When all hope is lost, why not be optimistic?

Research and education in Hungary and Germany

The rapid dismay of Hungarian universities has upset international observers recently. However, the illiberal vanguard state doesn’t hold a monopoly on academic pressure. In this conversation, Hungarian critic Anna Gács and German historian Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger discuss political interventions, cancelling and more.

Recently in Hungary, the decision to transfer ownership of the state-run University for Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest to a private, Fidesz-allied foundation spurred loud protests. Are there strategies to defend the academic and educational system against such attacks? Simultaneously, long-time trends undermining academic freedom continue to affect institutions not only in Hungary but across Europe: the primacy of ‘useable knowledge’ over ‘critical thinking’ or the decline of the humanities. What alliances can be formed – locally, nationally, internationally? 

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: Academic freedom is a big topic and the range of ways in which its violations occur is very broad. It seems to me that distinctions need to be made. From a Hungarian perspective, the phenomena you have in mind may be very different from those I would identify from a German perspective. We are confronting very different issues. At Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, every year we have about 40 fellows from all over the world, including countries like Syria or Egypt, and EU states like Hungary and Poland. We also have fellows from the US, who face completely different problems in terms of academic freedom. So it would be interesting to hear from you specifically about the current situation in Hungary.

Anna Gács: I agree that we face different problems, but I also think there are issues surrounding universities, or the situation in higher education and research, which we share. First, let me give you a very quick survey of what’s been going on in Hungary over the past decade.

In this period, we have seen a number of attacks on academic freedom, including hostile rhetoric and propaganda, but also significant administrative measures. Some of these attacks were given an ideological pretext, such as the calling out of gender studies as something opposed to traditional Christian values, which led to the banning of gender studies degree courses.

The best-known example is probably the banishment, from Budapest, of the Central European University (CEU), which is known for promoting the idea of an open society. But we’ve also seen the creation of new, overfunded research institutes, which are not supposed to take part in international academic exchanges. Their sole purpose is to research different aspects of national identity in Hungarian history and culture.

Most recently, however, a new chapter opened in the government’s higher education and research policy, and this has no ideological pretexts. What we have seen is a consistent effort to subjugate higher education and research institutions, and bring them under government control, under the rule of prime minister Viktor Orbán and his small circle. This has happened to a network of research institutions affiliated with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

It has just happened to state-owned universities this spring. More than 15 universities have been affected. The pattern is that a fund is created, with board members appointed by the government. The board members include academics, politicians, and industrial representatives – most of them one hundred per cent loyal to Orbán’s government. And they are appointed for life. This means that these loyalist boards will decide about public funding, and European Union funding, for higher education for many years to come.

There is no ideological justification for these changes. Rather, the reason most often given for them is that Hungarian universities are doing badly in international university rankings. It is said that changes are needed to boost performance and make universities internationally competitive. But it is patently obvious that these changes are part of Orbán’s plan to secure long-term administrative and political power beyond the next elections, in case he happens to lose them.

It seems sadly ironic that an international system of assessing a university’s performance and ranking, which is supposed to offer an objective comparison of universities around the globe, is being used in Hungary as a pretext to subjugate universities.

This article is based on a talk that took place during the online event Debates on Europe: Budapest & Beyond. Defending Intellectual Freedom, from 4 to 7 May 2021. Debates on Europe is a joint project by S. Fischer Stiftung and Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung.

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: I believe the CEU was the best performing university in Hungary. So, obviously, this was a pretext. But what about differences between the humanities and the natural and social sciences? Do you observe a dismissive attitude towards the humanities, while disciplines like natural sciences or engineering are being fostered?

Anna Gács: This is a point where Hungarian and international tendencies seem to be running in parallel. There is a growing respect for the sciences and technological studies, alongside a diminishing respect for the humanities. It seems to me that – at least in Hungary but maybe not only here – this could also be a sign of increasing control over critical thinking. There are signs of this new vision of a university which is required, primarily, to provide skills demanded by the jobs market, with lecturers expected to teach these skills as they boost their publication lists. Universities are seen less and less as places for open debate. It’s a very worrying tendency. Do you see anything similar in Germany?

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: What I am observing in Germany, and even more in the US, is the opposite to the problem we see in Hungary. The political polarization we are facing more generally is also growing in universities. There is a distinction, as well as an overlap, between academic freedom and broader intellectual liberty, or freedom of speech. And the question is: who is threatening these rights and freedoms?

It’s obvious that, in Hungary, the threat comes from the state, and is directed particularly against academic freedom and the autonomy of academic institutions – although freedom of speech in general is also affected.

Whereas in Germany or the US, some groups complain that intellectual freedom and freedom of speech are being curtailed within universities themselves. They claim that there is a kind of dictatorial, leftist bias in universities. This threat, if it exists at all, comes from inside, for example from students who challenge racist, right-wing, or sexist views and don’t want them expressed within the university.

What we are seeing, I think, is a growing political polarization affecting society as a whole. This polarization reaches universities and, depending on which political camp you’re in, you will either see this as a serious threat or doubt that it is really a threat at all. In Germany at least, the challenge is to defend the autonomy of universities as non-politicized spaces. Freedom of opinion means you can say what you want, and talk nonsense if you want. Academic freedom, the freedom of universities and academic institutions, implies that you can say what you want within the boundaries of recognised academic standards, methodologies and so on.

I think these two concepts of freedom should be distinguished. They may overlap, of course, but they can also contradict one other and we should be careful to keep them apart. In Hungary, both kinds of freedom seem to be under attack, whereas in Germany the state presents no threat to academic freedom.

The state and the constitution defends the autonomy of academia. The threats instead tend to come from within, or from society, but not from the power of the state. This is a significant difference and makes the situation in Hungary much more serious and dangerous than in Germany or the US.

Anna Gács: I think you’re right, but there is one thing that connects the two problems and that is whether we want to see universities as places for open debate, spaces that encourage the clash of different points of view and apparently incompatible ideas. It’s whether we want to allow politics into universities, not in the sense that we want to dictate what is said or thought, but to encourage debate, to help students experience the excitement of debate and encounters with ideas they may not like.

Nevertheless, they must learn to tolerate these ideas, and find ways of reasoning with them. It seems to me that administrative control over universities and so-called cancel culture have one thing in common: they seem to be afraid of universities as open spaces for free debate. This is true in both liberal western and authoritarian countries, and it’s extremely worrying.

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: There are threats from the left and from the right, of course, but I don’t think they are symmetrical. I’m also of the view that we should defend the right of any political camp to express its views – though within appropriate limits. A Holocaust denier should not be given a platform in a university, for example. But within the broad rules of polite discourse, it should be possible to argue from any position. On the other hand, we should be clear about the fact that current threats to freedom of discourse are not symmetrical. As far as I can see, the threat from political correctness is less of a danger to intellectual liberty than attempts by state authorities to wipe out free discourse in the academic space.

Anna Gács: I fully agree. The Hungarian government, and journalists who support current state ideology, often like to flaunt Hungary as the last bastion of free speech on the grounds that political correctness has no roots in Hungarian public discourse. However, it’s important to point out the difference between protecting the rights of minorities to form their own identities, and creating a space that gives minorities the encouragement they need, while also fostering free debate and the clash of ideas.

In Hungary, the phrase ‘last bastion of free speech’ actually implies the protection of hate speech or racism, never the protection of views opposed to those of the people who are using the phrase. There are similar patterns in the media as well.

So, it’s important to differentiate between the administrative conditions governing academic freedom on the one hand, and free speech on the other. Only then will it be possible to create open spaces for debate within an administrative system that is free of restrictive controls.

But I also think that the ways in which we view universities have made it easy for authoritarian regimes to occupy them. It is increasingly popular to think of universities as these overregulated technocratic places which only offer skills and meet certain administrative criteria, but which are not places for open debate. And this idea of the university is something that helps authoritarian governments.

The entrance of the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest on October 23, 2020, the anniversary of the 1956 revolution. The university was occupied for months after the arbitrary changes in its leadership were announced. Later the organizers founded FreeSZFE, an independent organization to continue their work outside of the now politically aligned institution. Photo by Pasztilla aka Attila Terbócs via Wikimedia Commons.

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: In the general atmosphere of social polarization worldwide, both camps seem to reinforce one another. In the Hungarian context, Orbán supporters sense their position is strengthened and point to what they call tendencies towards left-wing dictatorship of opinion. And vice versa. That is the tragic thing.

But I would like to change direction a little and ask how we in Germany, or other European countries, could helpfully support your resistance to these attacks on academic freedom. What can we do? There are many programmes all over the world to help fund and assist scholars in exile. Yet Hungarian colleagues have told me that this may actually be the wrong approach, because it increases an ongoing brain drain. Many good academics from Hungary, or other countries with similar political issues like Poland or Turkey, leave home and end up in the US or the UK. Are there ways to support academics inside Hungary?

Anna Gács: You are pointing to a very serious problem. I gather that, in Hungary, at least thirty percent of students from elite secondary schools with a strong academic focus, never go into Hungarian higher education. They simply graduate from school and leave the country. There is nothing wrong with the fact that young people go abroad to study. The problem arises if they don’t return and never invest their expertise in Hungarian industry and culture.

In answer to your question, any kind of support is, of course, very welcome. But I think we are growing slightly disenchanted with symbolic gestures. Obviously, it’s great if you circulate a petition and see big names from the media and the academic world signing it. It was very touching to witness a burst of international solidarity when the University of Theatre and Film Arts was occupied. But this kind of thing offers moral, not practical, support.

We often look to the European Union for backup and I belong to an organisation that represents a network of academics that prepared a report on the Orbán government’s crackdown on education and culture for the European Parliament.  Our delegation went and spoke with several MEPs and most of them thanked us and expressed their sympathy. One then simply suggested we might elect another government. Naturally, this was frustrating and pretty irritating. But, equally, I think this MEP had a point.

While there is no consensus on minimum criteria for academic freedom even among Hungarian academics, and while there is no solidarity between higher education and research institutions in Hungary, and they don’t stand up for each other, it makes little sense to expect intervention from outside. What remains are gestures of solidarity.

The problem is in fact broader, even in Europe there is no consensus about what constitutes a free academic institution. So, of course, debates are very important. Gestures of support are important too – but this is a problem that will have to be sorted out internally, within Hungary itself.

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: It seems sad that we can’t do more than try to raise international awareness of the problem and show scholars in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere that they are not alone as they confront these attacks. There is networking, of course, and there are international conferences to raise awareness and maybe impose pressure on politicians; the European People’s Party (EPP), for example, or the German Christian Democrats, who played a very ambivalent role in the way the relationship between the EPP and Fidesz developed.

But I still wonder if it might be possible to support initiatives in Hungary, Poland and other countries, to assist colleagues who have lost their jobs for political reasons, and give them funding in their own countries without encouraging emigration. Financial assistance could be offered for Internet Blogs, for instance, or for private colleges which could exist alongside official universities. Can you imagine measures of this kind?

Anna Gács: Yes, although as far as I’m aware the only organisation where people have lost their jobs because of their political views so far has been the University of Theatre and Film Arts. And that was not because they were fired but because they were independently-minded enough to say: ‘no, we are not going to work in an institution with leaders imposed on us in this way’.  They have now created a free space for study, which I’m certain needs a great deal of moral and financial support.

So, it isn’t the case that, in Hungary, academics are frequently fired for their views. I think, however, that there is a need to create alternative teaching spaces, alternative independent organisations offering tertiary level and adult education, not just because of measures taken by the government, but because there is a need for a new approach to teaching and a new type of educational institution that will offer quality learning in a democratic country.

Let me ask, what do you think would happen in Germany if someone was fired for their views on sexual minorities, for example?

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: This would cause huge public protest. We have seen a few cases where conferences or public events have been cancelled because of political statements made by participants. But there are very few examples of this. In general, the public sphere and the media are open enough to discuss these issues. The problem I see relates more to self-censorship. There are some statements you are careful not to make and, to a degree, this also restricts the scope of political debate. We should anticipate the danger and not feel either too comfortable or too secure.

Anna Gács: I was wondering whether, in Germany, solidarity between research and higher education institutions is a given. Because in Hungary, it is precisely a lack of solidarity that makes academic institutions prone to all these external interventions.

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: I would say that solidarity in Germany is a matter of political belonging. This is one of the consequences of  the political polarisation I’ve mentioned. If a speaker is cancelled because of Islamophobic statements, for instance, he or she would find support and solidarity only in one camp, and vice versa. Anyone who tries to express a more intermediate or restrained position, or attempts to moderate the debate, will be relegated to one of the two camps. That is the problem. It is getting more and more difficult to  stay in a common, shared, neutral space in the debate. You are always forced in one direction and have to take sides.

Anna Gács: I think this is a very important experience for Hungary as well, because if ever this government is replaced, then the entire country will have to be reconstructed and rebuilt. The only way forward is through open debate. I know that for the time being it seems impossible that this divided country can ever sit down and conduct debates in a spirit of goodwill and open-mindedness. The intense political division makes creating a shared public space very difficult.  Perhaps it is comparable to what is going on in western countries, with the political polarization you have pointed to.

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: If any institution were to provide a forum for politicized debate, surely it would have to be a university? What other institution would be able to provide this space? Or are universities, and the academic environment, as politically polarized as Hungarian society generally?

Anna Gács: Some are, and others are afraid of initiating debate. But I very much hope that universities can play a pioneering role in re-creating a public space where genuine debate can take place once again.

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: As a last word, that hints at some degree of optimism.

Anna Gács: Yes, why not be optimistic?

This article is based on a talk that took place during the online event Debates on Europe: Budapest & Beyond. Defending Intellectual Freedom, from 4 to 7 May 2021. Debates on Europe is a joint project by S. Fischer Stiftung and Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung.

Published 19 July 2021
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

Contributed by Debates on Europe © Anna Gács / Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger / Debates on Europe / Eurozine



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