would be left in the hands of the universities.
Stumpf is back: model change of “national strategic” importance
In a surprising and piquant turn, from February 1st on, the Prime Minister appointed István Stumpf to oversee the model changes. The first Orbán government’s PMO chief had been alienated from the highest Fidesz circles over the past 11 years, after as a Constitutional Judge, he has regularly voiced criticism about government policies, Orbán’s excessive power, and that Fidesz-KDNP’s two-thirds majority exceeded certain constitutional norms.
Many view him as somebody who could perhaps bring balance and also ensure that the model change will be consistent with Fundamental Law as well. According to Stumpf’s recent statement, there are indeed uncertainties surrounding the model changes. He, however, views the current structure of higher education to be unable to increase competitiveness and “money would flow out [of the system] in the same way as in the past.” He therefore considers the model change of national strategic importance. In response to a question about fears of losing independence, he claimed he was confident that a balance could be found between the market, the state, and the world of professors in this new structure.
István Stumpf. Image by Zsolt Szigetváry/MTI
The talks about the actual processes and details are still to begin. Given, however, the nature and dynamism of the government’s reforms in the area, such as that of the Science Academy (MTA) or SZFE, it is unlikely that they wouldn’t push through their agenda as they want.
on the featured photo: a student protests in front of the university’s building in Pécs; via Free PTE- Facebook