Video Debates on Europe | Defending academic freedom

Győző Ferencz: ‘When Hungarian state universities are transformed into foundations, privatisation is just a paradoxical form of nationalisation’

In the second talk of the Debates on Europe: Budapest & Beyond, Rüdiger Görner and Győző Ferencz discuss on the role of research and education in liberal democracy
in Hungary and the United Kingdom.

Published on 7 May 2021 at 00:12

Attacks on academic freedom in Hungary are legion. The Central European University has been forced to move from Budapest to Vienna and the independence of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has been undermined by a controversial new law increasing state control.

What does “freedom” at all mean in a country with such a short history of democracy as Hungary? And in what way is the situation in the UK after Brexit different? What happened to the beacon of liberal democracy and the institutions of higher education?

In the second talk of the Debates on Europe: Budapest & Beyond, Rüdiger Görner (professor of German with Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London) and Győző Ferencz (executive president, Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts, Budapest) discuss on the role of research and education in liberal democracy in Hungary and the United Kingdom.


👉 Check out the full programme of the event.

👉 Watch the opening talk, with Timothy Garton Ash.


The freedom paradox

By Rüdiger Görner

Freedom is one of the most (mis-)used words in our vocabulary. Defining it in philosophical, political or artistic terms, mainly as civil liberties guaranteed as part of Human Rights, whether intentionally or inadvertently, restricts freedom. The question whether we are free at birth or conditioned right from the start, be it by social contexts or genetic determinants, runs through virtually all debates on freedom in whatever connotation. 

We seem to be used to perceive matters of freedom in paradoxical terms. Take for example our digital world. The World Wide Web has opened up unprecedented spaces of virtual experiences; provided us with information repositories or hitherto unknown dimensions; and “free” access to all imaginable means of communication – if we can afford the virtual media in the first place that is. But the unstructured accessibility of information does not mean that we can transform it into actual knowledge, to use the dated concept for ‘processed information’. These means of liberating ourselves from the constraints of time and space, however, have resulted in our becoming increasingly depended on these very means. We seem to be in the midst of being enslaved by our digital instruments. Are we already experiencing digital serfdom?

 The Human Rights, in Thomas Paine’s meaning of the word, amounted to a code of behavioural practice. Their violation, however, has remained a global reality. Ever so often one is reminded of a word by the writer and Nobel Prize Laureate of 1972, Heinrich Böll, who, in one of his last interviews, stated in his at once melancholic and engaged manner of speech: “Every day a bit of freedom dies off.” 

There is an undeniable pathos connected with most utterances on the subject of freedom, pathos understood as suffering and rhetorical flow. With Rousseau, Schiller and Hölderlin in particular we get the entire spectrum of emotions connected with freedom as a legacy of the United States’ Declaration of Independence and the first phase of the French Revolution culminating, in artistic terms, in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. But in the midst of all rhetoric bravura that surrounds, and indeed penetrates, discourses on freedom, it is Hölderlin’s ode “The Course of Life”, in which we find the most considerate of all promulgations of freedom. Its final stanza reads as follows: “Man shall consider everything, the Celestials say, / So that he learns, properly sustained, to thank for everything, / And he shall comprehend the freedom/ To go where ever he wants to go.” Hölderlin’s point is that we cannot take for granted this very comprehension of what it means to go off somewhere, only determined by our free will. 

Reflections of this kind have remained ever topical to the very day. Britain, once regarded as the haven of free speech and preservation of Human Rights, stands accused in a most recent report by Amnesty International of serious violations in this respect. On some four hundred pages, it singles out UK’s policies on immigration, housing and current efforts to curtail the right to protest. It concludes that the UK “is speeding towards the cliff edge” when it comes to upholding and preserving Human Rights legislation and with it the defence of civil liberties. Moreover, worldwide measures to curb the spreading of Covid-19 and its variants have become all too often a pretext to enforce people being monitored at an unprecedented scale. Controlling mechanisms have been put in place, which are, by now, spiralling out of control themselves. 

Presently and for the foreseeable future, we find ourselves in an anti-culture of fear and intimidation. In the name of containing the epidemic, fundamental rights are being curtailed, anti-social distancing decreed, freedom of movement and gatherings restricted without a state of emergency being declared. Should it even happen that vaccinations become compulsory and vaccination passes turning into equivalents to national passports, bureaucratic blackmailing us will then be the guarantor of our freedom of movement. Being trapped by regulations in order to obtain some freedom of sorts is the new and eerie paradox of our time.

As so often, literature had anticipated developments of this disturbing kind, be it in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague (1947), or George Orwell in Nineteen-Eight-Four (1949), depicting the rise and consolidation of left and right wing fascism. “Big Brother”, who has not only managed to infiltrate every aspect of life and introduced a new manner of speech, turned outrageous measures of controlling people into perceived normality. The novel’s final word is haunting. Winston, the novel’s protagonist, who had tried to quietly resist Big Brother, becomes a civil servant in the “Ministry of Love”, telling himself that, from now on, he would “love Big Brother” after all. Is this the truth about our ultimate freedom that we need to love what we have hitherto detested?

If the UK gets its new draconic police laws as designed by the Minister of the Interior, the police could decide whether peaceful demonstrations, for instance at Parliament Square in Westminster can be stopped in the name of public order. It is a place where statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela can be found, figures to whom peaceful protest was the only possible expression of resistance in the name of freedom.

In terms of ‘academic freedom’ the alarm bells are ringing right across Europe and its self-declared appendix, called Britain. Academics must be the custodians of each other’s respective freedom. This said, it was almost an act of bravura, or pre-emptive strike, in respect of political tactics on the part of Whitehall to come up with an initiative to ‘protect’ the freedom of speech in British universities by installing a new kind of ombudsman. In fact, it is a classic red herring since any reliable research has demonstrated that only in 0.1 percent of public events with external speakers on UK campuses were adversely affected by invitation policies of Student Unions and Staff.

This does not justify in any way the introduction of new legislation for monitoring academic life, including the establishing of a Freedom of Speech Champion with more than dubious executive powers as suggested by the Ministry of Education and its euphemistically branded ‘Office for Students’. Was it a foretaste of things to come when, in 2017, a Conservative Member of Parliament demanded that the large universities in the country should report on whose members of their staff would teach and research on Brexit.

The fact that a demand of this sort was even possible illustrated just how slippery the road has become. Evidence has it, though, that “sizeable minorities of students on both sides of the Brexit debate felt unable to express their beliefs openly, with 32 percent of Leavers and 23 percent of Remainers reluctant to do so”, as they were “scared of disagreeing with their peers”. Peers’ pressure can indeed lead to self-censorship when it comes to discussing one’s political views openly. Soon after the Brexit was ‘accomplished’ the very word ‘Brexit’ was no longer to be uttered in the corridors of Whitehall. This was indeed an act of implicit and explicit censorship.

But the real danger for academic freedom, however, particularly in England and Northern Ireland, lies elsewhere. It becomes apparent when in the name of cost effectiveness entire subjects are wiped out, academic departments forced to close down with a radical curtailing of the choice for students and the future of disciplines. Long before the Brexit referendum, the number of European Studies Departments, once the flagship of many an Arts and Social Science Faculty, was drastically reduced by way of indirect university policy making. Modern Languages Departments have faced a similar fate and will continue to do so, in particular after the UK’s decision to leave the Erasmus Plus programme. The scheme that is being introduced to replace Erasmus, the so-called Turing scheme, is at best a travesty of the previous programme. It is, in effect, not only an act of governmental philistinism, if not vandalism, but a way of restricting academic freedom by way of shaping, or rather curtailing academic choice for entire future generations.


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