A remarkable story that has passed under the radar of top headlines could signal darker times ahead, particularly for those in higher education. Heti Világgazdaság (World Economy Weekly) is a Hungarian magazine that recently reported on actions taken by far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Papp Réka Kinga, a journalist for the magazine, acknowledged that Orbán’s actions have “robbed the state universities of their autonomy,” particularly in the case of Central European University (CEU). But how? And for what reason?
If you are unfamiliar with CEU, don’t feel alone. Many would be shocked to hear that its founding was the result of many talks starting in 1989 and culminating in 1991 with the fall of the Iron Curtain. The aims of this university were to confront head-on the intellectual challenges present in former East Bloc countries. And its founder is none other than the (in)famous George Soros. Aside from his net worth and political involvement, many are unaware that Soros escaped a Hungary that had once been under the control of the Nazis. His experience may very well signal his support for the university, as well as other measures, such as his continued endorsement for a common EU treasury and other open society measures in an effort to avoid nationalism on a broader scale.
Let’s return to the situation at hand under Orbán. As was reported in The Week (April 14, 2017 issue), the Orbán government “wrote a bill to shut down [Central European University]” after having made severe cuts to “social science disciplines that would be most useful in dealing with the massive refugee crisis,” replacing these courses with “state-sanctioned political science.” (14) Following these measures, Reuters reported that Hungarian students have marched to Parliament, protesting “what they said was a crackdown on free thought.” (See article here)
The Soros-inspired concept of “open societies” is in diametric opposition to the tenets of far-right populist movements – such as Orbán’s – that have gained momentum in countless countries worldwide and continue to advance steadily, as emblematized by the upswing in support for politicians like Marine Le Pen. Orbán’s party, Fidesz, is considered a nationalist right-wing party whose aim is to contradict neoliberal notions of globalized, plural societies. His discourse favours those who have been disadvantaged economically by policies enacted in the Eurozone, distrusting the entire European Union in place.
The Soros Foundation incarnates the values of neoliberalism and has often been targeted as funding leftist protests, particularly during the 2016 American Presidential Election. It is interesting that the attack on neoliberal ideologies has arrived at the doorstep of an academic institution. The New York Times notes that Soros is viewed in a similar manner by the Hungarian government, saying that he “embodies global capital [and] has been exerting his influence, through his money, in the entire world.” Though some on the left would even agree with this statement, the actions of attempting to use government force to close a university has unearthed fears of neofascist elements reinstating themselves in society.
The European Union has since sanctioned Hungary, stating that democratic values and free speech are at stake. As was reported in SwissInfo.ch, First Vice President Frans Timmermans had concerns as to the constitutionality of the proposed legislation. Timmermans stated that “the vision of an open society, of a diverse society is under threat.”
What are the implications of such measures? Though we have focused much attention on the waves of Brexit and the possibility of Frexit should the right have their way in France, could Central Europe be a weaker chain in the EU than was observed before? Finally, what role will higher education – particularly institutions founded on neoliberal or globalist doctrines – play in the coming years? Is higher education under attack, or are right-wing politicians trying to reshape the academic landscape to conform to their Weltanschauung?