How Hungary cracks down on academic freedom – and why political science students cannot remain silent

September marks the beginning of a new academic year in Hungarian universities. These first weeks of the year should be marked by lively debates and flourishing arguments. However, something is different nowadays. The tradition of open and pluralist academic debate is under pressure in Hungary.

Devastating recent developments

Earlier this year in July, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law forcing the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) to transfer its research institutions to the oversight of a government-controlled body called the Eötvös Loránd Research Network, a new agency run directly by the government through the Ministry for Innovation and Technology. Members of the Parliament voted in favor of a motion titled “The modification of particular laws necessary for the transformation of the institutional system and financing of the research, development and innovation system”. With 131 MPs in favor, 53 against, and 3 abstentions, the motion separated the research component from the Academy, a move which the affected academics have sharply criticized the government for curtailing academic freedom in the country. Various European university representatives, notably from Germany, Austria and Poland, have expressed their concerns to the Hungarian government about the newly adopted legislation. Amidst the continuous criticism and even demonstrations by academics and scholars, the Hungarian government defends the new measures are aimed at developing “competitive science” and making research work “for the good of the people”. Instead of protecting the well-respected Hungarian research bodies’ independence, the decision by the Hungarian Government represents a crackdown on academic freedom.

Autocrats dislike free, critically thinking academics

As a global community of political science students and junior scholars across the world, the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS) recognizes that what is happening in Hungary is not new for academia. The concept of academic freedom came into existence as a response to the dictatorial advances of the state on science and academia to aid the state’s priorities. Simply put, academic freedom is a scholar’s freedom to express ideas without risk of structural interference or professional disadvantage. There are various layers of academic freedom according to the American Association of University Professors, which range from academic freedom of individual professors and institutions to inquiry and research.  For instance, in the Soviet Union, scientific research was brought under strict political control in the 1930s. A number of research areas such as genetics and sociology were labelled  “bourgeois pseudoscience” and were banned. Crackdowns on academic freedom have terrible spillover effects on other freedoms and often deprive a country of its most notable and critical minds. Most prominently, Albert Einstein fled Nazi-Germany and spent the rest of his career at Princeton University in the United States. In Turkey in the beginning of 2016,  more than 2,000 academics signed a petition calling out the government for dismissing thousands of academics and prosecuting hundreds more, while interfering in their work. As of July 2019, the Peace Petition signatories comprising of more than 700 scholars have been criminally charged with making propaganda for a terrorist organization simply for the act of signing the petition.  In 2017, as the discriminatory amendment of the Hungarian higher education legislation was introduced, Central European University was forced to announce the relocation of its US- and Hungarian-accredited programs to Vienna, Austria from the next academic year onwards, because of the Hungarian government’s reluctance to sign the agreement with New York State that would ensure CEU’s continuation in Hungary. In addition, there are deeper concerns as to the developments in Hungary’s academic environment. History tells us a dark reality of autocratic rulers’ dismissal of academic freedom in preference of limiting researchers and students’ free thinking. 

The unlawful case of Hungary: an infringement on the EU Charter on Academic Freedom?

Academic freedom is protected by Article 13 of the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights, which states, “the arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint. Academic freedom shall be respected.” It is a fundamental prerequisite for the free search for truth and unbiased research and teaching stemming from it. As such, it is encompassed in the freedom of expression as well. Even though there is no specific guideline on how states guarantee academic freedom or what constitutes a violation of this freedom, we can all agree that academic freedom fosters open, unbiased, and publicly accessible research. Coming back to Hungary, the research institutes which form the backbone of the Academy and in many cases lead or collaborate on major European and international research projects will not continue to be independently governed. Rather, they will be coordinated by a governing board of the Eötvös Loránd Research Network with the majority of its members requiring approval by the network’s executive. The HAS’ financial autonomy, a core component of academic freedom, will also be undermined, as the committee will have a major say on budgetary allocations. There are suspicions that this decision was taken mainly because of major findings of recent research projects especially in Social Science institutes pointing to shortcomings of governmental policies. As researchers strive to make this world a better place by conducting studies that show policy gaps, governments should acknowledge academic findings and address them as opportunities to draft and implement better policies that have greater socio-economic and political impacts. Imposing restrictions on science and academia have failed miserably in the past because eventually scientists prepare themselves to confront situations by defying authoritarianism, as they have a bigger moral responsibility towards the society.

Considering that IAPSS has Hungarian students and junior scholars among its members, we express support for the HAS’ institutions and their researchers. Despite the Hungarian governments’ denials that academic freedom is being stifled, the current realities and details of its plan suggest otherwise. Restoring a model that meets the standards of budgetary autonomy and at the very least does not create an atmosphere in which critical thinking on topics of public interest is discouraged under formal or implicit threats of repercussions would be a good start. Stripping HAS of its research component is nothing short of another step by the government to attack the fundamental principles of academic freedom, which is a necessary condition for academics of any discipline to be able to propose arguments and have critical debates. Any effort to undermine these principles is detrimental to all academics and researchers around the globe. Limiting publication of scientific findings in any form that is of importance to the members of the society can in fact be marked as government reluctance to address societal issues. We all must realize that institutional autonomy is of utmost importance if we aim to develop competitive education systems, invest in groundbreaking research for the welfare of society, and advance together as global citizens.