The government has recently tabled the drafts about the transformation of several more universities. The reform involves huge changes, as the state withdraws from the direct supervision of higher educational institutes and appoints foundations instead, meanwhile still providing the funds from the central budget. However, the scheme is still full of uncertainties, critical points, and lacks proper consultation and transparency.
The bills would add the Budapest Business School, the University of Debrecen, the University of Dunaújváros, the Hungarian Dance Academy, the University of Nyíregyháza, Óbuda University, the University of Pécs, Semmelweis University, the University of Szeged, and the University of Physical Education to the list of existing foundation universities from autumn.
In addition, the church (namely the Archdiocese of Eger) will take over the maintenance of one of Hungary’s main teacher training institutions, the Eszterházy Károly University in Eger.
Outsourcing higher education
As we previously reported, the Corvinus University (BCE) served as the pilot institution for the now ongoing process.
While initially there were some smooth elements to the handover process, the Theater and Film University’s (SZFE) case served as the deterrent example, where the government made it clear they were ready to use force to push through their agenda. In addition, ideological considerations also visibly played a part in the government’s persistence.
After SZFE’s case, the government apparently switched to a friendlier tone and also appointed former PMO Head, István Stumpf, to lead the reforms. Then, at the beginning of the year it was the medical universities’ turn. Here while the circumstances drew some controversy and debates too, as the government gave weeks for the unis to discuss the new system and power-play methods were also present, eventually the changes 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. The leadership of the foundation would oversee the large amount of wealth and will have power that critics say would cut the universities’ autonomy too, as the senate would have decreased power, adding to the lack of proper consultation.
These foundations would handle money outsourced from public funds (therefore the public will lose oversight), and would be given the right to make decisions, so far reserved for the government. Therefore, many fear higher ed modification is one of the Fidesz-led government’s recent maneuvers in order to build a “deep (or parallel) state.”
The government, meanwhile, points to Western examples and to competitiveness, not just that of the universities but of the Hungarian economy as a whole. The PMO Head once again insisted that the reforms target improvement in competitiveness and efficacy. Gergely Gulyás also repeated that since the government would exit from the oversee, the new system would provide more autonomy for the unis. He denied that all the Hungarian universities would be forced to switch to the new system and insisted that the conversion was voluntary and all the institutions had the right to decide regarding their intentions.
That the new plans for higher education perhaps didn’t go as expected or due to all the criticism, the Orbán government reactivated István Stumpf, who previously was critical with Orbán, and was therefore reportedly put on the sidelines. Stumpf, regarded as the peacemaker by many, has come into the forefront, and apparently became the face of the reforms, instead of IT Minister, László Palkovics.
Professional research boards oppose restructuring
The opposition and criticism to the new system, however, hasn’t geared down in the last few months. Referring to “the unlawful separation” of [Academy of Sciences] MTA’s research network, where “poorly prepared legislation has created uncertainty and caused great damage,” the Forum of Academic Employees (ADF) stood up against the government’s bill, citing lack of wide-spread consultation and the circumstances created by the pandemic.
“It has become clear that certain universities…voted in favor of the restructuring while its true content was not known, and will not be published until the bill is submitted to parliament,” the Forum of Academic Employees (ADF) wrote in a statement.
ADF called on the government and Stumpf to refrain from “abusing the grave [pandemic] situation in which the university citizenship and the academic community cannot represent its interests.”
Stádium 28 Circle, a body consisting of MTA’s board members, also raised its voice and said it was “unacceptable” that while transforming a system this large and complex as Hungarian higher education, decision-makers ignore all critical voices and advice.
They lack proper consultations, proper arguments and revelations about the true reasons of the restructuring. In their view, the government has yet to reveal the advantages of this new system. In addition, the Hungarian (government’s) way differs in many aspects from the Western examples the government refers to.
At a forum organized by the Circle and held before tabling the bill, participants also wished to know why money couldn’t be put into the old system. They doubt the veracity of the government’s reasoning that unis would get more autonomy, as in their view only the foundations would get full power.
Professor of Szeged University, Mihály Szajbély, said that in his view, the changes harm the autonomy of universities, and less profitable faculties could be easily finished off this way. He called it an “historical irresponsibility“ to engage in the changes without proper conditions and guarantees. He compared the circumstances of the implementation of this new system to the Kádár-era:
there is no legal and institutional guarantee for anything, one can only hope that we would not get a hard-line party secretary.”
They want broad consultations and suspension of the changes.
István Stumpf: ‘We are in the 24th hour’
István Stumpf attempted to explain the government’s stance and revealed new aspects of the system. He said the system is out-of-date, and due to changed worldwide tendencies both in education and economy, “we are in the 24th hour” with the reforms as “we lag behind even in Central European comparison.” However, at one point Stumpf admitted that the universities could have been informed more properly.
As for the financing, he announced that the government was planning to introduce the TAO system (based on companies offering their corporate income tax to sports funding). He also spoke of the potential for universities to issue bonds, and the further transfer of MOL and Richter stocks and other valuables for the universities.
Never has any government before dedicated this much money to renew the structure of higher education, he said.”
He also revealed to be in negotiations regarding the composition of the foundations’ boards of trustees. He promised that he would keep in mind the goal that the board of trustees include relevant university persons, a businessman, and a politician attached to the university. Perhaps somewhat undermining his reasoning, on the same day he revealed [former minister and EU Comissioner] Tibor Navracsics would lead Veszprém’s Pannon University’s board of trustees.
Featured photo illustration by Zoltán Gergely Kelemen/MTI