The Hungarian Network of Academics’s declaration against the governmental plan to reorganise the Hungarian higher education into foundations

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The Network of Academics in Higher Education (OHA) protests against the unacceptable measures taken by the present Hungarian government, which aim to ’privatise’ our state universities. This process began already in 2019 when the government of Corvinus University Budapest was transferred to a foundation. The first step was soon followed by a similar ’reorganisation’ of six further universities, including the Theatre and Film University (SZFE) where the Senate denied the legitimacy of the government-appointed board and went on strike refusing to obey their rulings. While government representatives keep on praising the progressivity of what they call the new ’model’ for universities, it amounts, in fact, to the abolition of their autonomy.

The shift to the new model means exempting the state, formally a politically accountable government minister, from direct responsibility for state universities by transferring their government to foundations newly created by the state and headed by boards of government-appointed trustees. The entitlements of these boards are more extensive than what the Constitution or the Higher Education Act (CCIV/2011) allows. The Senate of a privatised university is robbed of its former right of consent concerning the appointment of the rector as well as of their decisional authority regarding statutes, organisational and operational regulations, institutional development plans and budgeting. The autonomy of such an institution is merely nominal. The present regulation of its status foresees the transference of the founder’s rights to the boards and bestows on their politically appointed members unprecedented and temporally unlimited entitlements without accountability.

Both government representatives and their political supporters like to cite successful examples from abroad of the reorganisation of state universities as private foundations. They even claim that the new model affords more independence to universities. The cited, mostly, Finnish examples differ, however, in crucial points from the Hungarian version because there the authority of the university senate extends to all matters affecting the university, including the selection of the members of its board of trustees.

The politically motivated privatisation of state higher education will probably have several irreversible consequences by jeopardising unprofitable training in certain professions and reducing social mobility by excluding students in certain disciplines from state scholarships.

In addition, privatisation entails that academic staff lose their civil servant status together with the legal protection of public sector jobs.

These circumstances and foreseeable harm prompt the Network of Academics in Higher Education (OHA) to protest against the ongoing privatisation and demand that the government immediately suspend the privatisation of universities. It is unacceptable to transform higher education, a key subsystem of our society affecting the future of our country without previous analyses of effects and consultations with the affected stakeholders.

The government makes decisions and acts without consultations. No wonder that such a coup is received with mistrust and the withdrawal of legitimation. The forced reorganisation of the universities nonetheless fits the systematic demolition of public cultural institutions by the government. Productive scientific research and education, the creation and preservation of cultural values require a supportive environment, including institutional stability and job safety.  By forcing academic staff into existential insecurity the government jeopardises the cultural development of our country. Academic freedom, the freedom of research, teaching, and learning must be upheld.

Hungarian higher education needs to be reformed but that reform must be thoroughly planned and developed in social dialogue with all stakeholders. The present political situation in our country does not allow for such a process. Therefore, we demand a stop to the outsourcing of state universities to ’private’ foundations. The already inflicted damage must be mitigated.

We demand autonomy for the academic community of privatised universities and a legal regulation of the responsibility and accountability of their governing boards. Only the fulfillment of the conditions listed below can approximate the status of such universities to that of the often-cited universities abroad.

  1. The founder’s rights appertain to the state.
  2. The relationship between the Senate and the Board should make them equal partners, bound to agree on all essential issues like organisational and operational regulations, institutional development plans, budgeting, etc.
  3. The academic community shall participate in the selection of Board members and a representative on the Board.
  4. The rector of the university should be appointed according to the vote in the Senate. Appointments to leading positions, that of the rector included, should be for a fixed term and renewed only once.
  5. Leading academic staff should have indefinite employment contracts.
  6. The labour rights and salaries of higher education employees should be be regulated fixe in a collective contract encompassing all higher education institutions.

These demands can be met by modifying the Higher Education Act, which in turn would help close the gap between the declarations in the constitution and the laws currently in force.

Furthermore, it is the duty of the government to warrant that the actions of the new governing bodies of the universities do not overstep the boundaries fixed by the laws currently in force. When the government-appointed trustees knowingly break the law, as in the case of the Theatre and Film University, and cynically reckon with the time they probably have for creating irreversible situations until the courts will have brought in an unequivocal decision on their constitutional protest, the minister who exercises the founder’s rights is entitled and morally bound to revoke the appointment of a lawbreaking Board.