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Hungary Continues Attacks on Academic Freedom

EU Should Act to Ensure Autonomy of Universities

Students barricading themselves at the University of Theatre and Film Arts, displaying banners reading, “We stand up for the freedom of our university” and “We won’t stay silent,” Budapest, Hungary, September 2, 2020. © 2020 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

In its latest attack on academic freedom and free expression, the Hungarian government has placed control of the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest into the hands of Prime Minister Orban loyalists. The school’s entire administration and several teachers have resigned in protest. Since August 31, students have barricaded themselves inside the university and blocked the entrance.

A new law, which came into effect September 1, transferred ownership of the state-run theater university to a private foundation whose members have close links to the Orban government. The Ministry of Technology and Innovation appointed five members to the new board of trustees, rejecting members proposed by the university’s senate – the university’s main decision-making body. The government claims the university will be more independent in private ownership. But the government effectively controlled all appointments to the supervisory board and the board of trustees, making that “independence” claim ring hollow.

In fact, the school’s senate has been effectively deprived of its decision-making powers on budgetary, organizational, and staffing issues. And those on the supervisory board, who have no knowledge of arts, are former advisors or rich businessmen loyal to Orban.

These autocratic and illiberal moves have become trademarks of the Orban government, which has spent the last decade dismantling rule of law, curbing free press, and exerting control over academia and sciences in an effort to root out teaching or scientific research that counter the conservative government’s agenda. Examples include shutting down the Central European University, banning gender studies, and stripping the Academy of Sciences of its autonomy.

Meanwhile, Hungary is under scrutiny by the European Commission for repeated failures to comply with European Union law, including article 7 proceedings – a mechanism that scrutinizes governments putting the EU’s values at risk, and which could strip Hungary of its EU voting rights. The EU is also discussing tying funding to respect for the rule of law. This latest example of disregard for freedom of expression and independent academia showcases the urgency with which EU institutions need to act to reverse the Orban government’s rights-abusing trajectory.

In the meantime, students protesting at the University of Theatre and Film Arts say they won’t give up until their demands are met, including the resignation of the new board of trustees and supervisory board, as well as a guarantee that the school can operate without government interference.

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