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Hungary: Orban seeks to control universities

Felix Schlagwein
May 6, 2021

A new law increases the government's control over the institutions. At the same time, a planned Chinese campus is causing an uproar.

Viktor Orban in a mask with the Hungarian flag
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban seeks to control universitiesImage: Johanna Geron/AFP/Getty Images

Hungary's universities are to receive a major structural overhaul: They will no longer be state owned, but will become foundations instead, according to a new law passed by Viktor Orban's Fidesz party. In the process, they will also be endowed billions of euros in assets from the state budget, as well as real estate and shares in large companies. A total of 11 universities and 70% of Hungary's students are affected.

But some of the country's most prestigious universities have refused to adopt the new model, which they see as highly problematic. It will now be impossible to regulate university spending, says Hungary's opposition coalition, which will run against Viktor Orban's Fidesz party in next year's parliamentary elections. The opposition said it was "unacceptable that the Orban government, fearing an election defeat in 2022, is handing public funds to its strawmen," and announced they would take the matter to Hungary's Constitutional Court.

Foundations staffed by members of the government

The Hungarian prime minister has made no secret of the fact that the supervisory boards of the foundations are to be filled only with politically like-minded people. Anyone with "internationalist" or "globalist" views would not be nominated for such a post, Orban said last Friday in his weekly radio interview. People with a "national approach" should keep universities "within the sphere of the national interest and national thinking," he said.

Students hold police tape while protesting outside of the university campus.
Students protested the ideological takeover of the University of Theatre and Film ArtsImage: DW/F. Schlagwein

Numerous members of government have already secured their places on the supervisory boards of universities. Justice Minister Judit Varga will chair the Board of Trustees of the University of Miskolc, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto is part of the Board of Trustees of Gyor University, among others.

The new law can only be overturned with a two-thirds majority "in the interest of financial and legal stability," as Laszlo Palkovics, Hungary's minister of innovation and technology, said it in an interview with the Hungarian news portal Index.hu. The opposition calls it a "state within a state."

'They want ideological control'

Jozsef Palinkas is one of new law's biggest critics. The former professor and longtime president of the Academy of Sciences was a member of Orban's Fidesz party for many years. He has since turned his back on his former party and fears that Fidesz aims for more than securing itself financially in the event of an election defeat.

"They want to influence what is to be taught and researched in Hungary. They want ideological control over the universities," Palinkas told DW. Thus, in the future, professors could be dismissed for political reasons and teaching could be adapted to the wishes of the Fidesz party.

The Orban government tried to do the latter in 2020 when it wanted to hand over the management of the renowned Budapest University of Theater and Film Arts (SZFE) to a foundation. Its chairman, a theater director close to Orban, wanted to make the university more "national" and "Christian." The students resisted, occupying the building for months until they had to vacate the university due to the tightened pandemic measures. 

The exterior of Fudan University in Shanghai, China.
China's Fudan University is planning to open a campus in HungaryImage: picture-alliance/C. Mohr

Dispute over a Chinese university

Coinciding with the new law is the construction of a new university, which is also causing an uproar.

Shanghai's renowned Fudan University wants to open its first branch in Budapest in 2024, which would make it the first Chinese university in the European Union.

Yet the cost of the project and the size of the campus have left many dissatisfied: The new campus is to extend over half a million square meters and would thus be considerably larger than all other Hungarian universities.

The investigative news site "Direkt36" also revealed the cost of the construction project to be €1.5 billion ($1.8 billion), paid for by the Hungarian government — more than the entire budget for Hungary's 2019 higher education system.

At the same time, the new university's capacity is low compared to other Hungarian universities: Only 8,000 students are to be taught there. 

The Orban government defends the project with arguments similar to those used to defend the foundation model. A world-class university, like Fudan, would make Hungary into an educational destination and make Hungarian universities more competitive.

Critics counter that in 2018, Orban pushed out one of the world's best universities, the American Central European University founded by his ideological rival George Soros.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The planned Fudan campus is already causing controversy.Image: Andrea Verdelli/AFP/Getty Images

Tamas Matura, an assistant professor at Budapest's Corvinus University and founder of the Central and Eastern European Center for Asian Studies, is ambivalent about the new Fudan campus. "Fudan is indeed one of the best universities in the world and could bring Hungary forward, for example, technologically," Matura told DW.

However, he fears that Fudan, because of its reputation and financial resources, could weaken Hungarian universities if the best professors and students leave for Chinese campuses. He also considers it problematic that the university is financed by Hungarian tax money. 

China's 'Trojan horse' in Europe?

Other critics go even further, fearing that the new university could be a gateway for Chinese influence in the EU. In its statutes, Fudan subscribes to "core socialist values" and the leadership of the Communist Party. Opposition politicians therefore repeatedly refer to the planned campus as a "Trojan horse." Former education minister Palinkas describes it as a "Chinese stronghold in the middle of Europe."

The Orban government has in fact intensified its relations with China in recent years. Most recently, Hungary's foreign minister criticized sanctions imposed by the EU on China for massive human rights violations. During the coronavirus pandemic, Hungary was the only EU country to rely on the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm.

For China expert Matura, it is obvious that this is precisely why Beijing chose Budapest as the location for its new university: "In Berlin or Paris Fudan should have been afraid have faced political scrutiny. Budapest however is a political safe space for China. Here nobody will attack them, at least not as long as this government is in power."


This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.