Academics in eastern Europe warn of risks to academic freedom

07 Sep 2022 | News

Hungarian and Polish academics raise concerns over academic freedom, as governments further tighten controls over universities and research institutes

Protesters at a 2017 rally against the Hungarian government’s higher education law. Photo: I stand with CEU

University heavyweights in Hungary and Poland are continuing to decry curbs on academic freedom, as alarm bells sound about increasing restrictions on universities across the EU.

Hungary is viewed as the most extreme case of an EU member state limiting academic freedom, as highlighted in the 2018 ruling by the European Court of Justice that the government violated EU law when the Central European University (CEU) was pressured into moving from Budapest to Vienna.

The situation in Poland is seen as less acute, but the conservative government has been accused of leaning on academic institutions to drop courses and research that are critical of government policies.

According to the latest edition of the Academic Freedom Index, published in March 2022 by Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, academic freedom has declined substantially in Hungary and Poland.

But while these two are singled out as the worst examples, members of the European Parliament and university representatives are concerned about creeping restrictions across Europe as a whole.

Limitations on academic freedom can take many forms, from self-censorship of individual academics to government interventions in the operations of academic institutions. Earlier this year, German MEP Christian Ehler said a decision by Humboldt University Berlin to cancel a lecture by biologist Marie-Luise Vollbrecht is another example of universities not defending their staff against activists. Meanwhile, in Romania, a hotly contested new higher education law could allow rectors to hold more than two mandates.

In 2020, EU research ministers signed the Bonn declaration on academic freedom, a document that proposed the establishment of a monitoring system on academic freedom in Europe.

But MEPs want to go further and are calling for academic freedom to be enshrined in EU treaties, meaning governments could be held to account for limiting university autonomy and freedom to do research.

Liviu Matei, former provost of CEU, and since March this year professor of higher education and public policy at King's College London, says Hungary is by far the worst in the EU in terms of curbs on academic freedom and university autonomy.

“In fact, it might be as bad, if not worse, than countries ‘officially’ recognised as undemocratic, like Turkey or Russia,” Matei told Science|Business. “Hungarian academics, students and university administrators are suffocating under the heavy hand of the governing clique. Many have left or are leaving the country, as a result,” he said.

The expulsion of CEU may be the most notorious example, but academics say dozens of regulations have been introduced by the Hungarian government that limit institutional autonomy directly or indirectly.

In 2019, the government drafted a law forcing the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to transfer its research institutes to the oversight of a new institution, the Eötvös Loránd Research Network. The academy said the changes amounted to “full government – political – control” over the research network.

Two years later, in 2021, the Hungarian parliament voted to bring 11 universities under the control of foundations led by allies of prime minister Viktor Orbán. Human Rights Watch said the reform was “an attack on academic freedom and free expression.”

The government says the two initiatives will help Hungary improve its performance in higher education and research and make universities more competitive internationally. State secretary Zoltán Kovács insists the goal is to increase the competitiveness of higher education and research. “In the case of universities operated by foundations the government only has one task, and that is to make the necessary funds available,” he said.

University foundations

According to the 2021 law, the new foundations are to be managed by government appointees and to receive public funds.

Eva Fodor, professor of gender studies at CEU said all members of foundation boards are loyal to the government. “They have full control over the universities and replaced legitimate university bodies, such as the university senates,” she said. Universities led by public-private foundations may appear independent, but in fact are not independent at all, Fodor said.

Fodor believes the European Commission is unlikely to take a stand on the issue because the reform does not breach any EU laws. “On paper, a kind of university governed by the board is fine, except that this is a board of political loyalists,” she said.

The University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest (SZFE) was one of the few institutions to object the government’s plans. The school’s entire administration and several professors resigned, while students organised a march for the autonomy of higher education.

“The creation of powerful university ‘boards’ whose members, in essence, hold an open-ended mandate from the government has had a massive impact on various aspects of institutional governance and operations,” Monika Steinel, deputy secretary general of the European University Association told Science|Business.

Tamás Dezső Ziegler, an EU law professor at Eötvös Loránd University predicts all universities in the country will be transferred to foundations eventually, because they pay higher salaries. As a result, there are unlikely to be many academics protesting against similar changes to other public institutions.

The government, on one hand, wants control over public universities and, on other hand, to promote its own institutions. The prime example is the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), which has numerous projects in line with the government’s political agenda, and receives “an extreme amount of [government] funding,” Ziegler said.

According to Fodor, the motive for funding MCC is to promote alternatives to liberal democracy.

Ziegler also notes that some other institutions, like the National University of Public Service, are on the same course.

Ziegler expects that in the long term, criticism of the government will be limited because critical scholars will either lose their jobs, or will be less successful in such a system. “There is a very typical science, which is also created here in Hungary, which resembles the science of dictatorships or authoritarian states,” he said.

Growing worries in Poland

Hungary has C status on the Academic Freedom Index, below Guinea and Ethiopia and just above India. This is much lower than Poland, which is ranked A. However, academic freedom in the country has been declining in recent years, a downward trend that started in 2015 when the ruling party Law and Justice won power, according to the index

Marcin Pałys, former rector of the University of Warsaw, says academic freedom in Poland is in relatively good health but not stable in the longer run. There have been cases of pressure being exerted on academic institutions to refrain from activities that are critical of government policies.

As one case in point, in October 2020 education minister Przemysław Czarnek criticised universities that cancelled classes to allow students to join protests against Poland’s ban on abortions. Czarnek pointed to his authority to distribute funding for grants and said he would take universities’ actions into account when doing so.

Pałys says such cases undermine public trust that the political authorities accept the idea of academic freedom and that they are going to uphold it.

In addition, Pałys, claims the government limits academic freedom by politicising the funding decisions of government agencies, especially in the social sciences. “Those agencies are getting more dependent on decisions of the minister, mainly through the change of leadership and appointing to the leading functions people that are well-linked to the government,” he said.

The Polish government is also following the example of Hungary in setting up new institutions that are academic on paper, but have no guarantee of academic freedom and autonomy. One recent example is the Copernicus Academy, an institution whose members are appointed by the government, but which has the power to distribute grants and conduct PhD programmes.

In May 2021, the conservative Polish think tank Ordo Iuris set up a university to educate future leaders with conservative Christian values. Its inauguration came several months after the education minister pledged to end the “dictatorship of left-liberal views” that “dominates higher education” in an interview with the daily newspaper Nasz Dziennik.

“This is a longer tendency of diluting the academic system in Poland with institutions that appear to be, or seem to be, or are presented to be, high quality scientific institutions but, in fact, the freedom of conducting research is very much limited,” said Pałys.

The government denies any attempts to limit the autonomy of science. On the contrary, a spokeswoman for the ministry of education told Science|Business in a statement that the government passed a law last year to counteract threats to the freedom of teaching and research. “It should be emphasised that work on the ‘Academic Freedom Package’ was initiated in connection with violations of the freedom of expression in universities, resulting in the highly undesirable phenomenon of censorship,” Adrianna Całus said.

However, Marcin Bielicki, an assistant professor at Poznań University of Economics and Business says the bill was not necessary and it did not change anything.

Pałys is concerned because he says, the bill covers not only professional views but also personal and religious views. “Science is not just another opinion, and this bill on academic freedom [does not make] this distinction. It says that whether you are teaching science or your personal views, it does not matter; the university has no right to say anything,” he said.

Looking ahead, Pałys would like politicians to make a public commitment to respect academic freedom and autonomy of the institutions in practice, not only on paper. A big step ahead would be to distribute funding more transparently, he said.  

Earlier this year, Czarnek revealed plans to fundamentally change the law governing the National Science Centre, the Polish main funding agency, on the grounds that the allocation of funds is not transparent. But Pałys warns this could be another attempt to get a stronger grip on what research is conducted and what institutions are awarded grants.

Jesse Levine, senior advocacy officer at Scholars at Risk says Hungary has seen a pattern of serious infringements of university autonomy in recent years through the government’s takeover of multiple institutions and the elimination of gender studies programmes. “The politicisation of the higher education space in this form not only raises grave concerns for universities themselves, but signals a broader democratic decline,” he said.

Levine says there is similar - although not as severe - encroachment in Poland, including calls to ban gender studies and promotion of so-called “LGBT ideology” in schools and universities. “These efforts demand the full-throated opposition of the universities themselves, and everyone who supports a democratic Poland,” said.

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