Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Free Academics without Academic Freedom?

Balázs Majtényi, Eötvös Lorand University (ELTE) Faculty of Social Sciences.

Hungary is a land of unfulfilled promises, as it is a member state of the EU and has ratified almost all international human rights documents related to academic freedom. Moreover, the country is located in a geographical region, in Eastern-Central-Europe, where academic freedom has been enshrined in almost all constitutions. Thus, academic freedom is not only a fundamental right in the current Fundamental Law (2011), but it was already there in the state socialist Constitution.

Human rights, including academic freedom, are not just magic words, slogans and shallow rhetorical devices used by international documents, but ideas that can work if people, including academics, identify with them and fight for them.

After the 2010 authoritarian transition, the erosion of academic freedom has been painfully swift and, in most cases, it happened without any resistance from the academic community. Even the Central European University, for years did not show any solidarity with the troubled institutions of the Hungarian academic sphere, and it started to resist and at the same time negotiate to be regime-compatible only when the government begun to attack the University. Finally, the University moved to Vienna. A particularly painful chapter in the story of curtailing academic freedom is the “privatization” of universities, i.e. the bringing of the majority of universities under government control, which has taken place without major resistance, except for the case of the University of Theatre and Film Arts, as the model-changes have been supported by the university senates. Privatization or model change means that these institutions become foundations governed by boards, which consist of mostly high-ranking FIDESZ politicians and oligarchs supportive of the Orbán regime. Only a few universities such as ELTE have remained public universities.

The reasons for the rapid decline in academic freedom are partly internal, since many researchers believe that they are capable of preserving their academic freedom without fighting for the autonomy of their institution. A significant part of social scientists continue to participate in international academic life, writing articles on the democratic decline in Hungary, or perhaps lamenting over the restriction of judicial independence, or even wondering about the lack of social resistance. They organize international conferences with the participation of established Western academics. However, in the meantime, many of them continue to publish in domestic journals where documented political censorship exists, which seems to have no consequences regarding the academic classification of these journals. Legal scholars publishing on human rights, the rule of law and democracy have often remained silent when the autonomy of their academic institution was threatened, or they helped the institutional accreditation process of the new governmental-controlled University of Public Service financed partly by EU money.

No one in Hungarian legal scholarship has ever been discredited for his/her administrative position in a government-controlled university, or for holding a position of a research professor at the University of Public Service. The academic discourse is more about feeling sorry for them because of the hardship that comes with a position of a vice dean, head of department or head of institute in a governmental-controlled university.

Many gender scholars are resigned to the fact that they can continue to publish or teach about gender, but they have to create a Centre for Family Studies. (The family studies program has gained widespread acceptance and support in Hungary as a means of government propaganda against gender studies master’s programs at universities.) To take another example, many scientists continue to apply for funding for their socially important topics to national research funds, even though the fund is directly controlled by the government. Or many even avoid the idea of abandoning an already awarded grant when the government has already effectively interfered in the allocation of research funds.

Access to academic resources is unequal between East and West, and even more between global North and global South. Inequalities also exist within the country, and in Hungary the distribution of resources unsurprisingly favors those who move to or are placed in the occupied institutions. For instance, at ELTE, which remains a state university, PhD students, assistant lecturers and assistant professors earn below the guaranteed minimum wage. Which means that if they have no other job at a governmental-controlled university, they cannot pay not only the linguistic proofreading of their academic papers, but their electricity bills or dental expenses. It is time-consuming to protest for long months against governmental measures, such as the prohibition of courses at universities, and it takes time away from publishing an article in a referenced journal on the rule of law decline in Hungary.

Of course, we can point to the fact that the external constraint on the system failed just as much as the internal one. Take the example of the Strasbourg Court, which seems to pay little attention to the fact that human rights, in the spirit of the European Convention on Human Rights, can only be enjoyed in democratic societies. The Court does not see, for example, a violation of the right to free election when political activists collect external votes (votes that are casted beyond the borders of Hungary, in the territory of neighboring countries), or when external votes are casted at  grocery stores. The performance of EU human rights agencies such as the Fundamental Rights Agency or FRONTEX is disheartening, perhaps they are more concerned with avoiding conflict with the government, and fear is not the emotion that can give rise to the genuine protection of fundamental rights. The EU threat to government-controlled universities to withdraw Erasmus funding and Horizon research is also likely to be resolved by possibly having ministers replaced by lower-ranking government officials on the boards of trustees of politically-occupied universities. But let’s add that if we don’t want to save ourselves, others won’t either.

The Hungarian academic community already identifies well with the situation. We have common stories to laugh about, such as how a handball coach close to Fidesz has become a professor and then rector due to legislative amendments. We also have a common language, we continue to shamelessly call government research funds in their former name “OTKA”, refer to politically censored publications as journals, or politically occupied research institutions as academia, and occupied educational institutions as universities. As if nothing had happened. And we call ourselves resisters’ and, sometimes we look faraway, lamenting over the problems of the global South.

Suggested citation: Balázs Majtényi, Free Academics without Academic Freedom?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Mar. 8, 2023, at:


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