The restructuring of Hungary’s higher education system continues. In the latest news, the government will introduce a brand new, three-pillar system for university funding, and some more universities announced their transition to the foundation-based model. The changes are, however, still contested by many.
As we previously reported, the government appointed Corvinus University (BCE) to serve as the pilot institution for the now ongoing process. Recently it was announced that more universities will follow BCE’s suit. Most of them reportedly made the decision and the transition without any major disruption or controversies.
The changes to the Theater and Film University (SZFE) was, however, a bumpy and highly controversial one, where it was made clear that ideological considerations perhaps also played a part in the government’s persistence, and where the Orbán government showed that it would push its own agenda through no matter who opposes.
Then, at the beginning of the year, it was the medical universities’ turn. Here the government apparently switched to a friendlier tone; still, the circumstances of the restructuring drew controversy and debates too, but eventually went through a lot smoother than in the case of SZFE.
Much of the criticism centers around the fact that the foundations would be led by a board of trustees that to some extent would be under the government’s influence or even Fidesz politicians, while the members’ mandate would also be indefinite. Autonomy would also be cut, critics say, adding to the lack of proper consultation, and power-play. The government, meanwhile, points to Western examples and to the issue of competitiveness, not just that of the universities but of the Hungarian economy as a whole.
Most recently, three more universities announced the switch to the new system: the Budapest Business School (BGE), the Óbuda University, and the University of Nyíregyháza. Reportedly, the Hungarian Dance Academy is also evaluating the possibility at the moment.
Three-pillar system to be implemented
Around ten days ago, the innovation and technology minister revealed new, unheard details about their plans. László Palkovics announced that starting from September, the government will introduce a new three-pillar funding system to better support various aspects of university activities.
These three pillars would fund the areas of education, research, and infrastructure and maintenance separately. Of the three pillars, the educational funding will be paid in proportion to the number of students taught at the university, he said.
Up until now, the amount of state funding exclusively depended on this last factor, meaning that the importance of the other two aspects would be a lot higher from now.
Science Academy wants more autonomy for universities
Just one day after Palkovics’ announcement, the Academy of Sciences (MTA), another notable example, where the government (namely Palkovics) recently pushed its agenda through without too much consultation or consideration, issued a statement wanting guarantees and warning the government.
MTA’s presidency still lacks proper examination of the restructuring. According to their statement, voted in unanimously, the boards of trustees’ power should be limited in many aspects, a balanced representation of politics, economy, education, research, and the possibility of rotation of members should be ensured. Also, in their view, the maintainer (the state or the foundation’s board of trustees) shouldn’t influence educational and research decisions, such as establishing and terminating departments, faculties, appointing university leaders, professors, or habilitation procedures.
MTA also wants the Orbán government to ensure that the universities’ properties would only be used for educational and research tasks and wouldn’t be sold to a third party. MTA also argues that those universities should be involved in decision making, and university autonomy must be respected in the decisions. In addition, those institutions that refuse to restructure shouldn’t face any disadvantages, they concluded.
They argue that the transformation of higher education worldwide wasn’t accompanied by a parallel development of university institutions in Hungary, nor were complex development programs and resources available. Filling these gaps is, therefore, becoming urgent.
LMP: the government lies
This was something similar to LMP’s proposal made on Tuesday in the Parliament’s Committee on Culture, something that the ruling parties eventually rejected. The centrist green party would grant the guarantees demanded by the universities, preserve their autonomy, and keep the rights of their Senates and deans intact. Also, members of the foundation’s board of trustees shouldn’t have a say in professional issues, and that wage raises should be funded independently from the reform scheme.
The party’s parliamentary group leader, László Lóránt Keresztes, also said that universities not participating in the government’s restructuring scheme will be losing development funding, belying the government’s claims that the reform is voluntary. Fidesz lawmakers had “confirmed as much” at the cultural committee’s meeting, “and so the government’s lies have been toppled,” he said.
In addition, Keresztes also insisted that the true goal of the reorganization was for “developing full political influence and gaining control over European Union funding.” He said the government was mulling the financial remodeling of the universities choosing not to join the restructuring program.
Gov’t Commissioner wants apolitical universities
Meanwhile, in an interview on ATV, István Stumpf who has been recently appointed to manage these changes and perhaps to mediate between the parties and calm things down, said he wanted to get party politics out of the universities’ model reform. The former constitutional judge also defended the appointment of government(-loyal) politicians, pointing to these politicians’ strong commitment towards those cities and universities. He also explained that professors and businessmen can be similarly found on these boards. He labelled SZFE’s case a political case, a “scar,” that should be treated. He claimed he is working in very close cooperation with the IT Ministry and Palkovics.
Meanwhile, a recent court ruling can make the government’s life harder. According to the ruling of the Budapest-Capital Regional Court, restricting the universities’ autonomy goes against Hungary’s Fundamental Law (voted in by the ruling parties). Through SZFE’s case, the court now asks the Constitutional Court (AB) to annul the new system in its entirety. AB must decide within 90 days.
featured image: Palkovics speaking in Pécs (illustration); via Tamás Sóki/MTI