A fact-finding trip to Budapest has left MEPs from across the political spectrum uneasy. Their impressions of deteriorating academic freedom and self-censorship are at odds with how government representatives portrayed things
A cross-party group of MEPs have reported back strong concerns about a deterioration of academic freedom in Hungary, as well as issues of self-censorship among researchers and wider problems with government influence over the media, courts, arts and culture.
The eight-strong delegation from the Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) went to Budapest last November on a fact-finding mission to learn about the country’s cultural, educational, research and media policies, and reported its findings in March.
Sabine Verheyen, a member of the European People's Party and chair of CULT, who led the delegation, said that while there are concerns about academic freedom and other issues in all member states, in Hungary it is the accumulation of these issues that is so worrying.
“If you have for example the education sector, the university sector, the cultural sector and the media sector more or less captured by one side […] it is more than just one small problem in one area or even one big problem in one aspect,” she told Science|Business.
The trip was initially planned for spring 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic. That meant it took place after the European Parliament adopted a resolution in September last year concluding that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of EU values in Hungary.
Following on from this, the European Parliament report on academic freedom, published at the end of March, singled out Hungary for its “structural de facto violations of academic freedom”.
Brussels has taken action over changes Hungary’s higher education system, with the EU Council deciding in December to suspend Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ funding to 21 of the country’s universities.
These universities’ structures have gradually been overhauled by the government over the past few years, transferring their management to public trust foundations and placing a great deal of control in the hands of a board of trustees made up of members that were initially hand-picked by the government.
The MEPs met representatives of the Rectors’ Conference, who told them this structural change has not impacted academic freedom and has made modernising the universities simpler.
“Rectors supported the transformation of higher education arguing that through the establishment of boards [of trustees] and consequent less links with the ministry, a lot of the bureaucracy has disappeared enabling faster and smoother change/modernisation to react dynamically to societal and economic changes,” the report says.
However, the MEPs took a different view, reporting that they believe a “consistent, clear and comprehensive legal system of academic freedom guarantees is absent,” and that the changes in the law have “weakened statutory protection of academic freedom.”
The rectors’ upbeat comments were in keeping with a general theme people the MEPs met, with the report stating that those representing government or government-linked organisations tried to “bring evidence of normality, social and economic prosperity”, as well as a lack of political tension.
This left the delegation feeling “uneasy”. Verheyen said, “We had the impression […] that some people we met wanted to say something more, but that they fear restrictions or fear negative consequences [from the government]”.
The delegation also met faculty members of the Central European University, which had to relocate from Budapest to Vienna in 2019 following a change in Hungarian law that critics say was designed to force the university out. The European Court of Justice ruled in 2020 that this move was against EU law, writing that “the conditions introduced by Hungary to enable foreign higher education institutions to carry out their activities in its territory are incompatible with EU law.”
Another issue highlighted in the report is the possibility of self-censorship. Although this applies more often to the media, arts and culture sectors, Verheyen said it did also filter through to research and academia, especially in the fields of humanities, social sciences and health.
“We had exchanges, for example, on the question of COVID-19 and how to deal with vaccinations and other things, and we had the impression that the scientific approach was at that moment not as important as supporting what the government decided,” said Verheyen.
Again, the impressions gathered by the MEPs was at odds with what those on the ground reported. The delegation met Tamás Freund, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who dismissed the idea that the government exerts control over the academy. He said instead that it had received massive additional funding, increasing by 53% in 2022, to support ongoing activities and new strategic research programmes.
Verheyen said it is difficult for the EU and the Parliament to influence member state policies on areas such as academia and research.
However, the Parliament has set up a group to report on academic freedom around the bloc, called the EP Forum for Academic Freedom.
Another source of influence is funding. Alongside the freeze on the foundation universities accessing Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ money, Brussels is withholding 55% of cohesion funds due to Hungary, amounting to a total of €6.3 billion, until the government implements 17 remedial measures that have been proposed to counter EU concerns about the rule of law.
Hungary is also at risk of missing out on €5.8 billion in grants from the Recovery and Resilience Facility, designed to help countries recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, unless it implements 27 “super milestones” – which include the 17 remedial measures.
For Verheyen, the onus in unlocking these funds is on the Hungarian government.
She emphasised the importance of continuing dialogue with Hungary and around the EU on rule of law matters. “We have to, on the European level, not close our eyes, not shut our mouths, but to listen and to talk.”