Interview 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 30 June 2021 at 13:28

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?

Rüdiger Görner: Arthur Koestler famously argued in The Act of Creation that we should be creative about freedom. It is something we can and should create. This was a remarkable statement, I think, from someone who had experienced considerable traumas triggered by the ideological conditions of his era. It also strikes me as a fitting opening to our conversation, and a cultural bridge between Hungary and Britain. From a Hungarian perspective, how do you feel about the ability one still has, or indeed lacks, to be creative about freedom?

Győző Ferencz: I don’t want to go too deep into history, but perhaps I should mention one or two facts. One is that Hungary lost its independence in the first third of the 16th century and, for four centuries, was colonised and oppressed by various powers. Consequently, the idea of freedom in Hungary became synonymous with independence and sovereignty. I think, this affects how many of my fellow countrymen feel about it. They are concerned most about political liberty and the freedom of a community – that is to say, about sovereignty – and less about the freedom of the individual. 

Rüdiger Görner: This is very helpful, because historical context is crucial to an understanding of what is happening today. But if we focus on the twentieth century, and the important phases you have mentioned, would you argue that, from the point of view of universities and the academic environment, there are major differences between the eras of, say, Miklós Horthy, János Kádár and Viktor Orbán?

Győző Ferencz: There are differences, certainly. But I’d have to go back to a time before the Horthy regime, which took over after the First World War. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, when the Dual Monarchy was formed, had initiated an unprecedented period of economic development which also affected the academic world. The Minister of Education, József Eötvös, was a huge figure. It was a time when projects were launched, universities founded, university buildings erected and so on. Ever since, Hungary has been destroying what he and a few other statesmen, designed and established. Although to some extent their legacy still stands, I think this sad and ironic fact is crucial. 

Hungary suffers from a kind of bipolarity. You will hear people boasting about the number of Hungarian scientists who have been awarded the Nobel Prize. But if you examine who these Nobel Prize winners were, you find they were all – with one exception – Jews expelled from this country. Just one person received the Nobel prize for research done here. 

Under Horthy, culture was considered important because it contributed to national self-esteem, but there were all sorts of problems. Subsequently, Kádár’s leadership was preceded by a few years of very rigorous and cruel Stalinism in Hungary. He started to rebuild this country in the early 60s. Under the Kádár regime there was an agreement between the communist authorities and the academic environment. It involved many universities along with some research institutes falling under the Academy of Sciences, and it was a cynical contract. Pay was extremely low, you could barely survive on a professorial salary, and universities were very poorly provided for. Equipment was inadequate, libraries were not developed, there were no sabbaticals for university teachers, and no support was given to attend conferences – or only to the trusted few. But, in exchange, they left you alone to get on with what you could do. And if you achieved something, it was good for you, for your students and, indirectly, for the country. But it meant you could pursue an academic career only if you could afford it, if you had the right family background, a relatively well-off husband or wife financing your travels and conferences, or if you were an obsessive researcher who simply didn’t mind the poor conditions and circumstances. 

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, this agreement was dissolved by new ruling parties. Cost considerations prevailed and there were more rigorous expectations. Academics were now called to account for not maintaining standards, even though conditions were much the same as under the Kádár regime. This made it doubly cynical. In the past few years, a series of government interventions attracted international attention and, indeed, caused uproar. The Central European University (CEU) was expelled from Hungary and forced to move to Vienna. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences, a highly prestigious national institution founded in the early 19th century, was deprived of its research institutes and funding was withdrawn. One victim of the privatisation of state universities has been the University of Theatre and Film Arts, in Budapest. This led to public outrage. Foreign organisations, institutes, celebrities and respected public figures protested against these steps, and we are all very grateful for that support. But we know very well that issues like this can only be resolved within the country. And yet, I think that if we are for a united Europe – and there are quite a few people in this country who support the idea of Europe as a common project – it is important to speak out when cases like this arise and look for support from European organisations, including the European Alliance of Academies.

Rüdiger Görner: Very interesting indeed… The situation in Britain is different, of course, but there are some intriguing similarities. You mentioned cost-effectiveness. I’m afraid this is one of the tools used by the present UK government to exercise influence or control over the way academia is shaped in this country. British universities have financial autonomy and, to a large extent, depend on income from student fees. This is a tool which could change the parameters of academic life. But I wanted to come back to you with another point. I remember one of my trips to Hungary in the mid-1990s, when I visited two universities – the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, and a private university in Székesfehérvár, where they were just in the process of building things up.

Győző Ferencz: The Kodolányi János College…

Rüdiger Görner: That’s it. They invited me to come and have a look, and presented the college as a new alternative to state run universities. It was obviously an attempt to economise. Under the present ‘regime’, are these private initiatives in higher education are likely to have a future? Do they enjoy government support? Because, to me, the Székesfehérvár experience suggested that the private sector wanted to exercise greater independence within the, academic system. Is this still the case?

Győző Ferencz: Not any more I'm afraid. Practically every segment of the country – education, culture, economics – is now heavily centralised. The irony or paradox is that, in the past, almost every university was a state university. The CEU, which was expelled to Vienna, is an exception.

Today, state universities are privatised and have been transformed into foundations. You could logically say that these higher education foundations represent a system similar to that in the US, the UK, or elsewhere. But, in fact, the foundations represent the ruling party and the present government. The members of the boards of these foundations are businessmen, and some have close links to the ruling party, Fidesz. They are seen as reliable and trustworthy by the authorities. In a way it is an appropriation of public money, public values that fall into private hands. Once the rule of Fidesz is over – if they lose the next election, for example – universities, academic institutions and other key sectors of the economy will remain in their hands. That is how they will survive – by extending their rule and control over strategically important positions. Privatisation is sort of a paradoxical nationalisation.

Rüdiger Görner: This is a phenomenon which is not to entirely alien to the UK.  Since the days of Margaret Thatcher, intensified privatisation has often meant more power to the government. So I share your view that we are in a striking paradox here. I was very interested by your comment that, in many ways, Hungary suffered and continues to suffer from what one could call post-colonial trauma. Perhaps a comparison with the Republic of Ireland might be helpful. Except that, of course, in Ireland we have a flourishing, firmly established democracy and a commendable academic life. It’s a very interesting scenario. I first came to the UK as a student in 1981 and, for some considerable time, I have witnessed a gradual winding down of anything connected with European studies. This isn’t just connected to Brexit.  We have been losing some excellent departments in European Studies with very good research results. They have found themselves more and more constrained by financial considerations and in the ways they can attract overseas students.

Győző Ferencz: Is it a case of ideological insularity?

Rüdiger Görner: I don’t buy the idea of insularity. Ireland is an island too, but the Republic of Ireland is very pro-European. But the agenda in England – Scotland is different – is something to do with the fiction of state sovereignty you mentioned earlier, this story of independence. It’s a negation of any realisation that we are all in one boat. The fact that England currently lives in denial as far as links with the European continent are concerned reflects this. There are dreams of a revitalisation of the Commonwealth; there is the idea that Commonwealth students can replace the students we had from Europe. Of course, you can also expect a higher income from fees paid by overseas students which is crucial. As regards the winding down of European Studies as a university subject in the UK, we are now seeing the next step: the range of modern languages offered at university level is getting narrower. European languages are particularly under threat. Yet links with the languages of Europe represent the very foundation of the humanities in the UK. And this is being done in the name of cost efficiency, because the argument is that now, after Brexit, European languages are not being used any more. That is the fiction. Another popular fiction is that everyone else speaks English so there is no need to learn foreign languages. A number of colleagues who have produced remarkable work challenging these attitudes. Most recently Katrin Kohl, a distinguished colleague from Oxford, published an almost pamphletic book on modern languages and the economic necessity for this country to continue investing in a multilingual future. But the opposite is happening. That, to me, indicates an indirect but very effective curtailing of academic freedom.

It is something we normally don't discuss in the UK because we assume that, of course, we have full academic freedom as well as the best universities. But you can curtail academic freedom by limiting the number of subjects available for study and narrowing their scope.

Győző Ferencz: Can you detect any kind of political agenda here? Are there any noticeable links between decisions adversely affecting intellectual liberty and the Conservatives or the Labour Party in Britain? I ask because, in Hungary, you can instantly see connections with a particular political and ideological trend.

Rüdiger Görner : I have to say that, in England, you can’t. That is the problem. It would be so easy to find someone to blame… 

Győző Ferencz: Well, easy it isn’t …

Rüdiger Görner: The problem is that there has been so little support for the culture of teaching modern languages, particularly where Europe is concerned. This is true of both the Conservatives and Labour. There was, of course, a split, within both main parties over Brexit. Now we have a situation where only the Liberal Democrats hold up the flag for Europe, and they remain pretty weak. There is just one Green Party member in the House of Commons. All of this illustrates the difficulty of identifying the real culprits behind this policy. The depressing thing is that, at school level, modern languages were first curtailed years ago, under Labour. And the Conservatives were only too happy to continue doing the same. Now we have a government with a prime minister who promised that under no circumstances would the UK leave the Erasmus programme, and five months later announced that we would be leaving Erasmus in favour of a more all-encompassing, global scheme which we’re calling the Turing programme. The bad news is that no one understands exactly how the Turing programme will replace Erasmus. No one knows the criteria. We have been left in limbo. We know only that the programme is meant to serve a post-Brexit and post-European educational strategy. We must reach out to the Far East. We must attract South American students. But how the system will pan out, we have no idea. The other major difference is that, from 2023, British universities will probably have to apply for funding from the Turing programme annually. Under the Erasmus scheme, no reapplication was required. It was simply an arrangement between universities and countries that paid into the Erasmus scheme. You could rely on it, and build firm partnership programmes on that basis. If you have to reapply every year, you can’t build up international academic collaboration with any credible continuity. 

Győző Ferencz: Before Erasmus, universities had to build up their connections individually. The programme has been a great bonus.

Rüdiger Görner : Absolutely, but neither our minister for education, Gavin Williamson, nor the confusingly named ‘Office for Students’, sponsored by the Department of Education,  recognize that the Erasmus plus system was a major advancement and benefit for the UK.

Győző Ferencz: Your suggestion that British higher education is being neither promoted nor developed, irrespective of which party is in power, is alarming. The same has been true in Hungary since 1990. We have had a socialist liberal government three times over and now this nationalist, populist, right wing government. But education has always been neglected. Our countries have this in common, but there are huge differences as well. I always feel there’s a sort of dividing line and that Britain remains above it, even though universities may be deteriorating and opportunities shrinking. In Hungary, we are still far below this line and struggling to clamber up. But we can’t even approach a level which, to you, might seem disastrously low.

Rüdiger Görner: Yes, but much is pretence. One is always claiming achievement. We may declare ourselves to be the best in the world, but it doesn’t help at all. Neither universities, nor the academic sector generally, nor indeed intellectuals ever had a proper lobby in the UK. The status of the English public intellectual is not remotely comparable to that of his or her continental counterpart. I suspect however that, in Hungary, the problem is that many public intellectuals have now left the country?

Győző Ferencz: That’s right. However, one has to say that, in the past, intellectual life tended to be overrated – as were the humanities. This was bound up with the notion that independence was synonymous with national sovereignty, even at the cost of individual freedom. The liberty of the individual was either overlooked or quite simply wrecked. For that reason, when political circumstances permitted, writers and writing seemed hugely important for the educational and cultural life of the country. But, once again, this was pretence. It meant nothing: a highly educated country, with people devouring the latest books by Hungarian writers, poets and celebrity authors. It is over now. 

Rüdiger Görner: As regards Britain, would be that there’s an irony here. One of the finest universities we have in the UK – University College London – was modelled on the Humboldt University. It was founded in 1834 with the idea of academic freedom inscribed in the ‘unity’ of research and teaching, or what Germans call ‘Die Einheit von Forschung und Lehre’. This combination of research and teaching is now seriously under threat. Increasingly we find that, at undergraduate level in particular, colleagues are encouraged to focus on teaching that is not necessarily research informed. It is a very functional approach which has in many ways devalued what we once stood for: the idea of learning for learning’s sake. We speak of lifelong learning, and that’s wonderful, but once again, we’re talking about window dressing.  The idea that there really is something that could be called ‘learning for learning’s sake’ is out of the window. Regrettably, in education as in so many other spheres, the utilitarians have won. We are obsessed with identifying aims and objectives for our respective course modules, but the central aim and objective is consistently omitted, namely learning for learning’s sake. We should be discovering things for the sake of discovering them. The question how to apply what we have found should be secondary. That is my main concern. The idea of the university as an institution aspiring to a notion of universality is gone, and that worries me greatly.

Győző Ferencz: Sadly, I must concur, even though the political regimes in our countries are significantly different. But as regards the position of the university, of research and education, the picture is remarkably similar. 

Rüdiger Görner: What a strange consensus on which to conclude! Thank you.


This conversation has been recorded on 4 May 2021. This article was updated on 30 June 2021.

Debates on Europe is a joint project by S. Fischer Stiftung and Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung.


👉 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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