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Academic freedom is the latest of the many victims on Hungary’s path towards an illiberal state, argues Lesley Wilson. This editorial was first published on The Parliament Magazine on 7 September 2018.

Academic freedom is the latest of the many victims on Hungary’s path towards an illiberal state; draconian measures give the government extensive and largely arbitrary powers to decide what people can study and what scientific knowledge should be available.

As populism spreads across Europe, the Hungarian blueprint for curbing knowledge could well serve as an inspiration beyond the country, which is why Europe needs to stop it in its tracks.

What has happened in Hungary? Through a series of initiatives, the government has tried to silence voices within the academic community that do not support the populist and anti-migrant worldview of those in power.

The most prominent victim has been the private Central European University, a member of the European University Association, that has sought to promote critical academic thinking since the fall of Communism.

However, the attack on academia is more systemic. The government has, for example, directly installed “Chancellors” in Hungarian universities with extensive powers over finances and staffing.

Recently, in a potential complete breach of European norms, it proposed that students no longer be educated in gender studies, a well-established scientific discipline taught at the most prestigious institutions around the world.

This happened without consulting the affected universities and against the decision of the independent agency that accredits higher education, as is the explicit European practice.

Moreover, universities that are active in supporting migrants, such as helping refugees complete their studies or getting their qualifications recognised, or even those that make their research on migration public, are now faced with debilitating extra taxes, and the risk of being criminalised. This would de facto make these activities impossible.

All of this is highly problematic in itself and creates a legal framework to suppress knowledge that those in power dislike.

It blocks citizens from being informed and from creating and acquiring knowledge - a key feature of Europe’s pluralistic societies and one of the reasons they cherish academic freedom.

Instead, under such a framework, institutions in research and education simply serve the ruling elite. If study programmes are closed for political reasons, it deprives us of graduates who can use their skills and knowledge in and for society.

In terms of undermining academic freedom, we have seen similar things in Turkey and Russia, but this is the first time that such a broad and fundamental attack has happened within the European Union.

And, if one European government gets away with setting up a legal framework against academic freedom, what is to prevent the next domino from falling?

With half of young Europeans enrolled in higher education, it could be tempting for politicians to control what they learn, just as it could be tempting to silence those who oppose political proclamations with facts and alternative perspectives.

Apart from the few in power, this is not good for anyone, not for Europe and not for Hungary. This is why Hungary should abandon these policies and why the EU and its member states must draw a red line and protect academic freedom as a core European value.

The European Parliament, in its resolution on Hungary’s breach of EU values (to be debated in mid-September), has laudably given weight to the situation regarding academic freedom. However, it is crucial that the European Commission also states that academic freedom is a concern.

Recently, the EU Commissioner for Education Tibor Navracsics, who is also a member of the Hungarian Fidesz Party, did exactly the opposite, declaring that worries about gender studies were overblown.

This breaks with principles in higher education formally agreed much beyond the borders of the EU through the Bologna Process (including by Hungary).

It is time that the European Union, its institutions and civil society say loudly that the system of academic freedom and autonomy of universities that has been developed in Europe is a key value for the whole continent, and that what is happening in Hungary is not acceptable anywhere.

Original article.


Lesley Wilson

Lesley Wilson joined EUA at its creation in 2001 and formally took over as Secretary General in 2002. Prior to this she held a number of senior positions in higher education and research management at European level, in particular as Director of UNESCO's European Centre for Higher Education in Bucharest (UNESCO-CEPES) from 1995 to late 1999, Head of the newly established Science Policy Unit at the European Science Foundation in Strasbourg (1994/1995) and Director of the EC TEMPUS Office in Brussels from 1990 to 1994.

A graduate of the University of Glasgow and the Institut des Hautes Etudes Européennes at the University of Strasbourg she spent her early career as a scientific staff member of the German Science Council in Cologne before moving to Brussels in 1988 to join the newly established ERASMUS Bureau.

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