The medical universities’ switch to the new, government-preferred foundation-based working model is on the agenda. So far, eight higher education institutions did so or were forced to do so, and two more would switch over in 2021. The government says it aims to raise competitiveness and reliability. The Hungarian way, however, differs from the international examples, and is still under debate from many aspects.
According to the government’s proposal, the new working model follows international tendencies, namely the Anglo-Saxon way. Instead of the state, the newly-established foundation will exercise the founders’ rights and procedural application. Its board of trustees would accept the budget, the annual report, the organizational and operational regulations, and be responsible for the institution’s development and asset management. Decisions will be brought by them, instead of the democratically-elected senate. The board of trustees will also have more of a say in the rector’s appointment. The new working model is closer to the market’s more competitive requirements; as a result, workers’ public employee status will be terminated, they will become normal employees; as a result, performance would be given greater emphasis, but they can be fired more easily, too.
The board of trustees is first named by the leader of the Ministry of Innovation and Technology (ITM-overseer of higher education) but after 2022, he can transfer the foundation rights to the board of trustees.
Increasing number of universities joining new model
It was the Corvinus University of Budapest that served as the pilot project and eventually switched to the new model in 2019. Then, last year, six more followed suit until August: the University of Veterinary Medicine and Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design (MOME) in Budapest, the University of Miskolc, the University of Sopron, Győr’s Széchenyi István University, and the John von Neumann University in Kecskemét.
Budapest’s University of Theater and Film Arts (SZFE) ‘officially’ switched in September. From February 2020, the Szent István University (after uniting a number of agricultural faculties across the country and the University of Kaposvár) will become the vast University of Agriculture and Life Sciences with the same mode of operation. The transition of the Pannon University in Veszprém is foreseen to occur in September 2021.
Government: Hungarian higher education’s competitiveness has to be increased
The government says this new working model would raise efficacy and competitiveness thanks to larger exposure to the market, as well as financial reliability thanks to the long-term agreements and guarantees about money. And without the 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.
According to IT minister László Palkovics, the government’s aim was to create a simpler and more efficient operating environment in the higher education sector. He said the government wanted Hungarian universities to operate under the same conditions that universities in other countries or Hungarian private universities do, and the institutions should not be unnecessarily burdened by matters that do not fit into such a structure.
Palkovics said the innovation capabilities of Hungarian-owned businesses must be improved if Hungary’s productivity is to be increased, and this is for what the universities can provide a background.
New system too close to politics?
According to a group of critics, however, the changes will not cease the government’s oversee; in fact, on the contrary, as 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.
Considering that the board of trustees of those universities already operating in this model include a number of politicians or pro-gov’t economic actors, it is doubtful how the government would reduce its influence. Just some examples: the Justice Minister is involved with the University of Miskolc’s board of trustees, the Foreign Minister and the city’s Fidesz mayor (a cardiologist by profession) in Győr, and former PMO Chief and Fidesz strongman János Lázár, and the agricultural minister István Nagy will be involved in the aforementioned, newly-founded agricultural university’s board of trustees. According to fresh media reports, Szeged would be no exception either, as the family minister could be included in the board of trustees, along with the former Fidesz-backed but independent contender of the city’s incumbent, left-liberal mayor. Some believe that what is happening now is the privatization of the Hungarian universities to Fidesz circles.
Too much exposure to the market’s demands could also be a point of friction, and those involved also regularly highlight the lack of proper transparency guarantees, and contrary to the anglo-saxon system, the lack of checks and balances and autonomy. In addition, some fear that the new model would sooner or later result in the increase of tuition fees and in the increasing number of students either falling out of the system or falling short of the chance for admission.
While most transitions went relatively smoothly and without major opposition, it was the aforementioned SZFEs that drew the loudest opposition and criticism, even making it to the international headlines as well. After 71 days of blockades and protests, it seems that the government will eventually manage to push through its will at SZFE too. The government, however, is set to name their own Fidesz-linked candidates without any kind of compromise, among them Orbán-ally director Attila Vidnyánszky. Not surprisingly, this was regarded by many as consolidation (or repression, if not oppression) of a university (and sphere) where liberal thought has always been dominant, a motivation that certain government politicians’ statements also confirmed.
Medical universities free to decide
Coming back to the latest news, Budapest’s Semmelweis University’s (SOTE) transition is already almost a done deal that can be completed in 2022, according to Népszava. The potential transition of the other three medical universities (Debrecen, Pécs, Szeged) is also on the table. In reference to press reports, the left-wing daily also suggested that perhaps the unification of these in order to establish one large medical university could also be on the agenda (although those involved deny this).
Anyhow, after the Tuesday talks with the four medical universities involved, László Palkovics promised that they are “free to decide” whether they want to shift to this new working model. The ministry also said it was timing its consultations with universities on their strategic and developmental plans to coincide with the start of the new European Union funding cycle, offering them a chance to shift to the new operational model.
The rectors assured him that they would soon notify the ministry of the decisions made by their respective senates.
Featured photo illustration by Balázs Mohai/MTI