Higher Education in Crisis: A Vignette from Hungary’s Mafia State

Jessica Jewell is a doctoral student in higher education administration at Kent State University where she is also the academic program director of the Wick Poetry Center. Her recent publications have appeared in International and Comparative Higher Education, Inside Higher Education’s World Views blog, and the American Poetry Journal.

In March 2018, the European Commission released its semester report on Hungary. Despite a generally positive fiscal assessment, the report pointed to concerns that the country’s education outcomes lag significantly behind the EU average. For those who have been studying recent changes to the Hungarian education system, this news comes as no surprise. Nor is it a surprise that poor performance, lack of innovation, and an ill-preparedness of the workforce can be blamed, in part, on institutional weakness and unsound governance at the heart of Hungary’s current political reality. With an economy significantly bolstered by Brussels billions, and an increasingly autocratic national leader, the warning about Hungarian education should send chills down the academe’s collective spine. It is bellwether for both troubling times ahead in Hungary and increasing crisis of illiberalism clawing its way across Europe.

It is impossible to contextualize Hungarian education today without understanding of the weight of its past, both far and near. Like any institution whose traditions span centuries, Hungarian education has not been without its growing pains. The institutions and their faculty, students, staff, and surrounding communities have weathered invaders, wars, and regime changes—have witnessed the fall of kings and the rise of tyrants.

Now, a far-right political wave and the strongmen on its crest is again quickly swallowing Hungary and its democratic institutions. The far-right populist party Fidesz, helmed by the charismatic Viktor Orbán, won a supermajority in the 2010 parliamentary elections. The party immediately began dismantling democratic laws and institutions, such as the media and the judiciary, and became increasingly hostile toward liberal European Union policies. “Mr. Orban,” wrote Patrick Kingsley in the New York Times, “has transformed the country into a political greenhouse for an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture.”

The phenomenon of the state restricting the fundamental rights of its citizens is nothing new in the country or the region—Hungary was occupied by the Soviets for forty-four years, after all. But those were the Soviets: invaders, tyrants, certainly and pointedly not Hungarians. In fact, in 1989, leading the student resistance against them was a twenty-six-year-old Viktor Orbán who instantly became a national hero for demanding the Soviets withdrawal from Hungary. It is difficult to reconcile these two very different faces of the same man, though perhaps he would argue that the same young man who invoked the ancient Hungarian martyrs in his speeches against the Soviets is the same man who now rails against the illiberal west.

Like the judiciary and the media, educational institutions—especially those of higher learning—were not spared the dismantling of their independence. In addition to reforms spelled out in the 2011 Higher Education Law, the Fidesz government also made severe reductions to institutional budgets. “One would have thought that the nation’s well-being is in fact much more endangered by Orbán’s drastic reductions in education budgets at all levels,” writes Jan Muller. “…rare is a government in today’s world that seems determined to make society less smart.”

In his forward to Naming the Multiple: Poststructuralism and Education, Henry Giroux writes:

Educational reform has fallen upon hard times. The traditional assumption that schooling is fundamentally tied to the imperatives of citizenship designated to educate students to exercise civic leadership and public service has eroded. The schools are now the key institution for producing professional, technically trained, credentialized workers for whom the demands of citizenship are subordinated to the vicissitudes of the marketplace and the commercial sphere.

This phenomenon is present in Hungary as well, though the citizenship is also subordinate to the vicissitudes of the State. Higher education in Hungary, therefore, is fundamentally neither a private nor public good—it is an autocracy’s useful resource.